Orson Welles may be the most chronicled man who ever shot an inch of celluloid. Even folks who haven’t plowed through his titanic biographies or seen more than a couple of his films know about the director’s Hollywood rise and fall. How at age 25 the mischievous boy wonder who’d scared the bejesus out of America with his 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast came to Tinseltown and made arguably the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane. And how in his later years he ballooned into a tragic punchline, hawking frozen peas and cheap wine on TV.
What fewer people know — or know well — is the life between those bookends: the ambitious projects that fizzled out; the long list of sexual conquests; the even longer list of enemies; and the slow erosion of his once-limitless gifts. In other words, all the wonderfully messy stuff.
The wonderfully messy stuff is exactly what actor/author Simon Callow captures in Orson Welles Vol. 2: Hello Americans, the second installment in what’s becoming a Proustian undertaking. Callow’s excellent first volume, 1995’s The Road to Xanadu, closed with the release of Kane in May 1941 — a moment in Welles’ career when everything seemed not only possible but probable. In Hello Americans, Callow picks up again in 1941 and over 444 pages gets as far as…1947. That’s right, 444 pages to cover six years. At this rate, he has another 2,812 pages to go before he reaches Welles’ 1985 death.
Callow’s pokiness is maddening. There’s no question this is an important period in Welles’ life. He witnessed the box office failure of Kane, a harbinger of things to come. His heart was broken by the editing-room butchery of his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons. He married sex bomb Rita Hayworth only to discover that off screen she was needy and not all that bright. He flirted with left-wing politics. He made a string of middling pictures such as Journey Into Fear, The Stranger, and The Lady From Shanghai (in which he awkwardly directed and acted opposite his already estranged wife). And finally, he grew disillusioned with the studio system, packing his bags for Europe in what would become a 25-year exile.
This period was the beginning of the end for Welles. Yes, he had a couple great films still in him (Touch of Evil, F for Fake), but he was no longer a whiz kid. Hollywood had more or less said, ”Thanks, but no thanks.” Callow’s best point is that Welles, who was always portrayed as the victim of a cruel industry, was more likely his own worst enemy. He bristled at authority, despite the fact that people who write big, fat checks tend to want a thank-you in return. Welles never seemed to understand that. At least until it was too late.