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Welles: Magic and Storytelling : BIOGRAPHY : ROSEBUD: The Story of Orson Welles, By David Thomson (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 463 pp.)

June 30, 1996|Jan Herman | Jan Herman, a Times staff writer, is the author of "A Talent for Trouble," a biography of film director William Wyler

David Thomson makes a point of telling us he's nobody's fool in "Rosebud," least of all Orson Welles'. Despite "a life passed in awe" of the Great Man, his paradoxical demolition of his former idol is proof that a disillusioned idolater can make a sympathetic, if self-absorbed, biographer.

"Rosebud" bursts with compassion for the ambitious, self-destructive Welles, "who could not make a movie, or speak for more than a few minutes, without polishing his own legend." The tenderness can hardly be missed. Thomson tells us, albeit with off-putting pretension: "My anguish and reverence are intertwined and immense."

This biography is mischievous as well as self-important. More than sympathy, a skeptical cleverness pervades "Rosebud's" pages. It is the author's main signature. He's a doubting Thomson: sardonic, savvy, aphoristic, blunt when he feels like it, always articulate.

Given his larger-than-life subject, he inevitably does some polishing of his own. He writes of "Moby Dick--Rehearsed," a play Welles adapted from Melville and produced in the '50s: "I know that 'Moby Dick' was genius without ever having seen it."

Indeed, Welles is termed a genius so often, you'd think he was more profound than Beethoven, smarter than Einstein. Young Orson was not just a prodigy "in matters of mind, learning and assertion"--he grew up into an Ahab-like "genius who had set himself in rivalry with God."

Tales of the phenom are common. Peter Noble reported in "The Fabulous Orson Welles" (1956) that at 18 months the miraculous babe told Dr. Maurice Bernstein, "The desire to take medicine is one of the greatest features which distinguishes men from animals." That's what the good doctor (later to become "Dada" to Orson) said he said.

Frank Brady reported in "Citizen Welles" (1989) that, at age 8, Orson wrote a thesis called "The Universal History of Drama" and, at 10, was critiquing Nietzsche.

As a schoolboy he wrote, directed or starred in 30 plays at Todd School in Woodstock, Ill., and otherwise dominated his peers, hardly a friend among them. He then set out to astonish the world.

By subtitling "Rosebud" the story and not the life, Thomson is making a categoric distinction between this biography and its many predecessors. There are easily a baker's dozen, most recently Simon Callow's "The Road to Xanadu," the first volume of what is likely to be the definitive life of Welles.

Thomson writes, "The walls that separate biography, autobiography and romance are not as distinct as the areas in a bookstore. No matter the amount of research that has been gathered and digested for the work of nonfiction, still the story has to be told. Readers want story: They want things to hang together. Readers love rosebuds."

No ordinary Hollywood scribe, Thomson has always shown remarkable versatility: expert film scholar, trenchant critic, encyclopedic historian and novelist. But the facts, if not the piquant trappings of "Rosebud," are familiar. This puts a bit of a crimp in the freshness of the material.

Born George Orson Welles in Kenosha, Wis., in 1915, Orson was orphaned at 16, went off to Ireland at 17 and bluffed his way onto the stage at Dublin's Gate Theatre for his professional debut. He showed heady talent, manly voice and--almost as important--the sort of youthful beauty that appealed to the theatrical mentors who hired him.

Welles later described himself during this period as "the Lily Langtry of the homosexual set"--in other words, adored but unattainable. This leads Thomson into a meditation on the possibility that Welles was a repressed homosexual. (Incidentally, Welles was married four times, once to Rita Hayworth; he almost married Dolores Del Rio, another beauty; and he was notorious for his affairs with many actresses.)

The up-and-coming actor, writer and soon-to-be director returned to New York from Dublin, notices preceding him, and was offered the right introductions, to Thornton Wilder and Alexander Woollcott in particular. With the instincts of a born coquette and the skills of a witty self-promoter--to say nothing of his silver-tongued theatrical gifts--Welles was a slam dunk. In short order, he was barnstorming the country with Katherine Cornell and Basil Rathbone, doing Shakespeare and Shaw.

Thomson recounts all this and the rest of the landmarks: meeting John Houseman, who became Welles' closest collaborator and eventually--Welles chose to believe--his nemesis; working as a radio actor during the Depression; directing for the Negro Theatre Project, where he made a big splash in Harlem with an all-black, voodoo-style "MacBeth"; his and Houseman's creation of the vanguard Mercury Theatre; the famous "War of the Worlds" radio hoax that had thousands believing that Martians had landed; the nonpareil invitation to Hollywood; the making of "Citizen Kane"; and the long, sad, self-inflicted decline.

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