Chimes Past Midnight: The Evolving Legacy of Orson Welles
“How much obligation do you feel to a mass audience?” The question comes from a woman in a packed lecture hall, indistinguishable amongst the eager crowd of onlookers. She’s speaking to Orson Welles, and the year is 1981. Welles, now in the latter half of his 60’s, with a full beard, and hair peppered by a few streaks of black, chews over the question for a moment, and looks a tad disgruntled by the thought before replying. “I would love to have a mass audience,” he lobs back, convinced he’s got a winner, “you’re looking at a man who’s been searching for a mass audience…and if I had one I’d be obliged.” He’s right, and the audience laughs along with him before breaking out in applause.
It’s a typical late-life Welles witticism, disarming and self-deprecating, while maintaining a cool undercurrent of tired frustration. He was speaking to a group of film students at the University of Southern California after a screening of his 1962 film The Trial, which Welles himself considered the best he ever made. Fittingly, the comment itself wouldn’t be heard by much of an audience, released, not in his planned behind-the-scenes picture, Filming the Trial, but as part of Orson Welles: The One Man Band. The film is a mix of archival and unseen footage about Welles, and was released to little fanfare in 1995. It was assembled by his wife Oja Kodar, as a means of commemorating the tenth anniversary of his death.
More fitting is the content of the film itself; though partly a primer on Welles’ many unfinished projects, One Man Band is more interested in the man than his craft, so far as the two can be separated. It opens with Welles striding onto a stage, and he’s joined by a few stagehands before producing a duck from an empty barrel, as though it were his own special way of saying “hello”. When we return to that university building filled with prospective young filmmakers, the questions focus mainly on personal insights as opposed to industry ones. The film closes with a combination of Welles’ most popular sign-offs, fading into black while reminding you that, “this is Orson Welles, remaining, as always, obediently yours.”
It’s an appropriate goodbye, both for his wife and the viewer at home, as the further we get from Welles death, the more his presence is missed. While the relative merits of the Welles canon will be subject of fierce debate for generations to come, the public’s impression of Welles continues to evolve in the aftermath of his passing. Ask one person and you’ll hear about the child prodigy who conquered every medium he applied himself to, only to be sabotaged by studio jealousy and backstabbing. Ask another, and the image of a controlling, gluttonous fraud will be almost impossible to erase from your mind, given the number of such accounts.
He’s an inescapably contrarian figure, all the more so thanks to how little he disguised his ability to be the villain, something friend Peter Bogdanovich knew when telling Welles “no one ever wants to play [Brutus] – but you1.” It’s a challenge to try and understand a man who “was not his own record keeper; he preferred the myth and fun of making up stories2,” to quote David Thomson, one of many biographers who has tried to piece together a stabile truth about Welles through all the hearsay. Thomson is in common company among those who, in the decades after Welles’ death, have attempted to pin down what ought to be our final opinion of the man, but only a persona as incendiary as Welles’ could make that task such an ongoing affair.
By the time of his twilight years, it would seem the cultural consensus of Welles had already been reached. His increasingly erratic production schedule as director saw only five films completed between 1960 and 1985, two of which were documentaries, and one a made-for-TV movie. In between those completed works were a litany of unfinished passion projects, including a Don Quixote adaptation started with decade’s old footage, and the semi-autobiographical The Other Side of the Wind, which filmed in fits and starts. Supporting these myriad ventures meant assembling funds by any means necessary; Welles had been all but blacklisted among studios over the course of his early years in Hollywood, and his less than triumphant return to American cinema with 1958’s Touch of Evil established his status as box office poison.
Sometimes cashing a cheque meant borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars from industry pals, of which repayment was often uncertain, or making guest appearances in films of varying note. Other, more infamous ventures involved getting into bed with any and every product that wanted to profit off of Welles’ distinctive voice and domineering figure. Though these were simple jobs meant to pay the bills, his inability to finish any actual projects made these the appearances of “a famous public figure, an inescapable monument for himself3,” to quote Thomson; where once was an artist, now sat a washed-up movie star, cashing in as a grocery aisle pitchman. Findus frozen peas and Paul Masson wine remain two of his more memorable patrons, mostly thanks to widely disseminated footage of Welles squabbling backstage with the director, or drunken bloopers, the scandals over which largely eclipsed the ads themselves. All this, combined with Welles’ comic girth, made his winter years the subject of frequent lampooning.
Of all the imitators, John Candy’s impression of Welles on SCTV bares the most striking physical resemblance to the Welles of that period, seen practicing a holiday tribute ad with Liberace, only to flub his lines and berate the staff before making off with a turkey. He’d revive the character for the short-lived Billy Crystal Comedy Hour, this time playing on Welles’ penchant for magic by giving Crystal ridiculous requests in an effort to divine a number, only to lose interest -before the trick’s payoff-, at the promise of food backstage. The latter bit was filmed in 1982, suggesting that Welles’ appetite, love of magic and prima donna working antics were his most publicly identifiable traits. A decade after his death, the roasting continued largely unabated, but now in a medium that harkened back to his days as a New York theatre savant. Newspaper caricatures were among the earliest means of bringing Welles to an audience that didn’t frequent Broadway, and his post-mortem media revival would start with a pair of cartoons.
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