Picks and Pans Review: Citizen Welles

updated 05/29/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1989 01:00AM

by Frank Brady

In a high school auditorium, the speaker, wearing a silk cravat, discussed the cave paintings of Altamira, the Great Pyramid and the Mournings of Giotto, then attacked the school's art teachers for stifling creativity. Rebuked, he stood firm. "Criticism," he said, "is the essence of creation." This was Madison, Wis., in 1925; the lecturer was Orson Welles, 10 years old.

With this anecdote, Frank Brady begins his massive (604 pages), engaging biography. While it's hardly definitive, Brady does convey the tragedy of a life whose stunningly rapid early rise led to a long, slow fall. At 16, Welles acted in Jew Süss at Dublin's Gate Theatre; by 18, he was Marchbanks to Katharine Cornell's Candida. At 19, in 1935, Welles made his network radio debut on The March of Time, not only as the tycoon McGafferty in Archibald MacLeish's play Panic but also providing the coos and gurgles of the newborn Dionne quints. A year later, the hypnotic Welles baritone was thrilling millions as Lamont Cranston—the Shadow.

The breathtaking ascent of this prodigy did not slow. In 1937, with John Houseman, he founded the Mercury Theatre, whose debut, a modern-dress Julius Caesar, dazzled the New York theater world. Within a year the entire nation was dazzled by the Welles-Mercury radio production of The War of the Worlds. Just three years later came Citizen Kane—produced, co-written, directed by, and starring Orson Welles—arguably the greatest American picture ever made.

Though Welles lived to be 70—he died in 1985, of a heart attack—Kane was his masterpiece; the last half of Brady's book records in often painful detail the post-Kane years. There are the memorable film performances—The Magnificent Ambersons, The Third Man; the Falstaff of Chimes at Midnight—offset, by roles in such potboilers as The Black Rose; there are all the ambitious, never-completed projects for which, in search of financing, Welles traveled the world—pleading, finagling, compromising. But though Brady dutifully acknowledges wives (one of them Rita Hayworth), other women (Delores Del Rio, Lena Home) and children, the intimacies of Welles's private life escape him.

The excitement remains in those spectacular early years. After Kane there is only the sad chronicle of a defeated genius who peaked far too soon. (Scribner's, $24.95)

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