Orson Welles was a mammoth personality whose life and times have been the subject of countless books, none more comprehensive than Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson. Focused purely on Welles’ life from birth to 1940 – up to the making of Welles’ definitive work, Citizen Kane (1941) – it’s confounding how the man had the time to do everything that’s achieved throughout the tome’s 740-odd pages, let alone read about it. If he achieved all this by the age of 25, I can only fathom how the remaining years of his life played out.
The layers of Welles’ life and myriad accomplishments unfurl like Russian nesting dolls with McGilligan charting the various events and people that Welles would be inspired by and utilize for Kane. In fact, so much of the actor/director life’s plays out so perfectly as to be either purely coincidental, authorial license, or fate. (I go with the latter interpretation.) Citizen Kane is always on the periphery, Welles’ “Big Idea.” Rumored to have an IQ of 185, Welles never considered himself a genius. In fact, Welles might have been a genius raised by geniuses, with nearly everyone in his life bursting with accomplishments as he is.
McGilligan has a tall order to fill, keeping nearly 800-pages compelling, and his writing flows with such force and emotion that it propels the already interesting characters forward at a breakneck pace. “Orson worked with the clay at hand. That ability to find greatness in others…” and McGilligan proves adept at showing us their greatness. Nearly everyone Welles came into contact with has a story, and McGilligan does his best to give us the details without losing any of the fascination.
What Welles created by the age of twenty is enough to make any millennial feel utterly lazy. On-stage by the age of 16, Welles always had at least five different ideas in various states of fruition, something that became problematic as he grew older. His ideas for a Caribbean Romeo and Juliet sound amazing, as does his eventual performance of Macbeth with elements of voodoo in it.
Grasping the personality of the actual man comes at a cost, and there’s just as much reason to dislike Welles as to respect him. At times highly hypocritical, Welles would drive to the Mercury Theatre in a chauffeured limo while the rest of the cast found their own methods of transportation. He wasn’t above berating actors during rehearsals. And McGilligan charts the contentious relationship between Welles and writing partners John Houseman and Herman Mankiewicz. His personal life, such as relationships with his wife, Virginia, and mentor, are detailed but, with Welles’ mind moving a thousand miles an hour, it’s no wonder they often felt like second banana in his life.
By the time Citizen Kane starts being assembled Welles comes off as the expert Hollywood believed he was. Bad press plagued him because of Hollywood’s response to his arrival, effectively giving him carte blanche. The final chapters are devoted to the creation of Kane – as much time is devoted to this as his Mercury presentation of War of the Worlds – and gives an in-depth examination of a film that’s considered an iconoclast.
Orson Welles aficionados will eagerly buy up copies of this, as well they should. As someone with a mild interest in Welles I was highly intimidated tackling this, but McGilligan’s flair for tying things together and making the most minor of details engaging helps the pages fly by.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.