ORSON WELLES by Simon Callow


The Road to Xanadu
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 A superbly wrought, aesthetically and psychologically acute portrait of Welles's sheer, undisciplined genius. The first of a projected two volumes, this biography takes Welles to the grand old age of 26 (where other talents usually begin their ascent to fame and fortune) and the release of his masterpiece, Citizen Kane. But what seemed like one more triumph in an ever more brilliant and audacious career was really a cresting of the flood, and the years to come, despite occasional squalls of genius, would be a sad, slow ebbing away. As Callow (Charles Laughton, 1988, etc.) notes, Welles had ``created a body of work in several media that he would never surpass: in the theater, in radio, in book illustration, in film.'' Welles was an awesomely precocious child. Even when he was a preschooler, most adults who encountered him, from preachers to postmen, felt certain he was destined for greatness. Some of this precocity was certainly due to Welles's ambitious, demanding mother. Her death when he was nine left him with a driving and lifelong sense of guilt and constant need to prove himself. Like its subject, this biography occasionally tends to flabbiness. Callow particularly overdetails Welles's substantial juvenilia (i.e., his accomplishments before he was 17). But rarely, perhaps not since Franáois Truffaut's book on Hitchcock, has an arts biographer possessed such a professional and intuitive understanding of his subject. Callow, a British actor (most recently in Four Weddings and a Funeral) and sometime director, offers innumerable hard-won insights into Welles's artistic processes, dissecting them with a careful, revealing hand, guided by his actor's eye for psychological underpinnings. His research is effortlessly vast, and Callow corrects many of the myths and dissemblings surrounding Welles, some of them put out by Welles himself. And this is all accomplished in a highly literate, epigrammatic style that makes this biography a sumptuous pleasure to read. A masterful effort. It will be a hard, fidgety wait for the second volume. (24 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-670-86722-5
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1995


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