The Many Myths of Orson Welles

Michael Wood (NYRB) reviews four biographies of the American filmmaker and raconteur
Orson Welles arrives at the premiere of Citizen Kane on 1 May 1941. The actor, director, producer, and co-screenwriter is 25 years old.
There is a special risk in writing about Orson Welles. The dimensions may get a little out of hand, as if they had to mime the physical size and imaginative reach of the subject. Patrick McGilligan’s excellent biography of Alfred Hitchcock takes 750 pages to cover the director’s life and his fifty films. By page 706 of Young Orson, Welles is about to start shooting Citizen Kane, his first full-length movie: he is twenty-five years old, and he lived till he was seventy. There is a thirty-nine-page postlude about the day and night of Welles’s death.

The Road to Xanadu, part one of Simon Callow’s two-volume biography of Welles, appeared in 1996; Hello Americans, part two of the now three-volume biography, appeared in 2006; and One-Man Band, part three of the (maybe) four-volume work, appeared last fall in the UK and will appear in the US in April. Perhaps the most touching expression of this condition is the wistful remark that McGilligan makes about Welles in 1944 on page 726 of his work: “An entire book could be written about that single year, with much left out.”

“The McGilligan and Callow biographies are a pleasure to read”

The McGilligan and Callow biographies are a pleasure to read, the comic effect of their length soon fades, and their difference from each other enhances the pleasure. McGilligan has an infinite patience with details, and is always happy to pursue a historical event for its own sake. The event may tell us something about Welles, and McGilligan gestures toward this justification: “The backstory of his life and early career would help explain the genesis and ideas behind the famous film.”

But much of the book reads as if the causality went the other way. Citizen Kane is a great excuse to study a lost America, the culture and politics of Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the early years of the twentieth century, the involvement of the talented pianist Beatrice Welles, Orson’s mother, in the women’s movement and the artistic life of the time, the lapse of Orson’s father, the rich and adventurous Richard Welles—the first man in town to drive an automobile—into drink and heart disease.

Citizen Kane is a great excuse to study a lost America”

It’s good too to ponder the image of the five-year-old Orson dressed as the White Rabbit and telling the shoppers at Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago that he has to hurry—“or else it will be too late to see the woolen underwear on the eighth floor!” It doesn’t say much about the genesis of Citizen Kane perhaps, but we surely learn something about the uses of literature.

McGilligan doesn’t skip over or hide Welles’s blemishes, but he doesn’t bluster about them or anything else. One of the most entertaining things in his book is the way he scrupulously avoids accusing anyone of lying. Thus Charles Higham, an earlier biographer, is “always imaginative”; sometimes “overimaginative.” David Thomson “enterprisingly” makes an addition. Dr. Maurice Bernstein, an admirer of Welles’s mother, Welles’s own protector, adviser, and later hanger-on, is a “consummate fictioneer” who goes in for “embellishments” and “a publicist at heart.” John Houseman, Welles’s partner in many early projects, is treated a little more sternly: his “writings were highly subjective, and don’t always stand up to the facts; his portrait of Welles was distorted with apocryphal anecdotes.” Callow’s version of Welles as an epistemological teaser is a sort of celebration:

It is acutely enjoyable to watch Welles in the process of working up his version of his own history, trying on the variants for size, until he settles on the most colorful one.

McGilligan, largely accepting Welles’s general view of his childhood, writes of the “beauty” of his upbringing. “My parents were larger than life,” Welles told his daughter Christopher, “wonderful, mythical, almost fantastical creatures.” McGilligan makes the myth into plausible history—they were extraordinary people, and they lived in dramatically changing times—but beauty is perhaps not all a child needs. Everything in the story suggests that the boy was somehow both pampered and abandoned, made a star and left alone. André Bazin thought the later Welles was rebelling against the perfection of his childhood, “incomplete because of its very happiness”: “Too many fairies bent over this cradle.” Too many people who thought they were fairies perhaps. At one point McGilligan cites a newspaper report calling the five-year-old Orson someone’s protégé, adding, “But in a sense, he was everyone’s.” This is shrewd, but less comforting than it seems at first.

Callow has tremendous patience too, thinks “the context [is] almost as important as the event,” but he announces his presence as a writer more clearly than McGilligan does, and he is a very good critic. He loves terrible jokes, especially in his chapter titles (“Wellsafloppin’,” “The Welles of Onlyness,” “Citizen Coon,” “The Return of Awesome Welles”), and even his throwaways have an air of flamboyance about them. Describing the withdrawal of The Trial from the Venice Film Festival, he says “it was replaced by another story of alienation and police brutality, West Side Story.”

“Then he was correcting myths about Welles, now he is ‘inclined to believe that the man was the myth—or rather that he grew into his own myth.'”

Callow, like McGilligan, wants to “describe” Welles, not “judge” him, but his biographical quest is more romantic, its object a “great natural phenomenon,” and his view has “changed somewhat,” he says, since his first volume. Then he was correcting myths about Welles, now he is “inclined to believe that the man was the myth—or rather that he grew into his own myth.” The myth over time becomes less of a disguise and more of a piece of evidence. “He passed through the world like a figure from an old tale, a giant and a wild man.” This volume takes the story of Welles’s life and work from 1947 to 1966: the films of those years are Othello, Mr. Arkadin, The Trial, and Chimes at Midnight. [Read More]

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