Two different reviews from the Telegraph (UK), and the third is from Empire Magazine (UK):
by Christopher Tayler:
As everyone knows, Orson Welles directed and starred in The Greatest Movie Ever Made. He did it in 1940, by which time he'd already stormed Broadway with a voodoo Macbeth, voiced Lamont Cranston - aka "The Shadow" - on a popular mystery series, and caused a national panic by reporting a Martian invasion of New Jersey in his legendary radio version of The War of the Worlds. Citizen Kane was his first motion picture. He was 25.
By the time of his death - in Beverly Hills, 45 years later - Welles was best known by a younger generation as a television pitchman for Paul Masson wines. An even younger generation had appreciated his resonant voice-over work in Transformers: The Movie and the trailer for Revenge of the Nerds. Hollywood had long since washed its hands of him and he hadn't directed a movie for years. He'd become a professional chat-show guest. What went wrong?
Solving that question brings the critic and biographer, and, over the years, battalions of writers have marched over the territory playing variations on the fatally flawed genius theme. It helps that Kane - a critical hit but a box-office failure in its day - deals with much the same material: an artfully stymied attempt to investigate the irresolvable mystery of a great man brought low.
Then there are the set questions. How much of the credit for Kane should go to Welles and how much to Herman Mankiewicz, his acknowledged co-writer, who staged a resentful campaign to portray Welles as a credit-stealer? And what was Welles thinking when he went off to Brazil in 1942, leaving The Magnificent Ambersons, his follow-up to Kane, to be butchered by the studio - a debacle from which his Hollywood career never recovered?
Ben Walters's Orson Welles [Haus Publishing, £9.99, 178 pp] doesn't pretend to come up with any new revelations. The latest instalment in a series of short biographies issued by Haus Publishing, it's a workmanlike synthesis of published Wellesiana. Walters works briskly through the Welles life: the Shakespeare-loving mother and alcoholic father; the early triumphs clouded by struggles with moneymen; Harry Lime; Othello; Touch of Evil - and on to the miserable final decade. We're also filled in on girlfriends and marriages – to Rita Hayworth, most famously – and his sometimes fractious relationship with his children.
Walters is duly sympathetic to his subject and tries not to present him as someone who developed a neurotic inability to bring his projects to completion. The book works well as an introduction to Welles's work, although the copy-editing is poor and the decision to put all quotations from Welles in italics is annoying on the page.
Clinton Heylin's Despite the System takes a much more combative approach. Drawing on extensive research, Heylin aims to obliterate any notion that Welles's wayward genius led him to sabotage his own career. Meticulously reconstructing the conception, writing, shooting, editing and reception of each film, he sets out to show that Welles was undone "by real people, with real motives", and by the Hollywood studio system in general.
The Magnificent Ambersons fiasco, for instance, is laid at the door of one Charles Koerner, an RKO executive who throttled the project as part of a power-struggle with the existing production regime. Welles wasn't a fool to go to South America while the editors sharpened their scissors: "he simply failed to conceive of a situation akin to the one that transpired". As for Mankiewicz, he's written off - not entirely unfairly - as a bitter drunk, although his genuine contribution to Welles's picture is acknowledged.
Some of Heylin's scholarship will only be of interest to very serious fans: if you want accounts of every single edit of Touch of Evil - all six of them - then this is definitely a book to buy. For everyone else, however, Heylin's scorn for the "lackadaisical mischief-making" of previous writers on Welles might turn out to be a more entertaining feature. The likes of Peter Conrad ("self-important"), David Thomson ("ostentatiously ignorant"), Simon Callow ("credulous") and Pauline Kael (don't get him started) come under constant attack.
His victims could draw some comfort from the fact that he's a master of mixed metaphor and - appropriately enough - doesn't know what the word "disinterested" means. Still, his passionate championing of Welles's professionalism is only partly undermined by the vituperative way he hammers his thesis home. He ends with Welles's observation on John Barrymore, another actor often spoken of as wasting his talent: "what he hated was the responsibility of his own genius".
The other is by David Isaacson:
Orson Welles had a talent for making, and humiliating, powerful enemies. It was not enough to antagonise William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, by purloining his life story for Citizen Kane. According to Barbara Leaming, his official biographer, Welles discovered that "Rosebud" was the pet name Hearst gave to the genitalia of his mistress, Marion Davies.
The director turned this innocuous little intimacy into one of the most famous and enigmatic last words in the movies. Though Hearst's minions could not suppress the film, Welles was roundly smeared in the press. On one occasion he was allegedly tipped off that an under-age girl had been planted in his hotel room. Had the sexual sting succeeded, it would have ruined his career.
Welles had, at the age of 24, stoked Hollywood's resentment by wangling a contract that gave him complete, unprecedented artistic control over his debut feature. When Citizen Kane was awarded Best Screenplay – its sole Oscar – at the Academy Awards in 1941, his name was jeered.
