Simon Callow has become the preeminent chronicler of the life and times of Orson Welles.
Over three sprawling biographies, Callow has traced Welles’ rise, fall, and years in the Hollywood wilderness. “Orson Welles: One-Man Band,” Callow’s latest book, follows the multihyphenate from 1948 to 1965. It’s a period of self-exile, one that finds the “Citizen Kane” director scrambling to cobble together money in Europe for films such as “Macbeth” and “Othello” that are daring and intermittently brilliant, but often show signs of their troubled birth and shoe-string budgets. It also recounts the making of two of Welles’ signature films — the pulpy and galvanizing “Touch of Evil” and the revelatory “Chimes at Midnight,” perhaps the most kinetic Shakespeare cinematic adaptation of all time.
Callow, an acclaimed stage and film actor in his own right who has appeared in the likes of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “A Room With a View,” says he plans to write at least one more Welles book. He spoke with Variety about why the director’s work still endures, what made Welles an insecure actor, and why he was an artist who thrived on chaos.
What fascinates you about Welles?
I have a fascination with what happened to him and why there was not more of what there was and why what there was was the way it was. I have a fascination with personality and temperament and how profoundly it shapes lives. Welles’ personality was a burden and a block to him. It came between him and the work he wanted to do.
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In what ways did his personality impact his career?
It stopped him from making more films. He behaved very badly a lot of the time. He exhibited almost self-destructive behavior. In Hollywood he never recovered from that.
“One-Man Band” makes a case that he was terribly disorganized. Why were his film and theater productions so chaotic?
It was partly a technique. He liked to throw on the adrenaline, and nothing gets people adrenalized better than being unprepared. It created an atmosphere that could work well for him.
It could be fatal too. He made the mistake of not preparing sometimes. Of letting the understudy do a lot of the work for him or not knowing his lines properly. It created a kind of madness and mayhem during a performance. I don’t why you would do that to yourself. It undermines your confidence.
John Huston lamented that Hollywood had in essence turned its back on Welles. But Hollywood is a business. Why should it have indulged Welles just because he was a great artist?
It’s true. He didn’t want to go through the hoops that pretty much everyone has to go through to get things made. Compare Welles to John Huston. He was a similarly huge and ungovernable personality. He could behave like a roaring boy and indulge himself. But Huston made 40 films and Welles made eight. Somehow he managed to get it all together.
My theory is that Huston wasn’t any kind of prodigy. He was shy as a young man and underachieving. He slowly taught himself how to write and think about movies. He had to discipline himself. Everything came quickly to Welles, and he became impatient and didn’t think he had to do the work. Huston always knew he had to do the work.
What made Welles a great director?
He had all the gifts that a filmmaker should have. He had a wonderful eye and a fantastic sense of what the camera could do. His notion of filmmaking was a poetic notion. He tried to make an audience’s imagination work rather than just showing them.
One of the striking things is that so many of the films he did were jobs to him. Not ones he wanted to do. He wanted to do ‘The Magnificent Ambersons” and “Chimes at Midnight.” Those were close to his heart, but some of the others you sense he didn’t have his heart in them.
He was such a bravura personality, but you write that he wasn’t really comfortable performing. What was behind the anxiety?
He was deeply insecure about his own acting. He wanted to send the actors away and then he would shoot his own scenes. No one would be there except the camera crew.
I think he was frightened of acting. He was frightened of engaging with the character or of losing control. He was always trying to impose the character on himself and enact it. He’d put on a big nose or a belly in order to present the part. Acting at its best requires you to be open and let things happen. To honor your impulses.
This is your third volume on Welles. Will there be a fourth?
Absolutely. I’ll carry on until the end. I plan to publish it on my 70th birthday. Welles died when he was 70, so there’d be a proper closure for both of us, and then I will trouble his spirit no longer.