Essays (book reviews)

Citizen Welles:
A Biography of Orson Welles

by Frank Brady
(New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1989)


From his very first works, Orson Welles presented himself in a chameleon’s guise. He loved the visual anonymity of his radio work of the 1930s, which allowed him to provide the voices of up to a dozen different characters in the one program. In The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the only film he directed in which he did not himself appear, he identifies himself in the final credits simply as a microphone, moving away on a boom into the darkness.


And these games do not stop once he is on screen: beyond dubbing the voices of numerous characters (women included!), Welles was a master of make-up and disguise. Who, looking today at Citizen Kane (1941) in which Welles plays a man at many stages of his life, can project a clear picture of what he really looked like at the time, a perky 25-year-old chap?


Such ambiguities extend to every aspect of Welles’ life, art and career. Out of both predisposition and necessity, he multiplied his performing personae. Anyone’s casual impression of Welles is bound to be a strange palimpsest: grand cinema auteur, magician, Shakespearean scholar, talk-show guest, imposing actor – as well as large, mellifluous, slightly ridiculous figure on many TV ads, celebrity “roasts”, and fundraising events in the American mass media such as the unforgettably dire Let Poland Be Poland (January 1982) scripted by film historian (and Welles associate) Joseph McBride.


Welles’ prodigious, often secretive life offers a formidable challenge to any willing biographer. Brady’s book is the third attempt in English. The previous two are clearly skewed and partial: Barbara Leaming’s semi-authorised Orson Welles (1983) takes its fanciful subject at his word, while Charles Higham’s disgraceful Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius (1985) amounts to little more than a hatchet job arising from an obscure well of ressentiment.


Brady has it well over his predecessors in the depth of his research, as well as the seriousness and even-handedness of his intent. Tactful to the point of shyness about the more personal aspects of Welles’ life, Brady chooses instead to patiently trace the origin, production and initial reception of almost all Welles’ major works. Fascinatingly, this auteur is revealed as somebody who never ceased reworking, pulverising and recombining his source materials – even when the source was the most culturally canonised literature.


Welles returned time and again, for instance, to the radically condensed pocketbook editions of Everybody’s Shakespeare that he had edited and published before he was 18 – resulting, many years later, in that most extraordinary Shakespearean montage, the film Chimes at Midnight (1966). [Note: the 2001 Routledge volume Orson Welles on Shakespeare: The W.P.A. and Mercury Theatre Playscripts, edited by Richard France, contains and documents later theatrical reworkings of the Bard by Welles.]


If Brady wisely refuses to reiterate Higham’s [and later David Thomson’s] “rise and fall” account of Welles’ career, he nonetheless evinces a milder form of the common, myopic view, borne out even in his title. This view has it that, after the shining highpoints of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938  and Citizen Kane, Welles’ subsequent work is all rather impoverished, incomplete, tampered with by other hands, i.e., in one way or another, insubstantial.


Thus, after a minute account of the genesis of Kane, Brady gives successively shorter space to such remarkable later works as The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Mr Arkadin (1955), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), The Immortal Story (1968) and F for Fake (1973) – a couple (at least) of which are masterpieces. Welles’ final release during his lifetime, the delightful and revealing Filming Othello (1978), barely scrapes into a footnote.


Brady has written a good and useful book, but the problem that eats it away from inside is simply that he has, finally, a quite limited appreciation of Welles’ art and its significance. For him, Kane is a classic because it is whole, coherent, noble, expressive; because it shows up on Sight and Sound polls of the best movies ever made; and because Steven Spielberg shelled out 69,000 USD at an auction for the famous Rosebud sled (which Welles later claimed was a fake). Welles just never had the necessary resources to “get it together” again like he did at the start of the 1940s. Right?


Wrong. It is by far better to assume that, from the start, Welles was not a conventionally classical, Hollywood filmmaker but a truly experimental one. What if we looked at Kane as a film deliberately in pieces, a modernist “labyrinth with no centre” (as Jorge Luis Borges described it), without a conventional notion of truth or destiny, full of stylistic excess and florid spectacle? Then, we might see not a decline, but a profound continuity – and, even more, an astonishingly complex development – from Kane to F for Fake. And we would also be in a better position to investigate, as some intrepid scholars have initiated, Welles’ many partly finished projects, from the often-reworked Don Quixote to The Other Side of the Wind [assembled and released posthumously in 2018].


Brady, ultimately, is unable to square the hokey TV magician with the auteur of Citizen Kane. Yet the two are really not all that unrelated. For Welles was able to combine a showbiz sense of playing for effect – with all the patent artificiality and superficiality that act required – with a modernist sense of splintering levels and artfully eluding any tidy theme or single meaning.


But even this idea (courtesy of our postmodern age) proves to be insufficient. For the young Welles, who in his promptbooks urged theatre workers to “remember that every single way of playing Shakespeare – as long as the way is effective – is right”, is indeed the same Welles who gave us some of the screen’s most moving and tragic versions of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952). In sharp contrast to many who have followed his modernist example, the idea of play for Welles never precluded soul searching, or a necessary meditation on the most difficult questions of (social) existence.


Welles’ playful brilliance lay in bringing to the great humanist agonies of his time an incredibly agile scepticism – for, as he once reminded us: “The most important thing is always to doubt the importance of the question”.


© Adrian Martin August 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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