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Orson Welles: A Biography

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"...[A] beautifully researched, valuable study of one of America's most influential and mysterious artists. ...[What] makes this book remarkable is Welles's own contribution. His comments, opinions, interviews cut in and out of the narrative with an almost cinematic force." -Patricia Bosworth


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"...[A] beautifully researched, valuable study of one of America's most influential and mysterious artists. ...[What] makes this book remarkable is Welles's own contribution. His comments, opinions, interviews cut in and out of the narrative with an almost cinematic force." -Patricia Bosworth

30 review for Orson Welles: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    John Tipper

    I picked this bio to read because I'm a fan of Welles's acting and directing. I remember him also as a TV talk-show personality in the '60s. Sometimes he performed magic on those shows, which was something he started doing as a child. The Wunderkind truly showed talent early on, directing a version of Richard III, at his prep school when he was 15 years old. His bohemian mother and her lover (they at one point formed a ménage a trois with Orson's biological father) encouraged him in his pursuits, I picked this bio to read because I'm a fan of Welles's acting and directing. I remember him also as a TV talk-show personality in the '60s. Sometimes he performed magic on those shows, which was something he started doing as a child. The Wunderkind truly showed talent early on, directing a version of Richard III, at his prep school when he was 15 years old. His bohemian mother and her lover (they at one point formed a ménage a trois with Orson's biological father) encouraged him in his pursuits, telling him he was a genius. Dadda, an orthopedist, was his mom's lover and often Orson's patron. He gave money to the young man frequently. After graduating from Todd Prep, in Illinois, Wells traveled to Ireland and Scotland. At first it was only a walking and painting tour, but when the ambitious young man hit Dublin, he got on at the Gate Theater and became a professional actor. He returned to the States, landing in New York and began directing Macbeth in Harlem, at the age of 20. He acted on CBS Radio, and gave his famous 1938 Halloween eve broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, about Mars invading New Jersey. This caused much hysteria and both CBS and Orson were sued thousands of dollars. Judges dropped most of them. Welles decided to invade Hollywood in hopes of directing and acting. One studio wanted him to make Heart of Darkness, and Orson asked if Lucille Ball could star in it. The movie was dropped. Then Welles directed and acted in the highly acclaimed Citizen Kane, about a newspaper tycoon. He directed The Magnificent Ambersons, which some critics who saw the uncut version thought was even better than Kane. But it was long and complex, and the studio cut key parts of it. Leaming describes the disaster of It's All True that Welles spent time filming in Latin America. It never got finished due to the director's womanizing and drinking. She describes his marriages and divorces, most notably to Rita Heyworth. She cites his acting in The Stranger, The Third Man, and his direction of Lady from Shanghai and the eccentric noir Touch of Evil. Ms. Leaming's research and writing on Welles's massive early talent impressed me, as if she leaves nothing out. For the most part, she portrays him as an energetic, charming man, who on occasion could turn belligerent as when he spat on a producer in New York. She does not show this side of Welles much, nor does she tell you in depth why so many of the LA movie crowd disliked him so much. Later on in his career he gained weight, moved to Europe and tried to make experimental films. Leaming does not go into most of this period. I still consider this a great biography. A man of Welles stature, lust for the arts and talent probably couldn't be covered in one book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Liz Estrada

    Just an amazing biography from start to finish. Learned so much about this enfant-terrible/precocious child/genius, but most importantly, realized how Hollywood, then and now, is not quite equipped to deal with such genius! A sad state of affairs, but he was, regardless how you view him, a man who did things his way, with incredible integrity. TOTALLY RESPECT!! Wish there were more like him, but he broke the mold!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Marti

