Orson Welles: Destined for Destruction?
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 25, Numbers 1-2, 1995
- pp. 74-75
- Additional Information
Dorinson | Orson Welles: Destined for Destruction? Joseph Dorinson Long Island University Orson Welles: Destined for Destruction? Simon Callow. Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. New York: Penguin/Viking, 1996. ($16.95) l/ \^/nen Winston Churchill referred to Soviet Russia as a "riddle wrapped in an enigma," he could have applied this striking image to that equally elusive big bear: Orson Welles. Now, thanks to Simon Callow's brilliant biography, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, we can solve the rosebud riddle that encapsulates this protean figure. Before Callow addressed such a herculean task, no one-critic, biographer, associate-had adequately decoded the erstwhile "boy-genius." What went wrong after Citizen Kane? Why did Welles fail to fulfill his enormous potential? An accomplished writer/actor/director/bon vivant in his own right, Simon Callow brings formidable skills to the biographer's table. Most significantly, he asks the appropriate question: what went wrong with Welles before-not after-Crt/zen Kane? Absorbing already published information about Welles, both too familiar and too lengthy to repeat in this brief encounter, Callow, recently featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral (his funeral) probes the family tree to discover the root cause. In this monumental study-the first of two projected volumes-the author finds the demons locked in a psychohistorical closet. OW's mother, Beatrice, an upwardly mobile, mid-western beauty married his father, Richard, a charming profligate, businessman, inventor, alcoholic in 1903. Both parents sought to escape from their respective family specters: loveless marriages dominated by mercurial women only to repeat, compulsively, that dysfunctionality from which they were fleeing. A crack shot and radical suffragette, Beatrice aimed for a higher perch in society. To this end, she perfected her piano skills and performed for cultured elites. On her way up, she left her dissolute husband dangling. 74 I Film & History Regular Feature | Book Reviews Their marriage quickly produced a son, Richard. He was a disaster: dull, anti-social, and perpetually troubled. Unloved , he wandered from school to sanatorium while his sibling , Orson, almost eleven years younger, made his grand entrance on May 6, 1915. Named perhaps after a discretely gay couple, George Ade and Orson Wells, he weighed in at 10 cherubic pounds. Bright, bouncy, almond-eyed, ironlunged , and lusty, OW developed in a cultural greenhouse. His mother lullabyed him with the piano, a cello voice—a powerful instrument on the lecture circuit—and lots of Shakespeare. After all, she was a reformer, teacher, artiste, and social climber. His father sank into drunken debauchery. OW grew in this hot-house atmosphere. He became companion and entertainer and charmer. Into this menage entered Dr. Maurice Abraham Bernstein on a house call. Greeted by the then 18-month-old Orson, the not-so-good doctor fell in love with both mother and son. He called little Orson "pookles" and the little prodigy returned the favor with "Dadda." Orson would hereafter have two fathers . Indeed, throughout his life, Orson constantly sought paternal figures. This quest colored and marred his relationships with John Houseman and other important men who affected his career. From his mother, OW derived a compulsion to excel; from his biological father, a drive to self-destruct. Mother Beatrice insisted on piano lessons and a literary education. Father Richard depended on charm and liquor. His favorite gifts were a magic kit and a miniature theatre. He was drawn to both. His early childhood with his brother away at school, surrounded by two fathers and one doting mother was close to idyllic. Unfortunately, Beatrice died young. In fact, she staged a death scene to coincide with Orson's ninth birthday. It not only scared the hell out ofhim, this psychodrama scarred him for life conferring on young Orson a mother lode ofguilt and high expectation which functioned as a permanent albatross on the road to Xanadu, a nirvana shared by Kane and Coleridge. His father's alcoholic binges also dragged him to Gorkyian lower depths. Sent to the Todd School where he adopted the director and wife, Roger and Hortense Hill, as surrogate parents, OW took periodic travel junkets to Asia, Europe, and North Africa with his bibulous paterfamilias. Ultimately, he refused to see his...