I grew up on Golden Age Radio, I love to learn about a great many things, and I enjoy a wide variety of genres. Me, bored? Never!
This might be the most heartbreaking review I ever write. I discovered the golden age of radio, The War of the Worlds, and The Shadow through Orson Welles. I discovered Welles at the end of his life when I was 12, when he performed the voice of the monster planet Unicron in Transformers: The Movie. It's not Citizen Kane, and it would never be anything remotely close. I get that, but that's how I came to appreciate one of the greatest geniuses the entertainment world has ever known. My love of radio happened because of this man. This man changed my life and expanded my world.
This biography is truly something special because it has something that other biographies don't have: Welles himself. Author Barbara Learning was able to contact and collaborate with Welles on this biography through means that typifies Welles' life story, and he gave her free reign and resources because he understood that there is Welles the man, Welles the legend, and his own memory, none of which were in alignment. He was curious to learn about all three aspects. More insightful than the story of Welles' life are the inserted dialogues between Welles and Learning, which adds both gravitas and that personal flourish that makes all the difference. Welles was an extraordinary man by any measure, and his life was as equally bizarre.
On a personal note... the epilogue shattered my childhood. After going through the highs and lows, after getting the personal reminiscences from greatness to virtual unemployment, the hardest part was hearing him refer to my first experience with him as "that horrible little project about Japanese robots that transform into vehicles and such" and how at least it'll help him to buy groceries or something. It was one of the last things he performed before he passed, and he didn't live long enough to see it released. I knew all along he wasn't pleased with it, and I get it, I really do. I can see how a man of Welles' star caliber might think that a string of voiceovers in commercials and cartoons would be something terrible, even after a long stretch of failure and unemployment. But to have his own commentary on it is rough. I like to think that it's little projects like this that will ultimately lead people of later generations to find his work through the back alleys when they might otherwise not seek out the likes of Citizen Kane. After all, that's how I discovered his work. And just like nobody could have predicted something like that, nobody could have predicted the kind of twists and turns Welles' life would take. I thought I knew about Welles before. This book expanded on so much I only thought I knew. As biographies go, this one's a treasure.
Maybe I'm biased. Like so many others like me, Christopher Reeve has been a role model for me since Superman first hit the big screen. As I grew up, I got to learn about the man behind the Man of Steel, and his "can do" attitude continued to inspire. Between the accident that left him paralyzed and his death years later, Reeve's inner strength proved the title of this book to be true. Nothing is impossible.
So many years later, it's still heart-wrenching to hear him speak about his experiences in his own words, so it's no surprise this book packs quite the punch. At the same time, this is one of those stories that only he could tell with all of the humanity and personal conviction he could bring to bear. There's nothing sugar-coated here; the tragedy and the optimism are both as genuine as the man himself. This audiobook is written and presented in such a way that he's speaking directly to you.
Before the end of his life, Reeve was able to walk again, with assistance, and only a few steps at a time. But it did happen. The force of will to do that is unquestioningly great, and it's something few of us can fathom. This book helps to fill in the picture a bit, and to show that this level of commitment to an idea is not only human, it's within us all. Whatever the situation, whatever the misfortune, we are gifted with untold reserves that help us to adapt and to (as Reeve himself has said) "go forward." This is the legacy of Christopher Reeve. It's a message all of us deserve to hear.
The author states up front that rather than be the kind of detailed biography you can find anywhere else, this is specifically a look at Elizabeth Taylor's rise to stardom. I think that's a bit disingenuous, as much like any other famous Elizabeth in history, it's impossible to separate the lofty career from the personal life of the woman herself. One defines the other.
Everything that made Taylor who she was is put under the spotlight for this. Her parents and upbringing within the studio system are detailed, which helps to put her career as an independent actress into proper perspective. Her husbands, friends, colleagues, and even her detractors are all set into her orbit, their worlds revolving around her star. There are a great many quotes, anecdotes, and news clippings within that help round out the basic facts, but at the end of the day, Taylor's star power outshines everything, including the author's attempts to be unbiased. There are some private conversations that are seemingly quoted verbatim, which don't seem to have any supporting documentation, but they are believable and add to the already heightened personality of this story. How much is true? Where a Hollywood legend is concerned, who's to say? There's a great line in the Jimmy Stewart film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" that pretty much sums up the nature of this book:
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
That's not to say there aren't facts here. If anything, Taylor's life sometimes proves that fact is stranger than fiction, such is the nature of living at her level of prestige. Regardless, if you're interested in the glamour of Hollywood, bigger than life personalities, or just really fascinating stories from a world beyond the everyday 9 to 5, this one's a fun read.