Books I Love: “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles”
(This is the first in a series of posts to come introducing you to books that I’ve loved, with explanations why.)
Longtime readers of this blog already know that I’m a fan of the late, great filmmaker Orson Welles. This weekend I caught Welles’ last film, F for Fake, for the first time on cable (great movie, if you care) and the experience prompted me to pick up again a book I hadn’t read in a while: David Thomson’s biography “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles”.
Calling “Rosebud” a biography doesn’t really do it justice; the word probably conjures up in your mind images of monumentally dull thousand-page tomes. “Rosebud” is exactly the opposite: it doesn’t set out to recount every single event in Welles’ life. Instead, it uses lively prose to attempt to give you a flavor of the man’s personality, to give you a sense of what it must have been like to have been around him as he tore through Broadway, radio, and Hollywood.
This is an astute approach, because Welles’ story, more than most peoples’, is the story of his personality — both how it brought him fame and success and the price it exacted upon him. Welles was a visionary of such force and drive that by age 25 (!) he had been entrusted by a major studio with the resources to make his first film; and he used those resources to make Citizen Kane, still remembered as perhaps the single best movie ever.
The same drive that led him to the top, though, led him to alienate everyone around him; and the same voracious intellectual appetites that helped him to envision Kane drove him in so many directions at once that he would later become famous for never finishing his projects. By the time he died alone in 1985, he had become a kind of punchline, grossly overweight and earning a living pitching box wine and frozen peas on TV, a pale shadow of the dashing young visionary who had captivated and threatened Hollywood’s leading lights. After his death, though, a new generation discovered his work, and today he’s remembered among the great directors.
“Rosebud”, unlike most biographies, lingers not on Welles the man, but on the glory and tragedy of his life. Thomson’s prose, witty and erudite, is a pleasure to read. This biography is neither comprehensive nor academic; there are other works you can turn to if that’s what you’re looking for. What it is, though, is compelling, insightful, and just plain fun to read.
If you’re completely unfamiliar with Welles, you could do a lot worse than to start learning about the man and his work by reading “Rosebud”; it will give you a sense for why so many people (me included) are so fascinated by both, these many years later. And if you already know Welles, read the book anyway; you’ll discover whole new facets to the man’s life that you never appreciated before. Either way, “Rosebud” is a great take on a truly American story.