Larger than life

Orson Welles: The Stories of his Life

by Peter Conrad


It’s that man again — and again and again. Here comes another book, a “critical biography”, it promises, in which the author begins: “There are already half-a-dozen biographies of Orson Welles; this is not another one. Rather than telling the story of his life, I have set out to investigate the stories he told about that life.” As the author of one of those other books, I might have let that bar me from this task but for my high admiration for Peter Conrad’s last book on the movies, The Hitchcock Murders (2000).
I did, however, observe that Conrad’s elected method — a brilliant, mercurial, digressive yet intuitive ramble through themes and imagery — was not especially accessible to readers who had less than his familiarity with Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.

Conrad, happily, is not what is known as a film person. He teaches English at Oxford University and appears to be taken with the essential pleasure of writing about things that interest him. Thus he has written books on Australia (his birthplace), New York City, fame, television and opera and one on “Shandyism”, which I don’t know, but which I take to be the amused philosophy of Laurence Sterne.

In prospectus, at least, such a man would only have had to have written a book about Angie Dickinson, too, to be perfect company. So it came as no surprise to find him joining the Welles club. Still, I wondered just what “I have set out to investigate the stories he told about that life” might mean in practice. For Welles was, among other things, a fabulist. And since I am now seven years’ reflection removed from my own book, I made a list of some topics of Welles’s biography about which I hoped to find more than I knew already, especially if Conrad’s approach was to analyse all the versions of a life that Welles had offered.

Those topics included his odd, even empty, feeling for women; his flirtation with homosexual relationships; whether he ever actually got in a ring with bulls — real bulls; the record of his finances; his ties (or not) to three daughters; and the palpable record of his deliberate acts of fraud, and even betrayal. I have to say that, despite the steady whirl of Conrad’s intelligence, the range of his reference and the grace of his writing, there is nothing really new. And in some cases there is not even quite as much as he might have gleaned from a biographers’ club that, so far, includes Peter Noble, Maurice Bessy, Barbara Leaming, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Joseph McBride, Frank Brady, Simon Callow and yours truly.

What Conrad has done — understandably — is compose a free-floating critical survey, in his own manner of thinking out loud and taking for granted a mass of knowledge on the part of the reader. As such, his book has a safe place in the Welles library. But whereas he changed the ways we might think about Hitchcock, there is not a radical reappraisal this time. There is even a hint that the fearsome mix of genius and fraud in Welles —his seething nature, his multiplicity and his emptiness — is something that rather disconcerts Conrad.

Conrad has diligently sought out almost everything Welles ever wrote, but it’s only gradually that one notices his relatively subdued response to the visual in Welles. Whereas Welles would say or write nearly anything, if the mood took him, his eyes never betrayed him. That was his rare honesty, or integrity. Conrad admires the cheerful, if not insolent, way in which Welles could smile at an audience and wonder why there are “so many of me and so few of you”. He also grasps the giddy “modern” range of a kid who grew up disposed to be the great Shakespearean actor of his age and yet turned out to be competing in all fields — the best actor but the biggest ham; the greatest director yet the blithe figure in trashy television commercials; the magician; the traveller; the dinner-table conversationalist; the liar; the eater; the womaniser —and so on.

Was he a great artist? Yes. Was he also a new kind of sham? I think so. For he was a visionary of modernity, a man who had recognised how far celebrity, progress, fashion and sheer media din had eclipsed such noble orders as great art, great acting and, let’s say, integrity.

It’s not that Conrad is unaware of such things. It’s not that his book is ever less than stimulating. Rather, it’s that he doesn’t focus enough (for my taste) on the biggest issues. For instance, here is Conrad, quite early on, on what I take to be the abiding pressure (you could call it paranoia or depression) that Welles so often masked as exuberance: “Welles liked to see himself as the victim of betrayal — let down by false friends or dishonest business partners or untrustworthy women — but he usually provoked the breach for which he blamed others. How could he accredit a religion that had foolishly elected him to the office of god?

Over and over again, he told the same story; he told it so often, with so many variants, that it amounted to a myth. Not quite the story of his life, it is more the story of how he tried to understand that life, with its great expectations and lost illusions.

The situation is constant: a man sits in judgement on his friend, kills the thing he loves. Sometimes Welles played one role, sometimes the other. He had to be both characters, because the story was about self-examination and self-execution. A wonderful, penetrating beginning, and nearly an agenda for taking up those topics I listed, and others, and for confirming the pattern of endless male rivalry and neglect, to the point of lost interest, in women.

Conrad quotes Welles (as himself) in Henry Jaglom’s movie, Someone to Love, saying, or proclaiming: “All stories are about men and women,” without really noting how little Welles’s own work fits with that model. But Welles could speak of mashed potatoes and the life of Franklin Roosevelt with the same hushed reverence. That is why he is such a bogus actor. But then that agony — of dreading his own fakery — seems to me the fulcrum of his great work, and of the monstrous depression that made him so huge. As if that could disguise hollowness at the core.

That may sound disparaging. It’s not. Indeed, it’s in the very instinct that there may be no meaning that Welles is most modern, and still the maker of the greatest American film, and that kingdom’s gravest warning. — Â

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