Orson Welles: A Biography by Barbara Leaming

This might be the most heartbreaking review I ever write. I discovered the golden age of radio, The War of the Worlds, and The Shadow through Orson Welles. I discovered Welles at the end of his life when I was 12, when he performed the voice of the monster planet Unicron in Transformers: The Movie. It’s not Citizen Kane, and it would never be anything remotely close. I get that, but that’s how I came to appreciate one of the greatest geniuses the entertainment world has ever known. My love of radio happened because of this man. This man changed my life and expanded my world.

This biography is truly something special because it has something that other biographies don’t have: Welles himself. Author Barbara Learning was able to contact and collaborate with Welles on this biography through means that typifies Welles’ life story, and he gave her free reign and resources because he understood that there is Welles the man, Welles the legend, and his own memory, none of which were in alignment. He was curious to learn about all three aspects. More insightful than the story of Welles’ life are the inserted dialogues between Welles and Learning, which adds both gravitas and that personal flourish that makes all the difference. Welles was an extraordinary man by any measure, and his life was as equally bizarre.

On a personal note… the epilogue shattered my childhood. After going through the highs and lows, after getting the personal reminiscences from greatness to virtual unemployment, the hardest part was hearing him refer to my first experience with him as “that horrible little project about Japanese robots that transform into vehicles and such” and how at least it’ll help him to buy groceries or something. It was one of the last things he performed before he passed, and he didn’t live long enough to see it released. I knew all along he wasn’t pleased with it, and I get it, I really do. I can see how a man of Welles’ star caliber might think that a string of voiceovers in commercials and cartoons would be something terrible, even after a long stretch of failure and unemployment. But to have his own commentary on it is rough. I like to think that it’s little projects like this that will ultimately lead people of later generations to find his work through the back alleys when they might otherwise not seek out the likes of Citizen Kane. After all, that’s how I discovered his work. And just like nobody could have predicted something like that, nobody could have predicted the kind of twists and turns Welles’ life would take. I thought I knew about Welles before. This book expanded on so much I only thought I knew. As biographies go, this one’s a treasure.

5 stars


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