Actor and director Orson Welles was just 26 years old in 1941 when he wrote and directed his first film, Citizen Kane. A dark, cinematically daring biopic in which Welles also starred, Citizen Kane is considered by many critics to be the greatest film ever made. To this day, Orson Welles remains a Hollywood icon. But according to a new book about Welles by his first-born daughter, there was one role he played inadequately. Preoccupied by his own genius, Welles could not be an ordinary, attentive father.
Unusual Name, Uncommon Relationship
Orson Welles' daughter, Christopher Welles Feder, once asked her father about her unusual first name. He replied, "Your name has a marvelous ring to it! You're the only girl in the world who is named Christopher!" That is one of the memories that Chris Welles Feder shares in her book, In My Father's Shadow. Although she has pursued a career as a writer, Feder says she had to wait many years before writing about her father.
"Because he was such a complicated man and we had a very uncommon relationship, I needed to gain some perspective in order to be able to really do justice to my subject," she says. "This is not really a book I could have written when I was younger. He died in 1985, so that is quite a few years ago. While he was alive, I was mainly trying to establish a more normal relationship with him and to be more a part of his everyday life. Of course that wasn't really possible because he was a man who lived for his work. He didn't really have time for personal relationships. I didn't understand this while he was alive."
Disappointment and Happiness
As a child, Chris Welles Feder was awed by her father, wondering where she fit in his life. They rarely lived under the same roof. She says there were many moments of disappointment – as when her father would promise to send a car to pick her up so they could have lunch together. It would never arrive. But she says she also had wonderful times with her dad.
"The times when I traveled with my father in Europe when I was a schoolgirl, those were, I think, our dearest moments together," she says. "And they had a tremendous impact on me and they really influenced me in many ways. My father was delighted to discover that I was very interested in art at that time. So he loved to take me around to all the museums and share with me his favorite artists and works of art. And these were just golden moments for me."
A Man of Principle
Chris Feder says that she wrote her book to reveal the true person behind the icon that her father became. Arrogant and blustering on the stage and screen, he was a man of great principle off it, in his personal life, she says.
"I don't think this is generally known about him, how politically involved he was, how lacking in prejudices he was, how hard he fought for causes that he believed in, such as promoting African American culture at a time when America was still very racist," she says.
Chris Welles Feder agrees with other Orson Welles biographers that her father was an artistic genius who was years ahead of his time.
'In the United States, only a small portion of his work was ever shown," she says. "Everyone knows 'Citizen Kane.' Everyone knows the 'Magnificent Ambersons' and perhaps 'Touch of Evil' and 'The Lady from Shanghai.' But the films that he made in Europe, which were quite extraordinary – beginning with 'Chimes at Midnight,' which he considered a masterpiece – these films are almost never shown in the U.S." Feder adds that many of her father's less-well-known projects, such as "F for Fake," were so-called "art films" that didn't fit the Hollywood standard for theatrical releases. "'F for Fake,' his film essay, is an amazing film, very unusual," Feder says. " With this film he was hoping to establish a new type of movie – an essay, not really a documentary but more of a personal essay. It was very disappointing to him when 'F for Fake' came out, nobody understood what it was. That was his dilemma; he was just years and years ahead of himself."
The Tough Times
It was in his later life, Feder says, that Orson Welles endured the toughest times of his career.
"It was almost impossible for him at that point to find financial backing for his many projects," she says. "He had lived in Europe for much of his middle years, and then he returned to the United States in the hope that he could work in television. He saw that as a great new medium for his art. But again what he was doing in television was so far ahead of itself that nobody understood it. So that never came to pass. He was reduced to doing things like voice-overs, narrating other people's documentaries, appearing on talk shows and commercials, all these things he did to pay the rent, to keep himself going. But he couldn't do what he most loved, which was to make movies."
In spite of these disappointments, Feder says, her father never lost his positive outlook.
"He had a very upbeat, hopeful, optimistic personality, and especially when he was very much at the top of his game - and even when I knew him later, as an old man when he had to deal with ill health," she says. "A lot of people don't realize how ill he was towards the end of his life. And he had to deal with a lot of disappointments. He never became bitter. He retained his hopeful nature and hoped tomorrow would be better. He would say, 'Don't feel sorry for me because they are going to love me when I'm dead.'"
And that's what's happened. Decades after his death in 1985 at the age of 70, Welles is still remembered, and his works revered. Chris Feder says she's proud of her father and hopes her book can inspire a younger generation to explore Orson Welles' artistic legacy.
In My Father's Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles, by Chris Welles Feder, is published by Algonquin Books.