Even his circle of collaborators conspired against him. Herman Mankiewicz, the co-writer of Kane, put about the lie that he was the film's sole author. The accusation that the boy wonder was a credit stealer was later taken up, for their own reasons, by the film's producer, John Houseman, and the influential critic Pauline Kael.
In this book, Clinton Heylin tries to focus on Welles's battles with his most important adversaries: the moguls responsible for limiting his Hollywood canon to eight movies, and the producers and editors who ruined most of them behind his back. Heylin wants to absolve Welles of any responsibility for this failure to fulfil his immense talent. To this end, he draws on recently released correspondence between Welles and the studio heads and analyses the ways in which the studios edited his films.
Heylin's valorous attempts to save his hero from himself tend to the naive. Although Welles berated his own foolishness in allowing the studio to butcher The Magnificent Ambersons, Heylin gamely argues that "He did not act like a fool. He simply failed to conceive of a situation akin to the one that transpired." What transpired was the pressure of Hollywood's bottom line: the desire to put bums on seats. After the disappointing box-office returns of Citizen Kane, studio heads were not prepared to indulge "the would-be genius".
It was only on the insistence of Charlton Heston, and with a parsimonious financial deal, that Universal hired Welles to direct Touch of Evil. During one of Welles's characteristic absences from the set, Ed Muhl, the studio's bullying production head, assigned a new editor and demanded extra scenes that he would not let Welles shoot. (Out of loyalty to Welles, Heston and his co-star Janet Leigh initially refused to comply.) For his part Welles would, according to Heston, "deliberately insult" the bosses. By this time Welles had realised that Tinseltown would never grant him the freedom he craved. He did not direct another film in America.
Heylin tends to interpret criticisms of Welles as malicious, but Heston's remarks about him are marked with pathos: he ascribes Welles's downfall to a "perverse, suicidal refusal to deal with the people… who are going to give him the money to make the movies". Yet still Heylin attempts to "deconstruct" the "myth" of Welles's intransigence, preferring to believe that "the system" victimised him. Unable to prove his thesis, he becomes sidetracked by a mission to answer the perceived anti-Welles slurs of two generations of critics. With some justification, he lays the charge of "lackadaisical mischief-making" at the door of Kael and Charles Higham. But to extend this accusation to the more recent, disparately magnificent, biographies by Simon Callow and Peter Conrad, as he does, is preposterous.
The cheapest of Heylin's shots is also the most self-deceptive: "Welles was a 'bad' writer, as Callow seems to suggest (and he should know)." Of the many admirable qualities of Callow's Orson Welles: the Road to Xanadu (1995) – the first of three planned volumes - the most remarkable is the sustained brilliance of his prose. Heylin by contrast throws in "Uh-oh" as a portent of trouble, refers to Macbeth as "the briefest of Bill's tragedies", and compares Citizen Kane - favourably - with Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Anyone who writes about Orson Welles has to deal with the inconvenient fact that Citizen Kane, his artistically uncompromised debut, was also guaranteed to annoy
one of the few men in America powerful enough to crush its maker: its inspiration, William Randolph Hearst.
Every American film Welles directed thereafter, not to mention a few European ones, was taken away from him and released in versions he did not approve, sometimes with chunks directed by other hands that still stand out like sore thumbs. He left several projects unfinished — Don Quixote, The Deep (later made as Dead Calm) and the tied-up-in-litigation The Other Side Of The Wind.
Most commentators, taking a cue from Pauline Kael’s essay ‘Raising Kane’, feel that Welles harboured a self-destructive streak which led him to walk away when he needed to stay and fight, or to alienate collaborators he ought to have cajoled.
Clinton Heylin, taking particular issue with recent books by Simon Callow (The Road To Xanadu) and David Thomson (Rosebud), has a different take, which now seems as radical as Kael’s did in 1971. He maintains that Welles was almost entirely blameless of anything but ambition and that his films were picked apart by malicious people within the Hollywood system — and comes up with a great deal of evidence to back his conclusions.
It’s a necessary redress, and Heylin’s take on the tragic, spiteful botching of The Magnificent Ambersons is convincing. However, his savaging of other authors and their research sits uneasily with a tendency to get shaky on facts whenever
he strays from his subject. He glaringly misremembers the ending of a non-Welles film (The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle), and like glitches recur throughout. In putting Welles’ case so strongly, he also paints a picture of a naive genius that doesn’t really square with much we know about the man.
Where’s the Welles who used his unprecedented carte blanche to deliver a masterpiece that maligned Hearst, then wryly let RKO take the heat? Some major incidents — like the scuppering of The Deep — are omitted altogether, and other anecdotes construed in a manner that provokes an unavoidable ‘yes, but’ reaction.
We’ll probably never glimpse the ‘Rosebud’ that will ‘explain’ Welles, but with its naming and shaming of specific editors, producers, studio heads and time-servers, Despite The System is still a necessary addition to the groaning shelf.
Rating 3 of 5 stars