    I thought I knew a fair amount of superficial things about Orson Welles (the Harlem production of Macbeth, infamous War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane). However, his precocious childhood, in which he really was more like a miniature adult, and entire subsequent life were much stranger than I had ever imagined. His patrician, yet at the same time Bohemian, upbringing account for his love for high-brow Shakeseare as well as the shameless hucksterism of vaudeville and magic acts. Hence, this biograp I thought I knew a fair amount of superficial things about Orson Welles (the Harlem production of Macbeth, infamous War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane). However, his precocious childhood, in which he really was more like a miniature adult, and entire subsequent life were much stranger than I had ever imagined. His patrician, yet at the same time Bohemian, upbringing account for his love for high-brow Shakeseare as well as the shameless hucksterism of vaudeville and magic acts. Hence, this biography -- finished shortly before his death -- contains many ribald personal anecdotes and observations on how money is no object on a mess like Casino Royale when he can't raise one tenth as much for his movies. However, the author interviewed many friends and sometimes enemies ensuring that this does not read like most "authorized" biographies. Welles certainly comes off as a temperamental Prima Donna at times, but they sure don't make people like him anymore. Despite all the bad luck that severely damaged his reputation in Hollywood -- even Citizen Kane did not make any money -- he kept right on going, acting in some very marginal as well as exceptional films to keep financing his own movies. It was abundantly clear to him that to make money he had to cater to idiots, but he refused to do that. It definitely makes me want to watch Citizen Kane for something like the 10th time (and to hunt down some of the more obscure films that were released in Europe only).

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bob Schnell

    Barbara Leaming's biography of Orson Welles is now at the top of my biography list. Not only did Welles contribute vast amounts of time and personal information, but his advice to put the biographer in the story was spot on. The short chapters of Ms. Leaming's personal anecdotes of dealing with her subject's often unpredictable moods and actions really added depth to the overall persona of Orson Welles. Along with the reminisces and tales from many of Welles' friends, family and foes, I can't im Barbara Leaming's biography of Orson Welles is now at the top of my biography list. Not only did Welles contribute vast amounts of time and personal information, but his advice to put the biographer in the story was spot on. The short chapters of Ms. Leaming's personal anecdotes of dealing with her subject's often unpredictable moods and actions really added depth to the overall persona of Orson Welles. Along with the reminisces and tales from many of Welles' friends, family and foes, I can't imagine a more complete picture. My favorite parts of Orson Welles' life story as presented here are generally when he is behaving badly. His sojourn in Rio at the request of the US government stands out. However, there is also much to be learned here about the inner workings of Hollywood and Broadway, where the search for funding can be as much effort as actually producing a finished product. Through it all, the reader's perception of Orson Welles will likely change multiple times. From precocious brat to workaholic genius to bad boy to sympathetic outcast, it is a funhouse hall of mirrors that reflects more than just the larger than life man we think we know from Citizen Kane and War of the Worlds.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

    This book is a fairly thorough review of Orson Welles' life, and in particular his background. But there was so much emphasis on his childhood and early years, it makes the rest of his life zip by. One thing I particularly didn't like about this biography is that the author very rarely cites the date of anything, so as a reader you have no idea if the Orson Welles project you're reading about was in the 1940s or 50s, or for that matter, the 60s. It was written while Welles was still alive, but ( This book is a fairly thorough review of Orson Welles' life, and in particular his background. But there was so much emphasis on his childhood and early years, it makes the rest of his life zip by. One thing I particularly didn't like about this biography is that the author very rarely cites the date of anything, so as a reader you have no idea if the Orson Welles project you're reading about was in the 1940s or 50s, or for that matter, the 60s. It was written while Welles was still alive, but (unknown to all) shortly before his death. But a newer biography could shed more light on his relationship (or lack thereof) with his children, and rely less heavily on his "mentor" Skippy and a former executive assistant, who seems to be the source for almost every anecdote in at least 2 chapters.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Don

    great wealth, Kenosha, praised at youth as genius min public school, age 9 lost mom found sex, doctor for unusual children, repeat lurid dreams, play doctor, vacant father, watch porno as child, too much adulation, father drunk dead 58, high opinion of self as actor, phony left wing radicals of nyc he said, taxes owed leave country, like any other pervert.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kek-w Kek-w

