Orson Welles: An Object of Fun

DISCARD ORSON WELLES reads my copy of Joseph McBride’s Orson Welles. It’s an ex-library copy, and the librarian, in her zeal to decommission the book, stamped a red DISCARD no fewer than five times. On a photo of a stern Welles DISCARD bleeds through in reverse onto his forehead.

I laughed when I first saw that. It seemed to perfectly represent the public’s — and many critics’ — reception of Welles’s career, which often vacillated between indifference and hostility. Despite making Citizen Kane, Welles, for reasons too numerous to list here, earned a variety of unfavorable reputations, many of them unjust: an over budget spendthrift, the world’s youngest has-been, a tyrant, a liar, a director incapable of or unwilling to complete films, “Crazy Welles,” a glutton. During his life Welles certainly had his defenders, but the public image of him in later years was, and still is to some degree, that of a slovenly man advertising cheap wine.

If we agree that Google is representative of the public’s collective mind, then this detail is somewhat telling: when you start typing “Orson Welles” one of the first suggestions is “drunk.” Also “frozen peas.”

And so it happened, given his frequent commercial shilling, that Welles the filmmaker became eclipsed by Welles the pitchman. Though he had long been involved with advertisers — in the late 1930s his radio drama series Mercury Theatre on the Air was retitled The Campbell Playhouse (yes, the soup) — in later years these ads provided the most prevalent version of Welles. (In Europe his reputation fared much better.) The last Hollywood film Welles made was 1958’s Touch of Evil, and after that he made movies that few Americans knew existed, let alone saw.

So if no one saw these films, the natural assumption was that he was washed up. An obvious question to ask, if the Paul Masson spokesman is all you see, is, “The man who made Citizen Kane is doing that?”

The fact that Welles seemed to take any acting job that came his way didn’t help this perception of Welles as fallen artist. “Nobody in the world has acted in as many bad films as I have,” Welles said in 1982; of his last role, Planet Unicron in the 1985 animated film The Transformers, he angrily described to a biographer, “I played the voice of a toy. Some terrible robot toys from Japan that change from one thing to another…I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed…I tear myself apart on the screen.”

Despite how pathetic Welles’s final role was, at least his last performed line of film dialogue is defiant. If you can actually hear those garbled words, they are, “Destiny…you cannot destroy my destiny.”

All this of course led to parody. A good amount of ammunition came from the infamous “frozen peas tape,” the date of which is unknown (it could have been circulating as early as 1972). The tape may well document Welles’s blowhard nature, or it may be closer to Joseph McBride’s take in What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: “His arguing with the producers over tongue-twisting, absurdly written copy can also be read as evidence of his refusal to be pushed beyond certain limits of commercial shilling.” McBride also quotes Gary Graver, Welles’s cinematographer: “He’d get a text and look at me and say, ‘They’re not gonna have me say this, that this wine is finder than a Stradivarius!’ So he didn’t.”

John Candy’s SCTV impression drew inspiration from the frozen peas tape. To SCTV’s credit they didn’t make the sketch a series of fat jokes, the lowest hanging fruit imaginable and the most frequently mocked feature of Welles. (They do make a joke of that nature at the end, but its subtleness makes it all the more funny.)

The Critic, a decade after Welles’s 1985 death, still got mileage out of the frozen peas tape. (Maurice LaMarche, the actor who voices Welles here, also used this Welles voice for the character of Brain in Pinky and the Brain.)

Why did Welles participate in such commercial schlock, all but cementing himself as an object of mockery? The answer is obviously for the money, but the ends are a little more noble. He wasn’t hawking every product imaginable to support a gluttonous lifestyle; it was so that he could self-finance the films that he couldn’t possibly make within the confines of Hollywood: films he wanted to produce, with final cut, on his schedule. Of his unfinished Don Quixote, for instance, Welles’s position was, “It will be finished as an author will finish it — at my own good time. When I feel like it…and when it is released, it’s title is going to be When Are You Going To Finish Don Quixote?” You can see how he couldn’t work very well within the traditional Hollywood system.

