THERE IT STANDS, THE FAMILIAR colossus, atop most lists of all-time greatest movies. And aside from the breadth and wit of the thing, its brooding on the very American subjects of power and celebrity, there is a reason why Citizen Kane is often named the world's best film: because it wants to be. Critics and audiences still respond to its eagerness to create a unique world and to be recognized for this grand achievement. The film both pants for approval and demands to be approached in awe. Glowing with boyish brazenness, Kane is an inspiration to all who see it, especially filmmakers. Here, it says, is what you can do with youth, a blank check and a little genius. A big genius, that is. The first words on the screen herald him with astounding bravado: "A Mercury production by Orson Welles."
Welles was just 25 when he directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in his first film, a veiled biography of newspaper potentate William Randolph Hearst. Yet so controversial was Kane before its release in 1941, and so overwhelming its pressure on Welles' reputation, that it can be seen as the apex of his career, perhaps of Hollywood's Golden Age. It surely makes the man worth one more biography, Simon Callow's Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (Viking; $29.95), and the film worth a long documentary look, The Battle over Citizen Kane by Thomas Lennon and Michael Epstein, on PBS's The American Experience next Monday. These solidly researched works revive a thrilling era in American theater and film--a five-year span dominated by the Boy Wonder from Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Kane's beguiling arrogance and neediness come straight from its creator. As Callow meticulously shows, George Orson Welles knew acclaim and misuse from early childhood. Declared a genius at three, staging Shakespeare in a toy playhouse at five, walking on water in his wading pool--the legend goes something like that--he was adrift in a strained family. His opera-loving mother died when he was nine, his suavely alcoholic father three years later. Welles would memorialize his mother in Kane and find father-sponsors in his prep-school principal, Broadway's John Houseman, RKO's George Schaefer. He would also make himself a father figure, at 20 playing men of 80. From early days, then, Welles was one wily orphan. Who was left to love him? Only the rest of the world.
Welles had the star quality of some tribal monster-god. Ten pounds at birth, he just kept growing, especially the head, Churchillian even in youth. But he had more. Before Sinatra, Welles was the Voice: "softly thunderous," Irish actor Micheal Mac Liammoir called it, "like a regretful oboe." Intimate, intimidating, sonorous, it almost mooed with mellowness.
Like Kane, Welles exerted all his charm, bluster and infinite energy to win love. He was indeed a genius at getting theater people to do what he wanted. Callow admiringly calls Welles "a creative opportunist without peer," fashioning art from the sweat of many and daring to call it all his. A lifelong credit hog, Welles could indeed do it all. His sin was that he wanted people to think he did it all alone.