Book review: Orson Welles: A Biography by Barbara Leaming (Viking Books, 1985)
Here is a first-hand portrait of the flamboyant American genius who became a titanic figure in twentieth century popular culture. Orson Welles revolutionised theatre, terrified a nation of radio listeners, and made cinematic history with Citizen Kane, regarded by many as the greatest American film ever made.
What do you do when you decide you suddenly need to know more about a person? You get their autobiography, or, if they haven’t done one, a biography. I had read the biography given on Wikipedia, but it’s much too short – and much too interesting.
Wanting to know more about Orson Welles from his childhood, the man he was rather than his skills and work as an actor or director, I asked the good people of Wellesnet for advice – which biography should I read? Their kind reply was that I should read Barbara Leaming and Simon Callow. I started with Leaming, seeing as how her biography spans Welles’s entire life (it came out shortly before he died in 1985), while Callow’s biography is a massive trilogy.
Based on numerous interviews of not just Orson Welles himself, but friends, associates, family and co-workers, correspondence and archive material, Leaming tries to suss out the mystery that was Orson Welles. “Mystery?” you say. There is a lot of mythology surrounding Orson Welles, and a lot of it was of his own doing. In a way, you could say that he always played a part – occasionally that part happened to be Orson Welles. This is partly why I find him so fascinating, I suppose.
Leaming does an excellent job of piecing together the puzzle for us, giving us Welles’s point of view on a lot of things, but there are also times where she points out the differences between the “facts” and the actual facts.
One way to look at whether or not the biography you’ve just read is any good is to ask yourself if it’s taught you something new about the person (SO MUCH YES, HOLY CRAP), if it’s managed to scratch the itch in wanting to know more about the person (mission accomplished!), if you still look at the subject in the same light now that you know more about them (yes and no – you get to know a bit more about his (EXTREMELY ACTIVE) sex life than you ever wanted to know), and if you feel it was fair and balanced (yes). It’s funny to compare it to the much more detailed biography trilogy of Callow (which I’m currently reading), whose glasses have no rose tint on them whatsoever, but Leaming – having spent lots of time talking to the guy – manages to put across the man’s infamous charm.
I would have loved to have had the chance to sit down and have a (substantial) meal and a chat with him, but alas, he died 30 years ago this autumn. He was a giant, in more ways than one, and that he’s still talked about, and in many ways looked up to, today is a testament to his genius. After all, if he was just some kind of philandering egomaniac who couldn’t make films, he would have been written off ages ago and only film- or theatre buffs would remember his name. As it stands, Citizen Kane is considered one of the best films ever made, and there are those who consider him as their favourite Rochester of all time. (I enjoy him in the role, just not the adaptation.)
Today would have been his 100th birthday. Barbara Leaming’s biography of Orson Welles is entertaining, easy to read, hard to put down (your mileage may vary) and endlessly fascinating.
5 out of 5 radio microphones.