Author: Peter Bogdanovich
(549 pages, 1998)
The legends of Orson Welles, the renowned director of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, mostly plague rather than applaud him. Many people and critics assume him to be egotistical, smug, micromanaging, and self-indulgent. Peter Bogdanovich’s This is Orson Welles, however, strives to “correct the false impressions about nearly everything that had happened in [Welles’s] life and career” (xiv). But this collection of interviews becomes not just a portrait of Orson’s personality, but also one of a deep, everlasting friendship between him and Bogdanovich.
Like Nicholas Ray’s unique autobiography I was Interrupted, This is Orson Welles is impressionistic. This meaning that although divided by chapters, the book moves unsystematically from chummy, digressive banter about movies to thoughtful and highly personal confessions about their lives and careers. This particular loose structure bestows the book with a deliberately casual flow to show that these interviews weren’t just strictly business but a willing, happily rambling expression of their companionship.
This structure was effective because it allowed Welles to unfold his personality naturally. But whether this is a depiction of the true Welles is a tricky question. This is Orson Welles is like a typical interactive documentary: while directly engaging with the subject, it cannot simply present the subject’s “true self”, but represent it through the author’s interpretation. But Bogdanovich only admits this intention in his introduction, aptly entitled “My Orson”.
Following that is the title “This is Orson Welles”, a statement that dominates the conversations between Bogdanovich and Welles, because the dialogue is infused with the matter-of-fact, nothing very speculative. It wants to show how Welles truly is (as Welles says in the book: “I agreed to this so we could get the record straight, so I’m playing it straight” (141)).
This alludes to an important distinction between This is Orson Welles and I was Interrupted: the role of authorship. I noted in my I was Interrupted book report that “Ray never empowers himself as some avuncular, all-knowing genius. In fact, that would be very unlike Ray: to be a voice of final authority, when he spent most of his career refusing to compromise to the pandering of Hollywood”.
While Welles was also an iconoclast, his presence in This is Orson Welles is less modest. The irony is that in attempt to vindicate himself from infamy, he reaffirms that status. It is even more ironic that Welles was criticized for hogging the ownership of his productions and, in This is Orson Welles, he inadvertently elbows his way in as the primary authorial voice. It is no mystery, therefore, that Welles claims this to be his real autobiography.
In all fairness, this is expected in an interview: the subject has more of a presence than the questioner. Furthermore, Bogdanovich gives such high praise of Welles that this irony doesn’t seem pejorative. Nevertheless, an important question must be asked about This is Orson Welles: is it really revealing the true Welles, or is it just producing another (albeit unprecedented) myth – one of a damaged, sensitive, and self-deprecating Orson? We may speculate, but I think the objective of This is Orson Welles is less ambiguous. It wants to take a legend, make it fact, and, to spin-off a John Ford (one of Welles’s heroes) movie, print the fact.