    Awesome Orson - he's one of my heroes anyway (this is not the first biography of his I've read and certainly won't be the last!), but this one was enlivened by his own willing (and witty) participation. Well-written and engaging. Orson's life remains unique and inspirational.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Stephan

    It's very inspiring to read about Welles' beginning and early efforts. He's an inspiration to all independent minded theater artists. He may have been megalomaniacal but he led the way. Also intriguing to read about the period when Broadway was still the focus of theatrical efforts.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Paul Spence

    Barbara Leaming wrote this biography of the great actor and director Orson Welles with his cooperation, and as you might expect it is full of quotes from Welles and of his side of things in general. It’s a sympathetic portrait and as such includes a laudatory portrait of his life with a special emphasis on his unique artistry which began to form during his early years of famous theatre productions in New York and radio productions like the The War of the Worlds show that’s probably the only radi Barbara Leaming wrote this biography of the great actor and director Orson Welles with his cooperation, and as you might expect it is full of quotes from Welles and of his side of things in general. It’s a sympathetic portrait and as such includes a laudatory portrait of his life with a special emphasis on his unique artistry which began to form during his early years of famous theatre productions in New York and radio productions like the The War of the Worlds show that’s probably the only radio show many people have ever heard of from that time when radio was such a popular form of entertainment. It also chronicles his move to Hollywood, his study of film, and his triumphant first movie, Citizen Kane, one of the most highly praised and influential films ever made, though it was not a success when it was released in 1941. From there it was mostly struggle and decline as Welles had to take acting jobs and wine endorsements in order to raise money for subsequent film and theatre projects which didn’t yield much of lasting importance and were a stunning about face for someone who had been driven to work in a Rolls Royce limousine in his early twenties. Leaming has some very good insights, among them her idea that this director who is praised as a fantastic auteur of unique genius, and someone who spent so much of his life at odds with the Hollywood Establishment and its representatives really required the immense resources--financial, artistic, technological--of the studio system in order to realise the full potential of his artistic vision. As an independent filmmaker he floundered but with the president of Hollywood studio RKO backing him he could employ lavish sets with ceilings, special cameras and film capable of deep focus and even he himself, as an actor and star, underwent extensive makeup-enhanced transformations which allowed him to create his personal style which called attention to the way movies tell a story and brought a new self-consciousness to cinema. The book also details his personal life and relationships, including his marriage to Rita Hayworth, his partnership with John Houseman and formative influences from his early life growing up in Wisconsin and Chicago. It’s very Orson-centric (not like his masterpiece Citizen Kane with its multiple perspectives) and the author clearly admires her subject but it is also a full portrait giving a thorough account of the man as actor, director and hustler.

  10. 4 out of 5

    nbadarthmaul

    audiobook. fittingly self-reflexive considering its subject, great quotes from the man himself, and I finally learned what brechtian means

