ORSON WELLES: A Biography. By Barbara Leaming. Viking. 562 pp. $19.95; ORSON WELLES; The Rise and Fall of An American Genius. By Charles Higham. St. Martin's Press. 373 pp. $19.95; THE MAKING OF 'CITIZEN KANE'. By Robert L Carringer. University of California. 180 pp. $22.50.
THE LIFE of Orson Welles would make a wonderful film script -- so long as Welles himself was not allowed to write it. For in Welles' version of the tale, the hero is utterly blameless for the many failures and defeats that have marked his career. The real story of Orson Welles is, of course, far more interesting than that, and the hero is anything but blameless for his downfall. He seems in fact to have been its principal architect.
It is a story that certainly has all the elements of an old-fashioned movie saga -- except, perhaps, for the dismal ending. A youthful and gifted protagonist, full of daring and exuberance, takes the glittering world of Broadway and Hollywood by storm and achieves an immense early success. Then, owing to causes still in dispute among friends, enemies, journalists, scholars, and fellow professionals, he sinks into a protracted and highly publicized aftermath of failed projects, commercial stopgaps, and personal disarray. The story abounds, moreover, in sexual exploits and romantic escapades, in huge expenditures of money and high artistic ambitions, and there are famous personalities galore. Yet, despite its atmosphere of glamour and heady aspiration, it is largely the story of a failed talent.
It ends with the celebrated director of Citizen Kane, now grotesquely overweight and ailing, dividing his time between television commercials for a California wine he is too ill to drink and interviews with academic specialists in theater and cinema studies eager to document the history of a ruined genius. Welles' descent from the heights of Hollywood celebrity to the nether world of television commercials might even be said to give the story a grim comic twist. So, in another way, does the spectacle of Welles' artistic battles of yesteryear coming to rest in the footnotes and disputations of the professors.
Two of the academic types who are currently making a specialty of Welles' career -- Barbara Leaming, professor of theater and film at Hunter College, and Robert L. Carringer, professor of English and cinema studies at the University of Illinois -- have now added new titles to the already sizable bibliography of books and articles devoted to Welles and his work. Leaming's book is a biography; Carringer's, a study of Citizen Kane. Both are based, in varying degrees, on conversations with Welles himself.
Charles Higham, the author of still another new biography of Welles, seems to have kept his distance from the subject. This turns out not to have been a handicap. Higham is, in any case, a practiced hand at Hollywood biography, with books on Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Katherine Hepburn to his credit, and he is also the author of an earlier study called The Films of Orson Welles. Leaming, who is much given to parroting Welles' opinions -- her book should really have been called "My Conversations with Orson" -- describes The Films of Orson Welles as "a destructive book." So we may presume that Higham is regarded, chez Welles at least, as a hostile observer. Perhaps it is for this reason that Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius, though in many respects as star-struck as the others, is undoubtedly the liveliest of the books under review. In his determination to give us the lowdown on Welles, Higham has actually managed to create a credible character.
THE SAME cannot be said for Orson Welles: A Biography. Leaming is so abject in her admiration for Welles, and she is so credulous about his every statement about his own affairs, both personal and professional, that she succeeds in doing little more than acting as a sounding board for his every boast and grievance. On everything from the glories of Dolores Del Rio's underwear to the size of Charlie Chaplin's penis, Leaming slavishly records the utterances of the master without a hint of skepticism. It seems never to have occurred to her that Welles just might, on occasion, have been putting her on, and it goes without saying that she sides with him in his every dispute, marital or financial or artistic or critical. Try to imagine Citizen Kane narrated entirely from Kane's point of view, and you will have a pretty good idea of what Leaming has given us. Fortunately, because Welles is a vastly entertaining raconteur and there is no subject in the world which interests him as much as himself, the result is sometimes very amusing. But as biography it is a travesty.
The problem for all of these writers is that virtually all of Welles' most important work was completed well before he was 30 (in 1945). Even the most glamorous of his romantic attachments were over by then, and there are still those 40 long years to account for. The task of dealing with them is not enviable.
Carringer has solved this problem by concentrating on the making of >Citizen Kane, which Welles finished at the age of 26. Noting that Kane is "the film most often studied in college and university film classes," Carringer has set out to give us the kind of textbook account of its construction that English professors formerly lavished on Hamlet or Paradise Lost. It tells you everything you ever wanted to know about Citizen Kane and then some. But its interest is strictly a classroom interest.
Welles' first successes were in the theater, of course. At 16 he was acting in Dublin (and winning a favorable notice in The New York Times.) Soon thereafter he was back in the U.S., performing Shakespeare as a member of Katharine Cornell's traveling company. In quick succession he achieved fame for his role in Archibald MacLeish's Panic and as the director of an all-black production of Macbeth in Harlem. He did a children's opera with Aaron Copland, and created a theatrical legend by directing Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, and then crowned his accomplishments with a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar, which was widely acclaimed. By the time he caused a national sensation with his science-fiction radio broadcast about a Martian invasion of New Jersey on Halloween night, 1938 -- a performance many listeners took to be a news report about an actual invasion -- he had become one of the major showmen of his time, and he was 23 years old!
Then he went to Hollywood and made Citizen Kane, still his most lasting claim to artistic distinction, and then -- then the slide began. He virtually abandoned The Magnificent Ambersons. He got hooked on politics and political journalism, for neither of which he had either the time or the talent, and found it more and more difficult to bring any of his ambitious projects to a successful completion. Even in his decline, Welles could sometimes be brilliant -- as he was in The Third Man -- but he was in decline, all the same, and it was finally left to the largess of the advertising business to rescue him from financial ruin.
Yes, it is a story that would make a wonderful film script, and some day it will probably be done. But it is too soon for a really cogent, comprehensive, and reliable biography of Orson Welles. It is nonsense to suppose that such a biography can ever be written about an eminent living person, especially a figure like Welles, who is so devoted to spinning myths about his own exploits. So instead of real biography we are given these juicy counterfeits, which sometimes look like the real thing but are really show-business legends served up between hard covers.