Editor’s Choice September 2006

Orson Agonistes

What to read this month

The wonder boy got everything he’d wanted, very quickly. Sixteen years after his birth in Kenosha, Orson Welles tramps to Dublin, then one of the world’s great theatrical centers. Within two months he’s starring at the Gate, the city’s leading art theater, and “Young Welles” is the toast of the town. By eighteen, in 1933, not only has he joined Broadway’s fanciest production company, he’s signed up to play Marchbanks in Candida and, astonishingly, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, thus snagging one of the most amazing breaks in theatrical history. At nineteen he’s performing daily on CBS (radio, of course); within six months, in the depths of the Depression, his broadcast work is bringing him $1,000 a week. At twenty he’s adapting and directing an all-black “voodoo” Macbeth in Harlem. It’s the sensation of New York. When he reaches voting age he adapts, directs, and acts in a Broadway farce; directs and plays the lead in Doctor Faustus; and begins a two-year gig playing the Shadow on radio. Generations of kids will imitate his sinister chuckle. The year he would have graduated from college, he’s cheating on his first wife and forming, with John Houseman, his own theater company, the Mercury Theatre, for which he produces, directs, and plays Brutus in a stripped-down, “fascist” Julius Caesar. It wins nearly universal accolades and is a gigantic box-office success. At twenty-three he’s doing weekly Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcasts on CBS. His Halloween- eve production of The War of the Worlds sets off a national panic, and literally overnight Welles is world famous. Hollywood comes calling. At twenty-four he makes an unprecedented deal with RKO. They hand over the car keys: he’ll shoot his script, with his actors (he brings with him to Los Angeles his Mercury troupe, including Jo Cotten, Aggie Moorehead, and Ray Collins), and edit it as he sees fit. (“There but for the grace of God, goes God,” quipped one Hollywood wag, his future collaborator Herman J. Mankiewicz, when he met the pampered brat from New York.) At twenty-five, given what he calls “the best train set a boy ever had”—the full run of a Hollywood studio—he produces, cowrites, directs, and stars in his first motion picture. Sixty-five years later it remains generally applauded as the greatest film of all time.

Orson Welles

The second volume of Simon Callow’s biography of Welles begins in May 1941, at the premiere of Citizen Kane. It ends nearly 450 pages and only seven years later. In that period Welles fully engaged his passions, if not always his talents. He shot five ambitious and innovative movies—one of which, The Magnificent Ambersons, his restrained and elegiac adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel about the disintegration of the nineteenth-century provincial ruling class, was sublime (he filmed it while simultaneously preparing for a documentary, acting in and supervising another picture on an adjacent soundstage, and starring weekly in The Orson Welles Show on radio). He transformed himself into a political commentator and crusader, writing a daily column for the New York Post and presenting a weekly current-affairs radio show (Welles’s progressive views were a bit simplistic and self-important, but he comes off as a philosophe compared with the current Hollywood left). He doggedly attempted to start a new career as a radio comedian. He slept with countless women, though rarely with his second wife, Rita Hayworth (the press dubbed the couple “Beauty and the Brain”; Callow maintains that she “found herself married to possibly the only heterosexual man in the Western world who did not want to go to bed with her”). And he, a great showman who captivated a skeptical Clifford Odets with the confession “I have a touch of rhinestones in my blood,” staged two vaudevillian extravaganzas: The Mercury Wonder Show (in which he, an accomplished magician, nightly sawed Marlene Dietrich in half before an audience of troops and munitions workers) and, on Broadway, Around the World in 80 Days. But despite this frenetic and diffuse activity, it was clear that after the premiere of Kane, Welles’s supernatural run had ended.

This volume, in fact, attempts to answer “the most persistent question asked about Orson Welles: what went wrong after Citizen Kane?” In so doing, it chronicles the years in which one of the most extraordinary American lives utterly and permanently changed direction. And, concomitantly, it traces what David Thomson, the great film critic and historian, calls “one of the small tragedies of the 20th century”: the terrible fate of Ambersons.

Callow is both well and poorly suited to tell this story. Welles has inspired an unusual number of good biographies. Thomson’s uneven, eccentric, superbly written Rosebud remains the most astute assessment of Welles’s work and personality; equally idiosyncratic, Peter Conrad’s Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life is smart but at times ponderous; Peter Bogdanovich’s fat volume of interviews with Welles, as penetrating as it is tendentious, covers most aspects of the subject’s life and career; the lives by Frank Brady and Barbara Leaming are somewhat more workmanlike, though they tower above standard Hollywood portraits. But Callow’s work in progress is a monument (he says he’ll finish up with a third volume, though given the depth and detail of the first two, I’d guess he has a couple left to write). Doorstop biographies nearly always get mired in chronology and minutiae. Animated by a brisk intelligence, Callow’s opus seldom does, although it now totals nearly 1,000 pages. He shapes and interprets his material and with panache places his story in rich context. Moreover, Callow is as indefatigable a researcher as he is stylish a writer—an indispensable trait, given that Welles shamelessly and consistently embellished his remarkable curriculum vitae. Even more important, Callow is exquisitely sensitive to the force—the seductiveness, the menace, the usefulness—of Welles’s immense charm; as an actor and theatrical director, Callow grasps the captivating devotion Welles bestowed upon his players; as a homosexual, Callow grasps the beguiling power that the thoroughly heterosexual young Welles exercised on a series of influential gay men.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.

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