Actor, poet, cartoonist and only ten." headlined a story in a Wisconsin paper with a shot of the cherubic little Orson Welles. Simon Callow's Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (640 pages. Viking. 832.95) deals with the "only" part of Welles's life. He was only 18 months old when he startled a family doctor by saying: "The desire to take medicine is one of the greatest features which distinguishes men from animals." He was only 16 when he walked into the Gate Theatre in Dublin, fibbed that he was a Broadway actor and was hired to play a major role. He was only 20 when he directed a landmark all-black production of "Macbeth," only 22 when he cofounded the Mercury Theatre, only 23 when his radio adaptation of "The War of the Worlds" panicked the country into thinking the Martians were coming. And he was only 25 when he directed "Citizen Kane," still considered by many the greatest movie of all time.
Callow wants to "deconstruct" the Welles story, see the real man who made himself a myth in cahoots with a pushover press. His book (the first of two volumes) is easily the best Welles biography, orchestrating previous work anti his own six years of research. Callow's expertise as actor and director gives his accounts of Welles's work a unique authenticity. He captures the excitement of the "Macbeth" project, including the relationship between the "preppy" Welles and his Macbeth, Jack Carter, with whom Welles visited the fleshpots of Harlem. Callow's account of Welles's 1987 modern-dress anti-Fascist version of "Julius Caesar" evokes the artistic and ideological tensions of the 1980s American theater.
Callow, who is gay. provides reasonable evidence for Welles's bisexuality. Welles insisted that "from my earliest years I was the Lily Langtry of the older homosexual set. Everybody wanted me." But Callow sees Welles as a seducer: when his Mercury Theatre cofounder, John House-man, first visited Welles, he was greeted by Orson in his bathtub. William Alland (who plays the reporter in "Citizen Kane") asserts that Welles had an affair with the campy actor Francis Carpenten As for women, Welles's "compulsive fornication" led to the breakup of his first marriage to actress Virginia Nicholson.
Taking credit: Callow is ambivalent toward his subject, at times painting Welles as someone who took credit for his collaborators' work-notably, writer Herman Mankiewiez on "Citizen Kane." At other times he sees Welles as "a creative opportunist without peer." At one point he writes that Welles was not "a great innovator; he was a great fulfiller." Later he says, "It was in his nature to innovate." Whatever the word, Welles changed the way we see and hear the images and sounds of our popular art forms theater, radio, movies. Callow detects a "hollowness" in "Citizen Kane." But "Kane" is a great film about hollowness, about the hollow men who keep thrusting to the top. Welles doesn't "act," he incarnates the sad, terrifying decay of American idealism. And in the process he deconstructs his own myth more powerfully than any biographer.