Higham was/is a typical author/academic: 'publish or die'. And if you write a book like "The Films of Orson Welles" and it's published by the University of California Press, then it has the patina of credibility, and adds to your list for achieving tenure. Can you imagine making up that crap about the octopus and shark? Only a person with no moral conscience would do that, and of course he doesn't footnote properly, because he can't. At least Higham's first book has nice big pictures: the second one is just purely exploitative. I guess he'd given up on trying to "help" Welles's career by 1985, as the book was titled "The Rise and Fall...". And of course Kael had an axe to grind, not with Welles, but with the auteur theory. Therefore, attack the greatest American picture by claiming that it's famous director had no significant hand in writing the screenplay, and you've "proved" that the system works, and it's foundation is the writer, and the writer is the author of the picture. Welles just got caught in the crossfire on that one, but Kael obviously didn't care.
As for Thompson, at least he is marginally more honest, in that no one with any brains could take seriously his "creative" excesses as fact, as they are 90% his imaginative flights of fancy, or we could say "literary onanism".
NONE of these 'authors' have had any moral compunction whatsoever about any negative effect their 'writings' might have on Welle's ability to make pictures, or (after his death) on the understanding and further releasing of his work; in fact, Higham seems to have believed (from the above NYT interview) that he was helping Welles, and Thompson has declared his hope that no further Welles pictures ever be released.
After the hat trick of 1970/71/72: Higham/Kael/Housman (the latter who not only wrote his own book, but was Kael's source for the "facts" about how Welles didn't write Kane) Welles never released another feature. Of course, there were many reasons for this, but as Welles put it so eloquently himself in the letter to Richard Wilson quoted above (and excerpted below), one of the central factors was his reputation, particularly as affected by the Brazil debacle, and later by books like Higham's:
...I haven’t bought the Higham book but managed to sneak a few pages of free reading in Brentano’s the other day. That’s as far as I’m going: no use eating up what’s left of my liver… He thinks I hate to finish my movies because I equate completion with death. I should think he’d realize that not finishing a job is not really to do it at all—which isn’t suicide but murder. If he had his facts straight he’d see who’s been guilty of that. I guess that’s why he refused to take me up on my offer to check his material for purely factual inaccuracies; it would have robbed him of the source of some pretty ripe theorizing. On the other hand, it might have helped to get me off a hook which—after 25 years or so—is really starting to hurt.
The South America episode is the one key disaster in my story, so of course, you’ll want to get it straight. For my part, I need to get it straight—as a simple matter of survival. This is newly urgent for me, because, once again, the legend that grew up out of that affair has lost me the chance to make a picture.
As I’ve mentioned, that lovely money out in the middle-west suddenly dried up. Mr. Higham seems to have spooked them. A quote from it in tagging the review in Newsweek sent them scampering. Once again I am the man who “irresponsibly” dropped everything to whoop it up in the carnival in Rio, and, having started a picture down there, capriciously refused to finish it. No use trying to explain that I didn’t flit down to South American for the fun of it…
I don’t know of any more fun than making a movie, and the most fun of all comes in the cutting room when the shooting is over. How can it be thought that I’d deny myself so much of that joy with AMBERSONS? I felt than as I do now that it could have been a far better film than KANE. How can anyone seriously believe that I would jeopardize something I loved so much for the dubious project of shooting a documentary on the carnival in Rio? Jesus, I didn’t like carnivals anyway—I associated them with fancy dress, which bores me silly, and the touristic banalities of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. You know why I went? I went because it was put to me in the very strongest terms by Jock (John Hay Whitney) and Nelson (Rockefeller) that this would represent a sorely needed contribution to inter-American affairs. This sounds today quite unbelievably silly, but in the first year of our entering the war the defense of this hemisphere seemed crucially important. I was told that the value of this project would lie not in the film itself but in the fact of making it. It was put to me that my contribution as a kind of Ambassador extraordinary would be truly meaningful. Normally, I had doubts about this, but (President) Roosevelt himself helped to persuade me that I really had no choice.
Why else would I have agreed to make a film for no salary at all? Any appetite I may have felt for high-life could have been satisfied with a few flying weekends to New York. By preference I would have heard the chimes at midnight in Billingsley’s Club Room and in Dickie Wells up in Harlem. But I was getting all the kicks I needed at the moviola. Dick’s file will show you that I only agreed to the Brazilian junket on the firm guarantee that the moviolas and all the film (of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS) would immediately follow me. What happened instead? The film never came. A takeover in RKO brought in new bosses committed, by the simple logic of their position, to enmity. I quickly lost the last vestiges of control over AMBERSONS, and friends at home collapsed in panic. Who can blame them? Even if I’d stayed I would have had to make compromises on the editing, but these would have been mine and not the fruit of confused and often semi-hysterical committees. If I had been there myself I would have found my own solutions and saved the picture in a form which would have carried the stamp of my own effort.
The point is that the tragedy of South America didn’t end with the mangling of AMBERSONS by RKO. No, it cost me a hell of a lot more that the two years I spent making the picture. It cost me many, many other pictures which I never made; and many years in which I couldn’t work at all.
For the new men who came to power in RKO it was all too easy to make this giant, this script less documentary in South American look like a crazy waste of money. And to justify their positions, it was very much in their interest to do so. A truly merciless campaign was launched, and by the time I came back to America my image as a capricious and unstable wastrel was permanently fixed in the industry’s mind. You know all this, of course, but the documentation may surprise you. The extent of that campaign and its virulence is hard to exaggerate.
When I’d left, the worst that can be said for me was that I was some kind of artist. When I came back I was some kind of lunatic. No story was too wild—the silliest inventions were believed. The friendliest opinion was this: “Sure, he’s talented, but you can’t trust him. He throws money around like a madman; when he gets bored he walks away. He’s irresponsible.”
The legend was established, founded on the firm rock of popular conviction. Soon it was so large and life-like people couldn’t see the reality which it obscured. Nobody cared about the facts; the fiction was so vastly more amusing.
I have carried that legend on my shoulders for more than a quarter of a century. Just lately, for the first time—and for no very obvious reason—it did seem to have expired finally of old age. Not quite old myself, I have been looking forward to as much use as the years will leave me to rather eagerly function as a movie-maker.
Then came that book (Charles Higham’s THE FILMS OF ORSON WELLES)… The very well-intentioned review of it in Newsweek would seem to be what’s cost me the financing for this new picture, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. When the money people read that in the world’s first news magazine, they can scarcely be reproached for second thoughts in the matter of gambling on a Welles movie.
So now the legend walks again, Peter, and I’ve no choice but to go back to hustling those cameo jobs in other people’s films…
You have on-the-spot witnesses to consult and Dick has the documents. When you get to this chapter I’m hoping that you’ll find the hard facts in this matter and will make it honestly possible to do a little job of disinfecting…
This time, it’s not just that I’d like to have the record straight—I’d like to go to work again…
All the best,
If this letter doesn't break your heart, and cure you once and for all of any admiration of authors like Higham, Kael and Thompson, then nothing will. (Can you imagine if Welles were still alive? He wouldn't be after reading one page of Thompson's character assassination.)
Just compare Higham's and Thompson's accounts of Brazil with Welles's and Wilson's, and then contemplate the fact that neither of the former footnote, while both of the latter were actually there.