Magazine article The Spectator

The Slow Poison of Praise

Magazine article The Spectator

The Slow Poison of Praise

Article excerpt

ORSON WELLES : H ELLO AMERICANS by Simon Callow Cape, £25, pp. 507, ISBN 0224038532 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

More than 60 years after its release, Citizen Kane still regularly appears on pretty much every critics' list of the 'Greatest Films of All Time'. If it is also regularly mentioned as one of the most overrated films of all time, that too is a testament to the power of its reputation. Not only do critics admire Citizen Kane, they also feel that they are somehow obliged to admire it, as if failure to do so were an indicator of bad taste.

But if the critics overdo their praise now, the problem was far worse when the film first appeared. In 1941, there weren't reams of 'experimental' and 'independent' filmmakers flooding the film-school cutting rooms with their originality. Back then, Orson Welles, the producer-director-star of Citizen Kane, was competing with Ginger and Fred, and movies involving 100 dancing girls dressed in rhinestones and feathers.

So when Citizen Kane appeared, writes Simon Callow, the reviewers 'unanimously acclaimed [Welles] as the most original, the most intelligent, the most important filmmaker of the day - perhaps of all time'.

Such big talk, continues Callow, 'is always dangerous to the recipient'. And indeed Welles never recovered.

This biography, the second volume in Callow's still unfinished account of Welles's life, opens with the extraordinary reception Hollywood gave to Citizen Kane, and then continues with a meticulous description of what can only be called Welles's subsequent professional suicide. I had thought, based on Callow's title, that the tale of Welles's postKane life might be a story of America, or of the American Dream, or of that dream's failure. In fact, it's an even more universal story of hubris, wasted talent, and celebrity achieved at much too young an age.

Although brutally frank about Welles's failings, which he catalogues in great and eloquent detail, Callow retains a good deal of sympathy for his subject, as biographers often do (and, perhaps, as a great actor speaking of a great director inevitably would). Speaking here as a mere reader, I found it a lot harder to see the point of Welles, at least as a person, during his downward spiral. Still riding on his cloud of glory, he departed Hollywood for Brazil.

There he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and the better part of a year, but never produced anything so mundane as a script, or even a plot. Allegedly, he did film some scenes of intense beauty; but in the process one of his Brazilian actors drowned, he threw his furniture out of the window of his Rio apartment during a fight with his landlord and he offended the Brazilian government and the public. …

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