Most show-business biographies, even of major stars, tend to be superficial and to consist largely of gush and gossip. Yet some figures have made such a formidable contribution to theater and film that they warrant a scholarly study. Such a one was Orson Welles, who was a giant in every aspect of theater. Welles was protean, a modern Renaissance man—stage, screen, radio, and television actor and director, magician, matador, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, politician, and bon vivant. Barbara Learning’s Orson Welles, which appeared just before the subject’s death at the age of seventy, is at once a scholarly and an immensely readable biography whose subject is more fabulous than the hero of many a novel.
Welles was always interested as much in how a story is told as in the story itself; several of his films, beginning with Citizen Kane (1941), and his stage version of Moby Dick, deliberately let the framework show. Thus when Learning obtained his cooperation to work with her on his life story, Welles insisted that she put herself into the book, like a James Boswell, or like a reporter trying to get at the truth about Charles Foster Kane. Accordingly, Learning often takes the reader behind the scenes, becoming a character in the narrative and at the same time giving intimate glimpses of Welles that might not have been available in a different format. Leaming, a professor of theater and film at Hunter College and the author of previous books on Grigori Kozintsev and Roman Polanski, has produced a work which is far more scholarly than the usual Hollywood biographies, most of which lack documentation, let alone critical rigor. Her extensive research was supplemented by months spent taping Welles’s reminiscences. Perhaps Welles is not always reliable on himself, but he makes extremely lively copy.
It is hard to realize that by the time Leaming’s book appeared, the “boy wonder” had become a man of seventy, for despite his increasing years and girth, Welles never lost his energy and enthusiasms. By ordinary standards, he was a man of great accomplishment, yet his reach exceeded his grasp, and his career exemplified the fate of the person of genius hobbled by team players afraid of individuality and thinking chiefly of commercial considerations.
Welles’s talent was recognized early. While he was still an infant, he was proclaimed a prodigy by Dr. Maurice Bernstein, an orthopedist, who claimed that young Orson examined him from his crib and observed, “The desire to take medicine is one of the greatest features which distinguishes men from animals.” Fascinated, Bernstein became a sort of foster father to young Welles, providing him with a violin, a conductor’s baton, a magic kit, art supplies, a stage makeup kit, and a puppet theater. A great womanizer who was infatuated with the celebrated beauty of Beatrice Welles, Bernstein insinuated himself into the family and became “Dadda” to Orson. Yet Orson’s childhood was not painless; his mother died when he was nine, and his father, an occasional inventor, became an alcoholic. A restless globetrotter, Richard Welles took his son Orson with him on some of his journeys and thus started him on a lifetime of wandering.
Meanwhile, Orson, not yet nine, became a hit as “Trouble” in Madame Butterfly in the Chicago Opera. At home, he had an informal education, reading William Shakespeare, making himself up and performing King Lear, putting on puppet shows, sketching and painting, and studying music. His only formal education was five years at the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, where he became the protégé of the headmaster’s son, Roger “Skipper” Hill. Just entering his teens, Welles adapted, designed, directed, and performed in numerous plays, in which he portrayed both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Androcles and the Lion, Richard III, Cassius, and Mark Antony. When he played the latter two in a school competition at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, he was accused of being an adult professional actor.
At the age of fifteen, Welles adapted and staged several of Shakespeare’s historical plays as one drama, the prototype of the Mercury Theatre production Five Kings and of Welles’s film Falstaff (1966). About this time, his father died, and Welles selected Dadda Bernstein to be his guardian.
Graduated at the age of sixteen, Welles sailed for Ireland and launched himself as a professional actor, with remarkable results. At first, fortune favored Welles in everything he touched. At sixteen, he became a leading actor in six plays at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. At eighteen, he was playing Mercutio opposite Katherine Cornell as Juliet. At nineteen, he married socialite Virginia Nicolson. At the same time, his deep, resonant voice made him the world’s best-paid and most-in-demand radio actor.
By twenty, Welles had his own theater in New York with the Federal Theatre Project, where he teamed up with producer John Houseman and directed an all-black voodoo Macbeth that became a sensational success. When the leading actor, a chronic alcoholic, had a breakdown, Welles replaced him, playing the title role in blackface. At twenty-one, he directed several other smash hits for the Federal Theatre Project—a farcical extravaganza, Horse Eats Hat and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (in which he also played the lead), while also staging Marc...
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