  11. 5 out of 5

    David Fulmer

    Barbara Leaming wrote this biography of the great actor and director Orson Welles with his cooperation, and as you might expect it is full of quotes from Welles and of his side of things in general. It’s a sympathetic portrait and as such includes a laudatory portrait of his life with a special emphasis on his unique artistry which began to form during his early years of famous theater productions in New York and radio productions like the The War of the Worlds show that’s probably the only radi Barbara Leaming wrote this biography of the great actor and director Orson Welles with his cooperation, and as you might expect it is full of quotes from Welles and of his side of things in general. It’s a sympathetic portrait and as such includes a laudatory portrait of his life with a special emphasis on his unique artistry which began to form during his early years of famous theater productions in New York and radio productions like the The War of the Worlds show that’s probably the only radio show many people have ever heard of from that time when radio was such a popular form of entertainment. It also chronicles his move to Hollywood, his study of film, and his triumphant first movie, Citizen Kane, one of the most highly praised and influential films ever made, though it was not a success when it was released in 1941. From there it was mostly struggle and decline as Welles had to take acting jobs and wine endorsements in order to raise money for subsequent film and theater projects which didn’t yield much of lasting importance and were a stunning about face for someone who had been driven to work in a Rolls Royce limousine in his early twenties. Leaming has some very good insights, among them her idea that this director who is praised as a fantastic auteur of unique genius, and someone who spent so much of his life at odds with the Hollywood Establishment and its representatives really required the immense resources--financial, artistic, technological--of the studio system in order to realize the full potential of his artistic vision. As an independent filmmaker he floundered but with the president of Hollywood studio RKO backing him he could employ lavish sets with ceilings, special cameras and film capable of deep focus and even he himself, as an actor and star, underwent extensive makeup-enhanced transformations which allowed him to create his personal style which called attention to the way movies tell a story and brought a new self-consciousness to cinema. The book also details his personal life and relationships, including his marriage to Rita Hayworth, his partnership with John Houseman and formative influences from his early life growing up in Wisconsin and Chicago. It’s very Orson-centric (not like his masterpiece Citizen Kane with its multiple perspectives) and the author clearly admires her subject but it is also a full portrait giving a thorough account of the man as actor, director and hustler.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Reid

    "Rose-bud... Rose-bud..." I liked the first half a lot when I read it long ago, but for some reason I lost interest about half way through. She's a good writer, and he's a fascinating character. Thumbs up if you're interested in the alter ego of Charles Foster Kane. The one thing I recall was that when Welles had house guests he would put a chemical in his pool that would cause visible coloration of billowing urine.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Michael P.

    I have been reading a lot about Orson Welles lately and find that most biographies dip into his life here and there, even when they seem to go from cradle to grave. The writers just do not tell you about the bits they leave out and if they mention those bits, they only include the details that interest them, not necessarily the details that are interesting. This preamble is by way of explaining that Barbara Leaming seems obsessed by some of the things that matter least to me, such as Welles as a I have been reading a lot about Orson Welles lately and find that most biographies dip into his life here and there, even when they seem to go from cradle to grave. The writers just do not tell you about the bits they leave out and if they mention those bits, they only include the details that interest them, not necessarily the details that are interesting. This preamble is by way of explaining that Barbara Leaming seems obsessed by some of the things that matter least to me, such as Welles as an object of homosexual desire and all the gay sex that went on around him, plus and all the women Welles took to bed and took in other places. I am far more interested in his career and the art he produced than Leaming. I am sure that many people will find this a 5 star book. It is only "OK" for my interest.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Dumcum

    Less of a biography, and more of an alibi, Leaming takes Welles’ own explanations for his string of “bad luck” over the last 40 years of his career without challenging him for his string of bad decisions. Still, it leaves you wondering “what might have been” if Welles had ever learned to match his undeniable talent with a bit more personal discipline.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    #101 of 120 books pledged to read during 2018. Good comprehensive biography; I'm deducting one star since Orson Welles gave his complete cooperation to the book, completed about a year before his death. I feel the author downplayed his flaws and faults as a result, but the sections on "Citizen Kane" and on his early years are particularly compelling.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    A brilliant biography of the troubling genius of Orson Welles.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Pablo

    Excelente biografía de la estudiosa Leaming. Llena de detalles nutritivos e informaciones inéditas.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Francesca

    Amazing book about a brilliant artist that humanizes the towering myth. Lots of gossip and humorous details. Highly recommended! (I listened to the audio version of this book.)

  19. 5 out of 5

    Derek James Baldwin

    Engrossing if relatively uncritical biography of the great man. It pulls off the trick of managing to still have things to say about the many years after Orson had already peaked.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Leonor Pires

  21. 5 out of 5

    tpsilopoulos

  22. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ed

  24. 5 out of 5

    Erin Allen

  25. 4 out of 5

    Mark Dickman

  26. 4 out of 5

    Artemis Eclectica

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jim

  28. 4 out of 5

    Mike Maginot

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tjaša Kolenko

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ayden

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