A boy wonder’s life—overlong but also filling.
Few directors in film history have generated more biographies than Orson Welles (1915-1985), and anyone tackling the job anew better have a fresh angle or something new to report. Veteran film scribe McGilligan (Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, 2011, etc.) meets this challenge by focusing exclusively on Welles’ early years, but his success is mixed. When he’s not leaning heavily on the work of his many predecessors—mainly Barbara Leaming, as well as Peter Bogdanovich, Simon Callow, and Frank Brady—as well as the bitter memoirs of Welles’ former friend John Houseman, he’s expanding heavily on stories they either succinctly boiled down or scraps they left behind, from Welles’ youthful poetry to day-by-day accounts of his international trips to microscopic rehashings of minor scuffles. While the book is needlessly long, McGilligan does illuminate the full scope of a truly charmed youth, and he reminds us that while it may be unfair to say that Welles peaked early, there were definitely a lot of peaks, even before he triumphed as the 25-year-old whiz behind Citizen Kane. The pampered son of an alcoholic businessman and a progressive socialite, he was raised to be a genius, and he didn’t disappoint. He was only 20 when he staged a revolutionary all-black Macbeth for the Federal Theater (“The great success of my life,” he called it), followed up by a modern-dress Julius Caesar and more theater successes, making the cover of Time even before he cooked up the idea of a live-radio Martian landing. Then it was on to Kane, which the author pieces together in generous detail, with specific attention to the much-debated relationship between Welles and co-scenarist Herman Mankiewicz.
McGilligan works overtime trying to justify such a massive book about only a part of Welles’ life, but it’s also buoyed by a dependably powerful subject at the center.