As you may know, this year I set the goal of reading one biography per month, and this month goes to Orson Welles, actor, director, writer and wunderkind, 1915 – 1985. The biography is Rosebud by David Thomson.
Where does one even begin to talk about Orson Welles? He’s a huge figure on the landscape of film history, and his film Citizen Kane is considered to be the best film of all time. No mean feat, but the film was an absolute flop in it’s day. Can you imagine, those of you who have seen it? (I have a few times, it’s a must see for film lovers and required watching on any film course).
I had an impression of Welles. But I felt that it was time that I learned some more about the man, or perhaps the man behind the myth, so I picked up David Thomson’s biography of the man, titles Rosebud. (Why is it called Rosebud? Go watch Citizen Kane).
There is a bit of myth and mystery about Welles, and if you read this biography, you’ll be left thinking that a lot of mystique comes from the words of the man himself. He came from a privileged background, and was a precocious child, educated on Shakespeare by his mother at home before attending a prestigious school. He was a mini-adult from a young age, and not averse to grandstanding, both as a youth and in later life. His life lead him to the school stage, to the theatres of Europe and then back to the US where he worked in radio.
His voice and presence, as well as his confidence meant that he often seemed to manage to convince people of things about himself, mostly whatever he told them, especially his belief that he was a genius. At least, this is the impression one gleans from Thomson in the book. It’s an odd and often awkward biography. Clearly Thomson admires Welles, but also delights in the man’s great falls from grace, and of those there were a few. He describes Welles in such a way that he comes across as a pathological narcissist, or even as a bit of a sociopath. I wonder whether that is true? It perhaps could be.
Welles radio play of War Of The Worlds reportedly caused wide spread panic, as people took it to be a real broadcast of an alien invasion of America. This brought Welles more into the spotlight, and he eventually headed to Hollywood, where he would make Citizen Kane, that great work, but then find limited success with future works, and he notoriously spent a lot of the rest of his life eating and talking about the films that he would never finish. People lament the studios taking away his films and cutting them themselves at times, since Welles was so outraged at this, but often people don’t realise what he was spending hundreds of thousands of studio dollars and hours on, and it wasn’t the films. He was a man who was not averse to taking advances or people’s cash for projects, and then hosting lavish dinners, and running way over schedule and over budget.
As he grew older, he grew enormously overweight, and was often a Hollywood outcast, found roaming around Europe talking about the films he was going to make or finish, or appearing on TV shows doing magic tricks. It’s hard to tell whether the end of the story is really that he did this to himself, a victim of himself and his inabilities, or whether he was a frustrated and misunderstood genius. Thomson says the former, most people would say the latter.
I don’t know what to think, but he’s a fascinating figure, and one whose films and radio plays I rather enjoy.
Five Must See Welles Films:
- Citizen Kane (of course)
- Touch Of Evil (wonderful film noir thriller)
- The Magnificent Ambersons (his follow up to Citizen Kane, and suffering from studio edits)
- The Lady From Shanghai (with ex-wife Rita Hayworth)
- Chimes at Midnight (one of his later films)
Interesting Points About Orson:
- He was married three times, once to beautiful actress and star Rita Hayworth, though it was a short lived marriage. According to Thomson, Welles was not a man who cared for women emotionally, and had many affairs throughout his life. In the case of Hayworth, he reportedly saw her picture and before he even met her, announced that he would marry her. She was a huge star at the time.
- Welles had children, but was a very distant and disinterested father.
- His film The Lady From Shanghai had some images that shocked people, images that led some people to surmise that he was the killer of the Black Dahlia, which is a bit of a stretch, but makes a great conspiracy theory.
- Later in life he weighed up to 300lb, and was known to joke about his weight or allow himself to be teased about it, but as a proud man this must have stung.
- At one time, Welles became very interested in politics and thought about running for office, but had limited success.
- His films are much more lauded and appreciated now than they ever were at the box office in his own day, in fact many of them were bombs that people hated, but he always had his supporters too.