Another review of the Heylin book, by film writer Scott Eyman:
'System' thesis doesn't hold up
By SCOTT EYMAN
Cox News Service
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -
"Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios," by Clinton Heylin. Chicago Review Press; 402 pages; $24.95.
Orson Welles is the one that got away, the American director with the greatest gifts who had the strangest career. Preceded by an effusive blurb from Peter Bogdanovich ("This is the book Orson Welles always hoped for") Clinton Heylin's "Despite the System" sets out to tell the story of the making and unmaking of Welles' six American movies from his point of view.
As the title indicates, Heylin is essentially an apologist for the great director, and his book is a well-documented defense brief.
But there are several problems with Heylin's thesis. For one thing, to imagine that Welles was somehow innocent of any personal responsibility for his own career difficulties is as absurd as saying that he wasn't the motivating genius behind his movies.
And at times, Heylin's thesis is contradicted his own evidence.
For instance, Welles wrapped up his filming of "Macbeth" on July 17, 1947. He then left for Europe and some acting jobs. In November, the studio shipped the raw footage, and an editor, to Welles in Rome. A rough cut emerged in March, but accompanying the film was a long letter with more changes that Welles wanted made. "Macbeth" didn't open until October 1948 - a year and a half after it was made.
This expensive, dilatory post-production schedule for what was obviously a commercially marginal movie - "Macbeth" may have been a hit at the Globe Theater, but nobody's made a dime on it since - was and still would be insupportable. Truffaut's memorable line about Welles' movies being "shot by an exhibitionist and cut by a censor" sums up the situation nicely.
Welles would take two to three days in the cutting room for every day of production, and he would say things to editors like "Your job as a film editor is not merely to get from one shot to another. There is a living part to this film and a dead part. Please eliminate the dead."
Also, in his salad days, Welles had a tendency to be cavalier about money. Later, Welles toned down this unfortunate trait - "The Stranger" and "Touch of Evil," among others, were shot on time and on budget.
But "The Magnificent Ambersons," almost certainly his masterpiece, went over schedule by 14 days and over budget by nearly 25 percent. When you factor in the reality that the basic story meant the movie was an art film or it was nothing, this lack of discipline was a very bad idea.
RKO sliced the film by a third because Welles was in Rio wrestling with a documentary, "It's All True," that was never completed.
Heylin slags editor Robert Wise for collaborating with the enemy on cutting "Ambersons," but really, what was he supposed to do? His boss was out of the country sending long, frantic telegrams, pressure was building at work, a great deal of money was at stake, and it wasn't as if Wise introduced a happy ending - faced with a movie that wasn't working well, he filmed the end of the novel.
Certainly, Welles' original ending would have been a stronger, more poetic metaphor for the final ruin of the Ambersons, but "Citizen Kane" had lost money, the studio's new regime wasn't happy about "Ambersons," and it was their money.
Far more damaging than Welles' production woes was the fact that he was drawn to stories of loss and dissolution, which run counter to the American grain of optimism. Even Heylin touches on this, when he says that "the man just seemed to draw out all the dark elements from whatever he turned his hand to."
This is why a movie like "Touch of Evil" was taken away by Universal. They didn't like the material, and they were uncomfortable about the lack of narrative clarity. That, and the fact that Welles never really had a commercial hit, gradually made it impossible to find financing.
Of all the things written about Welles over the years, I lean toward the view of Gore Vidal, who wrote that Welles "was a miracle of empathy, and he knew all the gradations of despair that the oyster experienced as it slid down his gullet. But the romantic genius aims not for perfection in his art but for poignant glamour in his ruin." Welles' Byronic half destroyed the observant, Midwestern half.
Heylin offers much interesting material, especially in script extracts that showcase Welles' graceful but energetic writing style, but he gets small things wrong. He dates Thomas Ince's death to 1927, for instance, when any reference book would tell him it was 1924 - the sort of easily avoided mistake that makes me very uneasy about a writer.
He also willfully misreads things, I think; he calls George Minafer in "The Magnificent Ambersons" "a cold-blooded monster," which is very far from the way either Booth Tarkington or Welles - whose script is very close to the novel - saw him, which is more or less as a spoiled brat, but redeemable and certainly far from evil.
It seems to me that even people who acknowledge Welles' greatness have to stop somewhere short of becoming apologists and acknowledge the fact that Welles' handling of his life, and his handling of his own and others' money, clearly shows that he was a rogue, and rogues can do great damage.
In Welles' case, the damage was mostly to himself, and to American movies.
Scott Eyman writes for The Palm Beach Post.