I finished the book This is Orson Welles by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich arguably 2 of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. In Welles case, he was more than a director and is ranked as one of the greatest overall talents in entertainment history.
Welles did it all. He started off in Theatre just as a kid where he made a name for himself in writing, acting, directing. He moved to radio, famously with his Mercury Theatre Company. He of course is behind what is probably the most famous radio show broadcast of all-time, The War Of The Worlds. Now most people think of this as a book or movie but there were movie versions because of Welles’ radio show which when broadcast on Halloween in the 1930’s was so convincing it caused a nationwide panic. Whole towns thought the Martians had landed. Of the 9 million plus people listening, almost 2 million of them actually took some sort of physical action thinking Martians were taking over the world. Now that is a performance.
You would think that this would be the highlight of a career but Welles moved to Hollywood with his troupe and gave the world Citizen Kane. He didn’t always just direct but sometimes acted (or did both) in such classics as The Stranger, The Third Man, Othello, Touch of Evil.
This book is great because it is basically a transcript from recorded conversations the two men held over the space of a decade. This book is bad because it is basically a transcript from recorded conversations between the two men. When you get two directors together they are naturally going to chat about movies. If you love movies you are going to get a lot of inside scoops and directing tips in this book. If you want to know more about Welles personally the book comes up short. There are revelations but almost always in connection with movie-making.
I was disappointed by this because Welles is iconic both on and off the screen. He spent a good share of his life flat broke and keeping one step ahead of bill collectors. He repeatedly put his money into his own projects. Sometimes it paid off but just as often it didn’t.
His last film The Other Side Of The Wind which is rumored to be one of his best has become a legend because of his financial situation. He would shoot some and run out of money. It was a skeleton budget but loaded with stars who wanted to work him. When he died it wasn’t finished. It was tied up legally with some Iranian backers and others who stepped in to make financial claims against the film. The project has never been released although there was word this past year that someone had obtained sole ownership (or arrangement was reached) and now there is a chance it will be finished and released. We’ll see because with any Welles project, nothing is taken for granted.
Welles was also a civil rights man. In 1946 he went on his tv show and read a letter from the NAACP about a black war hero who, after a disagreement with a bus driver in South Carolina, had been beaten so bad by police that he went blind. It took Welles a year but they found the name of the officers involved and one of them went to jail. In 1946 this was gutsy to say the least. By the way, police in Aiken, S.C. ordered theatres not to show Welles’ films after this.
Bogdanovich doesn’t dive into any of these issues. All his talk is about movies. He also doesn’t press Welles on his three marriages or the long-term relationship he was in when he died. This is where the book is disappointing. While I learn more of Welles the movie personality, I learn much less of Welles the man.
There was a hidden ‘Rosebud’ moment for Welles himself that is passed over in the book. I learned that Welles’ ashes when he died were buried a few miles outside of Seville, Spain, in a remote spot, near a farm where he had spent one summer when he was 18. Say what??? Made me want to know what happened that summer and boy if that doesn’t hark back to the Rosebud question in Citizen Kane I don’t know what does.
Overall this book is still a fascinating read and I appreciated the fact Bogdanovich put a chronological chapter of Welles’ life at the end of the book which is one of the longest chapters. When you start going through it you suddenly realize Welles was one of the most prolific artists around. Some of his work was ground-breaking and other pieces were clearly flops but his creativity never stopped. While the focus of the book is narrow this is still a worthy look at Orson Welles using his own words.