Orson Welles Biography


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Higham is a diligent researcher and presents a considerable amount of interesting new material, especially about Orson Welles’s family background and early years. One of the strong points of this biography is that Higham does not write as a starry-eyed admirer and therefore refuses to flinch from showing Welles even at his most bizarre and unappealing. Higham seems to suggest that to understand Welles fully, the reader must first endure him, and there is much to endure--including tales of his disordered family life, later philandering, bullying arrogance, and apparent indifference to the feelings of even his closest friends and coworkers.

For all his desire to present the whole truth objectively, though, Higham often seems remarkably impatient with, and sometimes even contemptuous of, his subject. Nearly everything Welles did is quickly interpreted as part of a life-long pattern of egotism, megalomania, and irresponsibility, rendered even less sympathetic by Higham’s almost palpable distaste for Welles’s physical appearance: At one point he describes him as “grown heavier, with his odd, preadolescent face bubbling with eunuchoid baby fat.”

Higham is not blind to Welles’s magnificent achievements. He warms to his subject when discussing CITIZEN KANE, and his praise of the film, focusing particularly on its social and political backgrounds, is very insightful--perhaps giving evidence that Higham is more comfortable as a film critic and analyst than as a biographer. He is rightly appreciative of not only Welles’s films, especially CITIZEN KANE, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, OTHELLO, and TOUCH OF EVIL, but also his work as a film actor and stage director.

One of the great lessons of CITIZEN KANE is that the life of a person must be assembled prismatically, through the eyes of many beholders. Higham’s study thus joins Pauline Kael’s harshly critical RAISING KANE and Barbara Leaming’s adulatory ORSON WELLES: A BIOGRAPHY as part of the collaborative enterprise of presenting Welles’s life and career. It is safe to say that, like the various witnesses in CITIZEN KANE, each of these biographies presents a fascinating but not entirely reliable picture of an elusive and extremely complicated man.