Book Review – Orson Welles: Hello Americans by Simon Callow

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This book is a follow-up to The Road to Xanadu, which chronicled the life of Orson Welles from his birth up to the release of Citizen KaneHello Americans picks up where that left off, and spans the better part of a decade until Welles departs from America having not quite lived up to the success that Citizen Kane promised. 

I have to say that I was a little disappointed initially because I was expecting it to cover the rest of his life rather than just a few years. I especially wanted to read about his involvement in Transformers and a few other things, and given how much was packed into The Road to Xanadu it was quite surprising to see how little time was covered. But that is also a bit of a problem with me because I should have been more aware of what I was getting myself into. And even saying that, the book isn’t bad, it’s just that I had to alter my expectations. 

Simon Callow obviously has a great deal of respect for the material, but he’s not afraid to show the flaws in Welles’ behavior either, which I appreciate because it must be difficult to look at things objectively when you have so much passion for the source material. The text is dense and there’s a lot of analysis. It feels very much a product of academia so for those looking for a tell-all book you will be disappointed, although there are parts that do talk about his personal life and some of his voracious appetites, but the focus is mostly on the man and his relationship with his work, and how his position in Hollywood went from the golden boy wonder to an exile. It’s an interesting journey to follow and Callow points out some reasons for the downfall, but I do feel that he gets lost in dissecting things sometimes, and the text occasionally becomes very dry. For example, he recounts every bit of plot from the films and describes many scenes, and I’m not sure this was necessary. I would have preferred less of that if it mean the book could have encompassed more years and spoken of things like his role in The Third Man. And although I appreciate that it doesn’t descend into a gossip rag, I think there is a lack of insight given. Welles’ relationship with his children is barely mentioned, and perhaps this is to reflect that Welles was basically an absent father, but it was easy to forget they existed. In fact, it’s hard to relate to Welles as he was such an extraordinary character, and sometimes Callow writes him as being almost a mythical being. 

So much work has gone into this and you have to respect that, and it’s certainly a worthy read for anyone interested in the process of making films and plays. I would definitely be interested in a third volume, if he ever writes one. Welles’ life is certainly worth this much in-depth treatment, and although it’s not perfect I think it is worth the effort. 

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