Hey Glenn, thanks for the shout out on the "Best Books" thread; as Wellesnet's lone reactionary McCarthyite, and your steadfast sparring partner, I appreciate being included as the loyal opposition. In this instance I am swooping in, weapon in hand, like the short but always heroic Douglas Fairbanks, to defend both you and the esteemed David Thomson from the brutal attacks by cranky Toddy and monomaniacal Keats. I have as low an opinion of Thomson as a Welles biographer as anyone on this site, but to jump from that opinion of a work to describing Thomson the man as "evil" and "odious" is, well, evil and odious. Thomson may have his quirks and failures, as do we all (and as did Welles), but he is an excellent, idiosyncratic, insightful critic, whose Biographical Dictionary of Film is a must own for any film buff. Here's a bet for you, Keats: after those twenty Welles scholars have finished trashing Thomson's Welles biography, ask them to make a list of the top ten must-have tomes for the serious film lover; if The Biographical Dictionary of Film doesn't make the cut, I'll send $500.00 each to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.
Thomson has always been forceful, opinionated, and controversial; his entry in the dictionary on John Ford, a director I admire, is one of the most brutal things I have ever read; however, once you get past the brutality it does make sense and it does shed some light on Ford. Thomson's terrible Welles book, on the other hand, is, I think, a complete failure; it starts off well, but quickly and ferociously goes off the rails to the point, as I mentioned in another thread, that after reading it I could just about believe that Welles had killed the Black Dahlia. Thomson, an unequivocal admirer of Welles the artist, developed, in the course of writing his biography, such an unstinting dislike for the man that it infected the entire work, leaving it diseased and useless.
Burgess Meredith once said of Charles Laughton, “when Charles was sitting in a chair doing nothing, he was doing too much”. The same could have been said for Welles. He was too much, he was a giant, and for some who grapple with the giant and find the task too wearying, he becomes a monster. Welles became a monster for Charles Higham, too, ruining his often interesting work, and one can see the process in reverse in the first two volumes of Callow’s magnum opus; Callow, a genuinely capacious man, started out hating Welles and ended in admiration. With Welles, some people get it, and some people don’t – so what, and who cares? David Thomson is a good critic who wrote a bad Welles biography, and it is he who is diminished by the attempt, not Welles. Has anyone written a good one? Some are better than others, but I don’t think any of them have even scratched the surface of the man.
That being said, I have found many of Thomson’s less ambitious writings on Welles, including the dread Guardian article, to be completely engaging. So Thomson fudged a few facts to make a larger, more romantic point – big deal. Should he have written “Welles never directed a movie that made money in his lifetime, except for TheStranger”? I would hardly say that dragging in The Stranger, the least ambitious, least “Wellsian” film of the director’s career ; a film that Welles had very little use for, and which he only directed to show the suits that he could be a good boy, mitigates Thomson’s larger point. As for Welles dying broke, he was always broke, even when he was not, as the money went out faster than it came in. A million dollar estate is nothing, especially if it is tied up in real estate; I doubt there was much in the bank. Welles’ estate did pass into chaos after his death, and while some have claimed that only 30-45 minutes of Wind were edited, others, like Gary Graver, have claimed that the thing was essentially done. We don’t know, because Bogdanovich is too busy planning the broadway musical adaptation of The Last Picture Show to unlock the vaults and inspect the footage.
Thomson’s Guardian article is an assault on the legend of Welles the failure, not a reification of it. It’s rather sweet, and better than any two pages of his biography. At the end of the article, Thomson writes:
“But remember this: Orson died alone in 1985 and you can read the reports as signs of sadness. On the contrary, I suspect he was exhilarated at the end. Real sadness is being worth $5bn and not knowing what to do with it.”
Anyone who can write something like that about Orson, no matter what his other failings, is on our side.
By the way, Glenn, I’ve noticed a few references to your feeling weary in some earlier posts; I hope you are not unwell. I’ve been feeling rather mentally weary myself these days, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Donovan – that never fails to put a smile on my face.