- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ORSON WELLES? A PORTRAIT OF AN INDEPENDENT CAREER

By Joseph McBride

University Press of Kentucky, $29.95, 344 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

What happens to a man who peaked professionally at the age of 25 after producing and directing “Citizen Kane,” still considered one of the best movies ever made?

If the man in question is Orson Welles, he just keeps going. No matter the setbacks or disappointments, he goes on making movies because that is what he loves doing. He was fond of saying, “God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead!” according to his biographer, Joseph McBride, who acknowledges that it is a “disturbing irony” that Welles is more “bankable” now than when he was alive.

Mr. McBride, a film critic and historian who knew and worked with Welles, has written a professional appreciation of his subject, focusing almost entirely on the drama of a revolutionary career, while sidestepping the man behind it. Offering his own perspective on Welles as a director, he conscientiously details the problems that assailed a brilliant man who at one point fled the United States for Europe and a different level of appreciation.

Yet he tells little of the human being beyond the legend and this would appear to be a deliberate decision. He notes, “Welles was deeply ambivalent about reminiscing, perhaps because he would have had to address issues he usually found too painful or delicate, such as his sexuality, his family life and some of his more traumatic experiences in Hollywood.” Underscoring that point, Mr. McBride points out that Welles returned advances from publishers for autobiographies.

Welles’ public image was in many ways established in the public mind in this country by the spectacular and lonely finale of his best known creation, “Kane,” in the remote movie estate, Xanadu. Rising early to the kind of broadcasting fame that put him on the cover of Time magazine at the age of 23, Welles observed wryly of himself, “I started at the top and have been going downhill ever since.”

His biographer notes bleakly that by the late 1960s, the wunderkind of cinema was “truly a prophet without honor” in America, making films far removed from the commercial mainstream, many of which were never completed, while maintaining a crusade to break new ground as a filmmaker.

Yet Welles never gave up. The night he died of a heart attack at 70, he was typing a manuscript for yet another a new project. And although his reputation plummeted in the United States, Mr. McBride emphasizes that Welles continued to be revered by film aficionados around the world. His film “Chimes at Midnight,” barely seen in America, was honored at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival where Welles received a standing ovation. But his “The Other Side of the Wind,” which satirized Hollywood in the 1960s, was among those never completed.

In America, in the wake of the tour de force of “Citizen Kane,” Welles was carped at by critics who focused on personal trivia, from the uproar over his famous radio spoof “War of the Worlds” to his gluttonous appetite, his weight gain and his unabashed nonconformity. Welles was a genius who did wine commercials for money and made no apologies.

In 1947 he observed tartly, “Hollywood is a gold-plated suburb suitable for golfers, gardeners, assorted middlemen and contented movie stars. I am none of these things.” What he became was an object lesson in how being too different in America can come back to haunt you.

His brand of independent politics got him briefly blackballed in the shameful climate that film writer Dalton Trumbo termed “the time of the toad” when Americans saw communists under every bed. It also earned him the enmity of William Randolph Hearst, who was widely viewed as the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane. Hearst newspaper attacks were so virulent that in 1941 Welles felt compelled to issue a public response denying that he was a communist.

Mr. McBride commented that “mainstream Hollywood liked to believe Welles was habitually and wildly profligate as an excuse to stigmatize him for his real crimes, his lack of orthodoxy and malleability.”

The author supports his defense of Welles’ professional talent with the eloquent post-mortem words of New York Times film critic Vincent Canby who wrote, “He directed several of the greatest movies ever made … Why blame the man for being himself? … His great films are as alive and influential today as they’ve always been. The rest of the world is still trying to catch up.”

According to Mr. McBride, Welles’ deepest disappointment came with his failure to make his version of “King Lear.” The extent of Welles’ personal identification with Lear and the play was made clear in observations about the project that his biographer suggested reflected his (Welles’) guilt at being an “indifferent father” to his daughters.

Welles wrote, “It will be not only a new kind of Shakespeare, but a new kind of film … King Lear is Shakespeare’s masterpiece and it’s as strong now and as simple and timeless as any story ever told … Most importantly, the material from which this project will be realized is quite simply the greatest drama ever written.”

When the French funding for Lear collapsed in 1985, Welles felt deeply betrayed, to the point that a friend declared, “He died of King Lear. It killed him.” And indeed, a few months later, Welles, the most celebrated enigma of his time, was dead.

Mr. McBride concludes that Welles could have saved himself heartbreak and trouble had he quit the movie business when he was at the top of his form. Yet he also argues that Welles was entitled to be considered “a roaring success” on the grounds that he created so many influential works of art in films, and virtually died still trying.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.


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