So he prostituted himself with silly ads in order to self-finance his movies, which was a gargantuan task. You could more charitably liken it to something more innocent than prostitution: think of the clichéd woman who strips her way through college. (I don’t mean to introduce the image of Orson Welles as a stripper.) The choice was to either make Hollywood’s films or strip on the side in order to make his own. Welles decided on the latter and endorsed any photocopier or Japanese whiskey that came along.

Welles worked tirelessly on his own projects. Outside of the Hollywood system after Touch of Evil Welles completed five more films, with his own money or with European investors: The Trial, Chimes At Midnight (Welles’s Falstaff film was his favorite; Vincent Canby said it “may be the greatest Shakespearean film ever made, bar none”), The Immortal Story, F For Fake, and Filming Othello. If you are pressed for time, at least see the mischievous art world semi-documentary F For Fake, which is easily available. (As of this writing the entire film is on YouTube — but does anything good last?)

A big part of why many people assumed Welles was finished creatively was that so many of his films, often for financial reasons, went unfinished; years went by between releases, and in his final seven years he put out no films. But he was still working.

Of his many unfinished films, the one that holds the most intrigue is The Other Side of the Wind. Filmed between 1970 and 1976, Windtells the story of a 70-year-old movie director (played by John Huston) trying to make a comeback; the picture is made up of both black-and-white and color, 8mm film, stills, a film-within-a-film, and, perhaps most importantly, legal and financial difficulties surrounding its completion and release.

Joseph McBride (who also acts in Wind alongside director and fellow Welles scholar Peter Bogdanovich) offers this funny and illuminating anecdote in What Ever Happened To Orson Welles?: “I introduced myself when Huston emerged, telling him how happy I was that he was playing the role of Jack Hannaford and saying that I’d been waiting for him to show up for the last three years. With sudden alarm, Huston said, ‘You’ve been in this picture forthree years?’ Perhaps that was the moment he realized just what a surreal escapade he was getting himself into.”

(A rather tenuous but hilarious aside: Huston’s character was at least partly based on Hemingway, with whom Welles had an on and off friendship. Imagine how great it would be if their first encounter, as related by Welles in 1964, had been captured on film. Hemingway and Welles were both participating in a documentary on the Spanish Civil War; Welles made a suggestion about the narration Hemingway had written, and Welles was to read, at which point “[Hemingway] said, ‘You effeminate boys of the theatre, what do you know about real war?’ Well, taking the bull by the horns, I began to make effeminate gestures and I said to him, ‘Mister Hemingway, how strong you are and how big you are!’ That enraged him and he picked up a chair; I picked up another and, right there, in front of the images of the Spanish Civil War, as they marched across the screen, we had a terrible scuffle. It was something marvelous: two guys like us in front of these images representing people in the act of struggling and dying…We ended by toasting each other over a bottle of whiskey.”)

Welles often appeared on late night talk shows in the 1970s and until his death in 1985 (just hours before he died, he did an unusually gossipy interview on The Merv Griffin Show). One of the shows Welles most regularly appeared on was, somewhat surprisingly, The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. More often than not these were corny affairs not worth revisiting, but there are a handful of shining moments.

One such moment comes from Welles’s 1978 roasting of Jimmy Stewart. On that dais of retired and semiretired legends, Welles was one of the few with undiminished creative powers, hidden though they were from the public, and I wonder where his mind truly was as he delivered a speech both funny and poignant but with a sad, almost tragic undercurrent. As he paid touching tribute to Jimmy Stewart, was Welles, who directed Citizen Kane at age 25 and flowered quicker than anyone, thinking of Stewart, or of himself?

“The movie industry,” Welles says, “is sometimes called a jungle, but I think it’s a forest. A forest made up of a million different plants and trees and shrubs. And some of these plants have a brief day in the sun. They flower quickly–but they can’t seem to sustain. So they wither away. Hollywood has seen a lot of these.”

Josh Lieberman most recently wrote for The Awl about Bob Dylan-related things.

Orson Welles: An Object of Fun