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Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Welles-Sized Mardi Gras

The Carnival in Rio is in full swing and today is Mardi Gras - the time for pancakes and revelry before Lent. 65 years ago, Orson Welles (pictured there) was its unofficial presiding spirit of misrule, as a brief quote from my recent review (for Books in Canada) of the wonderful Simon Callow biography Orson Welles: Hello Americans suggests:
"After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December, 1941, his new-found career was, in a sense, sunk, as the mood of the nation swung away from the sort of thoughtful eclecticism he had epitomized. At just the moment when Welles was discovering his dark and complex genius, America was deciding it wanted light entertainment. Ambersons was never going to qualify as such, even if Welles had bothered to stay stateside and edit it. Instead, he was approached by the State Department and sent to Brazil, to act as a goodwill ambassador to help maintain relations with South America.

Welles abandoned Ambersons with RKO, but did so with a great sense of mission. Unable to sign up (he famously tried and flunked his medical due to flat feet) he could instead help the propaganda cause (America feared Brazil would join the Axis side). His idea was to film a three-part pseudo-documentary, called It’s All True, whose central scenes would celebrate Rio de Janeiro’s frenetic Carnival. Callow superbly depicts (in voluptuous and often comic detail) how quickly Welles unravelled. Greeted with complete adulation by the people and government of Brazil, he soon plunged into a lifestyle of promiscuous sexuality, partying until dawn with a beautiful new lover each night, plucked from the Carnival erupting in and around the film set, overwhelmed by trying to find a narrative amid the musical and sexual chaos. Within months, Welles had squandered all the goodwill RKO had to offer."
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