Friday, January 15, 2016
I guess I'm obsessed with Orson Welles. I was on the fence about this--the question of "Am I obsessed? Or am I just a huge fan?"--until recently. I mean, Welles has long been one of my favorite directors. I own all his movies. I own multiple copies, in fact, of most of his movies. I've seen all his movies on the big screen, and I've seen most of them more than once. So, sure, I'm a huge fan.
But I realized I was obsessed when I recently took a step back from my bookshelf and realized that I've read over two dozen books about the man and his films. That's more books than I've read about any other human being. I realized I was obsessed because, despite this bulk of reading, I always want to read more.
I also realized I'm obsessed because when I finished Patrick McGilligan's brilliant new biography YOUNG ORSON, I wanted nothing more than to pick up another book on the guy.
Of course, some of this is due to the quality of McGilligan's book itself. YOUNG ORSON is the best biography of Welles that I've ever read. It's beautifully written and deeply researched. At this stage of our understanding of Welles and his work, it's also a decisive argument against the longstanding theory that Welles was just a self-destructive boy genius whose late-career hardships were, like his obesity, the result of a deep-seated character flaw.
That theory hammered Welles in his later years and infected much of the discussion of his work for years, even decades after his death. It was promoted by people like Pauline Kael in her famous essay "Raising Kane" which portrayed Welles as a washed-up overrated credit-stealing egoist. It was promulgated by John Houseman, Welles's former friend and associate, in various books and interviews. Most dispiritingly, it was enshrined by the documentary THE BATTLE OVER CITIZEN KANE, which won an Oscar and was included in the official anniversary packages of CITIZEN KANE on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Despite all of that, many cinephiles have long known better. (I wrote about this years ago, around the time of the release of Richard Linklater's ME AND ORSON WELLES.) Most importantly, the myth of Welles's self-destruction never took into account his actual post-KANE film work--from his noirs THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE STRANGER and, especially, TOUCH OF EVIL to his brilliant literary adaptations like THE TRIAL (which is the Welles film I return to the most), THE IMMORTAL STORY, and, of course, his glorious Shakespeare masterpiece FALSTAFF. No one who has contended with those works (most of which were little seen in the United States) could believe that Welles was a one-hit wonder.
Several books have helped to restore Welles to his rightful place in film history. Editor Jonathan Rosenbaum's THIS IS ORSON WELLES, the interview book between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, is a masterpiece that remains the most important book to date on the man and his work. And ORSON WELLES AT WORK by scholars Jean-Pierre Berthomè and François Thomas did more than any other book to show us how Welles actually made his films.
With YOUNG ORSON, McGilligan thoroughly debunks the myth of Welles as an ego monster who tore through people in a ruthless quest for power that ultimately destroyed him. The Welles who emerges here is fully human--capable of cruelty but also of great generosity, a man willing to work harder than anyone, a man willing to spend all his time and money and energy on his art. Did he have large appetites for food and booze and sex? Yes, but McGilligan does a nice job of bringing the myth down to size via some rigorous fact-checking. To take one example, he shows how John Houseman would tell a damning story about Welles gallivanting around with a ballerina at some particularly inopportune time...despite the fact that the woman in question was in a different place in the company of her husband.
In many ways, Houseman emerges, if not the villain of the book, then at least as the antagonist. This is a much needed corrective to all the books that unquestionably accept Houseman's word as the disinterested recollections of an old associate. Instead, McGilligan shows Welles and Houseman as temperamentally opposed men whose falling out was something along the lines of a bitter divorce. Houseman spent much of the rest his life conflating facts, spreading gossip as gospel and telling stories that portrayed Welles in the worst light possible. All of this is important to understand since Houseman was the primary source for people like Pauline Kael and Charles Higham, the author of a damaging biography on Welles.
I've only scratched the surface of this book. Among other things, it provides the most detailed portraits yet of Welles's parents, especially his fascinating mother, the crusading suffragist Beatrice Welles. After the deaths of his parents, it charts his course through Todd's School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois to his sojourn at the age of sixteen to Ireland where he supported himself by writing pulp fiction, painting, and finally becoming an actor in Dublin. From there the accomplishments mount--writing a textbook on Shakespeare while traveling to Spain where he became obsessed with bullfighting before his return to America where he worked as an actor before becoming the most important stage director of his time and then becoming the most infamous radio director in the world before then traveling to Hollywood to make the most influential movie of the last seventy-five years.
So yes, I'm obsessed, but how could you not want to know more about that guy. Welles lived an absolutely fascinating life from beginning to end, and Patrick McGilligan has charted the incredible first leg of that life's journey in beautiful detail.