Legacies can be tricky, both in terms of literally ensuring the responsible transfer of valuable property once someone has died and in figuratively handing off something of significance to future generations. For Orson Welles, his legacy has been a bit of mixed bag. As a director and an actor, there are few in Western cinema as frequently linked with the appellations ‘genius’ and ‘ahead of his time’ as Welles is. Deserving or not, his 1941 film “Citizen Kane” is more or less the default number one on most “Best” lists ranking American movies, and 1958’s “Touch of Evil” simultaneously punctuated the golden age of film noir and influenced any number of latterday auteurs who would try to do the genre justice––from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino.
However, in answer to the question as to whether it is better to burn out or fade away, Orson Welles appeared to try to do both. He bookended his precocious achievements of the ‘40s and ‘50s with a series of roles towards the end of his career in which he did little more than caricature himself. Cameos in pop-cultural offerings such as “Magnum, P.I.” and “The Muppet Movie” as well as voice over work as a planet-eating robot in “Transformers: The Movie” and as a shill for frozen peas banked more on his standing as a recognizable public figure than they did on what the icon might bring to a respective role. Well, that’s not fair. Robots and peas certainly gained something from Welles’ incomparably robust speaking voice.
But the nadir of his professional life can perhaps be accurately dated to the moment he agreed to become the spokesman for Paul Masson. In multiple takes, the screen legend comes off as drunk, or at least attempting to cope with some kind of impairment, as he tries to explain the quality of this Californian “shhampain.” This ad, along with the outtakes of ads he did for the frozen peas, have been as much a part of his legacy as his eminent film work.
Hopefully, at least for fans of Welles, this might change, possibly as soon as next May. In what might be the end of the storied battle between various parties claiming legal rights to the film, the New York Times reported yesterday that Royal Road Entertainment has secured the requisite agreements to purchase “The Other Side of the Wind,” Welles’ unfinished final film. The Los Angeles production company hopes to have the film ready to screen by May 6 of next year, what would have been Orson Welles’ one-hundredth birthday.
Contained on almost 1,100 reels that have been in the possession of Beatrice Welles, Orson’s daughter, since the director’s death in 1985, the film stars John Huston and Oja Kodar. Shot between 1969 and 1976, it is said that Welles worked “obsessively” to complete the film and that he financed it himself with the money he’d made by taking on those less-than-laudable roles on television. That is, no matter this film’s intrinsic qualities, perhaps it will redeem a former genius for his questionable choices later in life. As a story, it has a Welles feel to it: a gifted artist works frantically and outside convention to complete what he believes might be his masterpiece. After decades of speculation, filmgoers will finally have an opportunity to see what Welles’ efforts accomplished.
Worst case? The film is a trainwreck, in which case the public can resume without regret its belly laughing at Orson Welles, or anyone doing a halfway decent impression of him, saying “frozen peas.”