Sunday 17 December 2017

Review: In My Father's Shadow by Chris Welles Feder

Mainstream: €20.39

LEGEND: Orson Welles, with Rita Hayworth to whom he was married from 1943-1948
LEGEND: Orson Welles, with Rita Hayworth to whom he was married from 1943-1948

Ronan Farren

FEW film-makers have attracted biographers the way Orson Welles has. The endlessly fascinating director/actor/impresario/magician, who stood on stage in Dublin's Gate Theatre while still in his teens, who was despised for most of his erratic career by the Hollywood moguls, has for long been the prey of academics and groupies, enthusiasts and chancers, the faithful and the sceptics.







Among the better books on the larger-than-life boy genius from Kenosha, Wisconsin, are Citizen Welles by Frank Brady, a serious cinema historian, and Orson Welles by Barbara Leaming who, unlike most of his biographers, knew Welles (some said this was a disadvantage: she believed everything the mischievous Orson told her). Both books appeared in the Eighties.

The distinguished British film critic David Thomson called his 1996 biography Rosebud, after the famous sled that symbolised a fractured boyhood in Citizen Kane. Thomson is not among the true fans -- in his somewhat lofty manner he makes Welles seem barely human -- but he does appreciate the genius of films such as Kane and Touch of Evil.

Another Briton, actor and author Simon Callow, is engaged in the painstaking task of producing a monumental three-volume biography. The first book, The Road to Xanadu, appeared in 1995, volume two, Hello Americans, in 2006, which only brings us from Kane in 1941 to 1948, the year of The Lady from Shanghai and Macbeth. The final volume, we are promised, will show Welles as the "independent maverick, both Quixote and Ahab" that he was. Callow is intelligent and sympathetic (he wrote a fine biography of Charles Laughton among other books) and this ambitious undertaking is, so far, something of a triumph.

Among Welles's serious admirers is fellow film director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc?) and his This is Orson Welles (1993), mainly comprising long question and answer sessions conducted over a number of years, offers valuable insights into Welles, his serious attitude to creative work and his artistic integrity -- a Welles far from the self-regarding dilettante and playboy often portrayed by his detractors.

One of my own favourite pieces on Welles is short and simple: A 6,000-word article by fellow American and fellow maverick Gore Vidal that first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1989. In his later years, Welles used to join Vidal regularly for lunch at a French restaurant in Hollywood, always sitting in a vast chair beside the door -- his hopeless battle with obesity went on and Vidal reckons Orson weighed 400 pounds at this point -- and ordering the medicinally approved grilled fish and iced tea.

Vidal, a prolific novelist and essayist and a first-division sceptic, both liked and respected Welles ("In literary matters Orson was encyclopaedic, with an actor's memory for poetry.") and recalled how he would watch when his lunch companion, after relating some bizarre anecdote, would start to laugh, "the blood rising in his face slowly from lower lip to forehead until the eyes vanished in a scarlet cloud, and I wondered ... what I'd do were he to drop dead of a stroke".

At this time Welles was looking for "one of the bankable boys" (Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty) to play the lead in a film he had written called The Big Brass Ring. It joined the long list of Welles projects that failed to reach fruition, though it did appear in book form.

One of the revelations (allegations?) in Vidal's essay concerns the origin of Rosebud, the name of the boy's sled that goes up in smoke at the end of Citizen Kane. He claims that Rosebud was what William Randolph Hearst (the newspaper tycoon on whom Kane was based) called his mistress's clitoris -- though Vidal offers no source for this.

So to Chris Welles Feder's loving portrait of her father. She was Welles's daughter by his first wife, Virginia Nicolson, a tense chain-smoker and an apparent control freak who was frequently unsympathetic to her daughter's wish to maintain contact with her father.

Chris, now over 70, has almost all happy memories of Orson, though she has no illusions about his shortcomings as a father; in her childhood, after the marriage ended, there were long spells when she didn't see or hear from him as he wandered around Europe trying to raise finance for films. But when he took Chris under his wing, sweeping her around the great art galleries of Europe, bringing her on location for films, it was idyllic.

This is the human Welles, sensitive, vastly entertaining, often reduced to near despair as his projects failed to reach the filming stage or had to be abandoned. It is a splendid antidote to all the mean- spirited misinformation that has pursued one of cinema's incontrovertible geniuses.

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