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Rosebud: The Story of Orson Wells

Rosebud: The Story of Orson Wells

by David Thomson
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

"Easily the best book on Orson Welles." —The New Yorker

Orson Welles arrived in Hollywood as a boy genius, became a legend with a single perfect film, and then spent the next forty years floundering. But Welles floundered so variously, ingeniously, and extravagantly that he turned failure into "a


A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

"Easily the best book on Orson Welles." —The New Yorker

Orson Welles arrived in Hollywood as a boy genius, became a legend with a single perfect film, and then spent the next forty years floundering. But Welles floundered so variously, ingeniously, and extravagantly that he turned failure into "a sustaining tragedy"—his thing, his song. Now the prodigal genius of the American cinema finally has the biographer he deserves. For, as anyone who has read his novels and criticism knows, David Thomson is one of our most perceptive and splendidly opinionated writers on film.

In Rosebud, Thomson follows the wild arc of Welles's career, from The War of the Worlds broadcast to the triumph of Citizen Kane, the mixed triumph of The Magnificent Ambersons, and the strange and troubling movies that followed. Here, too, is the unfolding of the Welles persona—the grand gestures, the womanizing, the high living, the betrayals. Thomson captures it all with a critical acumen and stylistic dash that make this book not so much a study of Welles's life and work as a glorious companion piece to them.

"Insightful, controversial, and highly readable—Rosebud is biography at its best." —Cleveland Plain Dealer

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Prowling the darkened theaters and sun-scorched highways, gilded estates, sets and backdrops of Tinseltown, Esquire film columnist Thomson delivers an offbeat and often trenchant spin on the culture of Hollywood. This collection of essays and fictional riffs written over the last 20 years, mostly for such magazines as Film Comment and Movieline, depicts Hollywood as a ghost towna place of artifice and illusion, haunted by dead movie stars, glamorized violence and sleepwalking executives: "They know the art and business are dead, as dead as Norman's mother," Thomson writes in his freewheeling opening essay, "20 Things People Like to Forget About Hollywood." The title piece is a bittersweet hymn to Mullholland Drive, the highway cresting the Santa Monica Mountains and named after William Mullholland, the L.A. water department robber baron who inspired the screenplay of Chinatown. Other essays map out the terrain below: an abortive interview with a coked-up film diva; the diary of a hapless Japanese executive who watches his company, Sony, lose billions at the hands of producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber. A font of film lore and trivia, Thomson inflects his essays with details of his personal life, as well as with his sometimes tendentious opinions. Whether he's channeling the voice of Cary Grant or musing about the death of a friend, the breakup of his own marriage or the business of filmmaking and celebrity culture, Thomson remains a captivating critic of the dream factoryand an unabashed fan. (Oct.) FYI: In October, Vintage will reissue Thomson's Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, a biography that PW called: "A vast, almost novelistic examination of the showman's rich and ultimately deep and frustrating life." ($15, 480p ISBN 0-679-77283-9)
Library Journal
Thomson, author of the terrific Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick (LJ 11/1/92) and many other film books, weighs in here with his own take on another legendary film figure. It must inevitably be compared with Simon Callow's ambitious Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (LJ 11/15/95), which, as the first of two volumes, covers only through the 1941 release of Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, Thomson's single volume on an entire life seems rushed by comparisononly 50 pages are devoted to the last 27 years. Little new ground is broken here; even Thomson's usually bright insights seem secondhand and pedestrian. Unless your patrons are begging for more Wellesiana, this is an optional purchase.Thomas J. Wiener, editor, "Satellite DIRECT"
Kirkus Reviews
Eccentric biography of an even more eccentric genius.

Following scores of biographies and critical analyses on legendary filmmaker Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, etc.) with yet another life story must have been a daunting task, even for so clever and prolific a film historian as Thomson (Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, 1992, etc.). Notably, Rosebud has been closely preceded by the massive first volume of Simon Callow's two- volume biography (Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, 1996). Thomson, in his far shorter single volume, can't begin to compete with the dense details of Callow's work. Instead he tries a different tack: He blends biography with quirky digressions and diversions. Sometimes he directly addresses the reader (occasionally in the sonorous tones of a Wellesian narrator), and sometimes he conducts imaginary conversations with his "publisher"—all in an attempt to fathom the compelling, self-destructive personality of his subject. Unfortunately, these asides are often coy, superficial, or redundant. But as he moves deeper into Welles's film work, the digressions begin to drop away, as if Thomson were only distracting himself while dealing with Welles's theater and radio work, in which he's clearly not terribly interested (and on which Callow is brilliant). When he reaches the films Thomson begins to shine. He richly conveys the excitement that the films still generate, and gives provocative insights into their meanings. History and analysis deftly merge in an effective presentation of Welles's erratic final years. Still, the result is more satisfying in patches than as a whole. Perhaps Thomson should have found a forum other than biography in which to express his love of Orson Welles.

A mulligan stew of a book that is best read as a complement to, rather than as a substitute for, other books on Welles.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.68(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.32(d)

Meet the Author

London-born David Thomson graduated from Dulwich College and the London School of Film Technique. He has taught film studies at Dartmouth College, is on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival, and is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, Film Comment, Los Angeles, and The New Republic. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children.

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