From Publishers Weekly
With his passion for self-invention and his fascination with larger-than-life heroes, legends and charlatans of literature, Orson Welles-filmmaker, actor, magician-"lived a life of allegory," writes Conrad in his interpretive biography. The author of two previous books of film criticism, including one on the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Conrad draws parallels between Welles and the characters he played, revealing how the errant genius was the architect of his own mythology. Orphaned at 15, Welles reinvented himself as an art-worshipping student of Shakespeare, a playwright, he insisted, who spoke the language of the common man. His own cinematic manifestations, including the irrepressible Charles Foster Kane, were, according to Conrad, studies in his own attempt to measure his various personas. Each chapter is dedicated to a character doubling as Welles's alter ego: Faust, Falstaff, Harry Lime from The Third Man, Kane and others in whom Welles found and lost himself. At times the book veers into ponderous explications of Welles' various endeavors, but, with depth and scrupulous detail, it offers a portrait of the enigmatic artist as both cosmically gifted and insufferably self-indulgent. Even his tumultuous marriage to Rita Hayworth seemed an exercise in mythmaking, as Welles transformed the earthy beauty into an ethereal blonde goddess for The Lady from Shanghai. Yet, as the book incisively points out, despite his many incarnations, Welles remained a complex mystery to himself. While filming Don Quixote, Conrad recalls, Wells dubbed the voices of both Quixote and Sancho, identifying intellectually with the former and physically with the latter. "As the imitator of all his fictional selves," writes Conrad, Welles was a confused and reckless genius, capable of great darkness and great light.
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Orson Welles achieved early, revolutionary success with "Citizen Kane," only to follow that film with nearly half a century of false starts and compromised productions. The great, self-sabotaging Welles remains one of cinema's lasting enigmas. Conrad doesn't attempt a standard biography; instead he considers the man through the archetypes on which he drew as an actor and director—Falstaff, Don Quixote, Faust. It's a brilliant way to explore this mercurial prodigy who conceived of his life in mythic terms and (the other side of this coin) told frequent lies about it. Conrad, an Oxford don whose books include an unconventional study of Hitchcock, writes with erudite agility, making excursions into Romantic poetry, Shakespeare, and the history of radio and film. The result is an idiosyncratic monument to Welles, one that both explains and amplifies the legend.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker