Like many people my age, my first encounter with Orson Welles–if we hadn’t seen him on television as Long John Silver or in the Muppet Movie–was as a wine salesman. After the umpteenth time I’d snickered at the absurdly self-important old man telling me in his florid voice, “Paul Masson will sell no wine before it’s time,” I turned to my father and asked just who does that ridiculous fat guy think he is. “His name is Orson Welles,” said my father with a grave sigh. “He made a movie called Citizen Kane.” Though no avid movie fan, my father recognized the sad spectacle of unfulfilled promise, of a has-been reduced to a caricature of himself. Although I didn’t see Citizen Kane until high school, from my father’s reaction that day I learned to approach Welles with respect and caution.
By the time he made Citizen Kane in 1939, Welles was famous as the boy wonder who made his stage debut at 3, owned a dog named Caesar at 6 and, as a penniless orphan at 15, hustled an audition at Dublin’s Gate Theater. In New York at 19, he was at the top of his game in his early 20s, writing and acting on stage and on the radio: the Harlem Macbeth with the jungle drums, the heart-stopping Julius Caesar with its clash of the orthodoxies that were girding their loins for battle in Europe, and of course, his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which terrified gullible listeners on Halloween night, 1938. The Hollywood contract followed, then Citizen Kane, a movie that he made when he was 24 but in which he appeared mostly padded in old age makeup. So mercurial was Welles’ career that he was still in his 20s when he became persona non grata in Hollywood. “The youngest has-been in Hollywood,” the wags had it.
The conventional view of Welles is that of a tragic waste, much as my father and I witnessed on that television in the early 1980s. But, as Peter Conrad argues in his absorbing and erudite book Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life, such a view misses the point. What we were seeing is not the humiliation of a once-great man, but a man responding to life’s inevitable disappointments with the savoir faire of an inveterate showman for whom life is performance, and vice versa. Welles, Conrad tells us, always was mindful of the famous passage from As You Like It:
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.” (2.7.139-143)
Welles, Conrad tells us, did not march neatly from one age to the next. Rather, he spent a lifetime playing many parts simultaneously, psychically and physically: In his films, he overdubbed the voices of dozens of roles. On radio, he routinely played multiple parts and once pretended to be all five of the Dionne quintuplets. In his progress of his own life as well, Welles traveled from Peter Pan to Falstaff, and Falstaff is what my father and I found him playing on the television, with Paul Masson’s cheap screwtop as his sack.
Conrad uses Welles’ incorrigible playacting as the organizing principle of his book, which is divided into 16 chapters. In each, he examines Welles in the context of one or another of his roles, roles that were literal, as with Kane and Falstaff, or metaphorical, as with Peter Pan or Prospero. He tells us at the outset not to expect a conventional, gossipy biography; that information is available elsewhere. So, only in passing, in the context of his argument, does he discuss Welles’ taste for dark-skinned women in the late 1940s, or that Welles had a schizophrenic, institutionalized brother (whom he seldom visited), or that he kept himself going with benzedrine during his New York heyday.
Instead, he’s interested in Welles as a literary self-creation, a man with the instincts of a medieval prankster and court jester who found himself with the tools and machines of the 20th century: Welles comes across as a demagogic artist in a demagogic century. In one of the more disturbing chapters, Conrad examines Welles’ affinity for Col. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s novel that the young director initially went to Hollywood to film and was forced to shelve in favor of Citizen Kane.
Conrad’s book is complex and allusive. I was nimble enough with his references to Shakespeare, Cervantes, Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil and even War of the Worlds, but I frequently found myself wishing I’d read Isak Dinesen and Robert Graves, and seen Mr. Arkadin, and also The Lady from Shanghai and The Trial, more recently than I have. Sometimes, Conrad’s literary enthusiasms get the best of him: After many pages of repeatedly finding significance in the name of Welles’ Mercury Theatre company (Pan, Hermes, quicksilver, chaos, etc.), he finally, reluctantly, notes that the name came from The American Mercury, H.L. Mencken’s literary journal that Welles and his partner John Houseman spotted while flying across the country to Hollywood. More often, however, Conrad’s erudition is simply dizzying, effortlessly traversing across Welles’ motley, far-flung career and the thousands of years of literature to nail down a point:
The fathomable mystery in Citizen Kane is that of the deviant romantic imagination, which can dream its way back to paradise and at the same time recover uninhibited childhood, as Coleridge did when writing about Kubla Khan. […] The Welles who deplored Faust and his progeny worried that the romantic imagination was engaged in conjuring up artificial paradises, as flimsy and factitious as film sets. Kane, playing in the snow, is the “marvellous boy” of Wordsworth’s poems, romping in Eden. But his happiness is abruptly curtailed, and he is sent away to be corrupted by society. By the end, the film is concerned with a romantic hero of another kind: the Cain of Byron, whose crime–mercenary in Kane’s case, mental in Welles’s–confirms our expulsion from Eden. So the humble citizen is actually a khan, while Kane has discreetly re-spelled his family name to disguise his derivation from Cain. (Conrad, 153-4)
Fans of Citizen Kane who want to learn more about the smackdown between Welles and William Randolph Hearst will enjoy a few hours with John Evangelist Walsh’s Walking Shadows, a brisk, well-annotated primer on this episode. Walsh explains the complex origins of the film and describes in concise detail the impact Welles had on a rather resentful Hollywood film community–which soon dubbed him Lil’ Orson Annie. Following the line set down by Pauline Kael and others, Walsh’s narration follows an increasingly desperate Welles–floundering for material that RKO would produce–to the home of washed-up screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who suggests doing something with two recent biographies of Hearst, following the structure of a 1936 Preston Sturges-scripted film called The Power and the Glory.
Walsh seems reliable enough as he describes the machinations of the Hearst press and legal machine, the mock outrage of Hollywood lackeys Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, and the dirty tricks (late in life, Welles claimed that Hearst’s goons planted a 14-year-old girl in his hotel room, along with two photographers, in a failed effort to destroy him).
Still, Walsh’s naked hatred of a monstrous but dead press baron seems to be a bit beside the point. As Pauline Kael and others have demonstrated, Citizen Kane is also a portrait of the young monster Orson Welles, as maliciously conceived by Mankiewicz with the complicity of Welles. Seen in this light, Citizen Kane emerges as an uncanny prediction of Welles’ future, almost as deadly accurate as the March of Time newsreel that narrates Kane’s life at the beginning of the film. In the famous scene where Kane completes his drama critic’s devastatingly honest review of his mistress’ opera debut, Conrad observes, “As he doggedly types in the empty office, he composes a plot for the rest of Welles’ life.”