Orson Welles

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Barbara Leaming’s life of Orson Welles, which appeared just before his death at the age of seventy, is much more substantial than the conventional celebrity biography. A professor of theater and film at Hunter College, Leaming has done a scholarly job. Furthermore, she obtained Welles’s cooperation and spent months taping interviews with him. Welles makes very lively copy, and his career was far more significant than that of most film stars and directors.

A theatrical prodigy, Welles at sixteen was playing leading roles at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. By eighteen, he was Mercutio opposite Katherine Cornell’s Juliet. At twenty, he had his own theater in New York; he directed and sometimes starred in a string of brilliant stage productions, including an all-black voodoo MACBETH, DOCTOR FAUSTUS, a modern-dress JULIUS CAESAR, and NATIVE SON. Simultaneously, he became a star radio actor and director, who created nationwide hysteria with his adaptation of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS ON Halloween, 1938.

Turning to films, Welles became such an instant master of the medium that his first film, CITIZEN KANE (1941), has been called the greatest American motion picture. Only twenty-four when he produced, directed, starred in, and co-wrote CITIZEN KANE, Welles was at the top of his profession.

Everything afterward was anticlimactic, for Welles became a classic example of the creative individual obstructed by studio conformity and commercialism. Most of his films after CITIZEN KANE were cut by others--leaving brilliant but mutilated works. Fortunately, Welles could always fall back on acting, giving memorable performances in JANE EYRE (1944), THE THIRD MAN (1949), and COMPULSION (1959), as well as in his own films.

Stage, screen, and radio actor and director, magician, matador, playwright, screenwriter, novelist, political figure, and bon vivant, Welles was a Renaissance man, whose private life, including a marriage to Rita Hayworth, was as colorful as his public career. Leaming renders it all in very readable detail to create a fascinating portrait.