As far as cults of personality go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as ruthlessly self-created as that of Orson Welles. A provocateur before he even made it into the movies, Welles’ cinematic ambitions were equally present in the personal stories and myths he created to shroud himself. While many of those tales—like the claim that he was the great-grandson of Gideon Welles, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy—proved to be entirely false, there are nevertheless plenty of odd stories that cropped up over the years, most of which feel like they belong in his movies—or someone’s, anyway. With the recent release of Richard Linklater’s Zac Efron and Christian McKay-starrer Me and Orson Welles, celebrating the young auteur’s staging of Julius Caesar in 1937, and an upcoming run of The Third Man at Film Forum, we decided it’d be appropriate to throw out five stories of Welles’ most entertaining antics over the years*, ranked in reverse order of satisfaction.
5. 18 Chili Dogs in One Sitting
Make no mistake about it, this man could eat. Towards the end of his life, the 6-footer weighed around 400 pounds. His legendary dinners consisted of two rare steaks and a pitch of scotch—for himself. “My doctor told me not to have intimate dinners for four,” he once famously quipped, “unless there are three other people there.” Welles’ most incredible gastronomic feat, however, centered around chili dogs at LA’s famous hot dog joint, Pink’s. Welles, in superhuman fashion, somehow managed to scarf down 18 chili dogs in one sitting—a venue record. For Welles, just another day at the office.
4. The Paul Masson Commercial
Welles was reduced to doing hack commercial work more and more towards the end of his life, in order to pay the bills. As Hollywood had essentially shunned him by the end, it was his only consistent revenue stream. And that basso profundo was a true thing of greatness. But Welles was infamous for his difficulty on these jobs; perhaps due to the indignity of it all, he developed the defense mechanism of getting completely plastered. Witness the outtakes from this commercial for California’s Paul Masson champagne, which features the man not three, but perhaps four or five sheets to the wind. The looks on the extras’ faces are priceless.
3. The Third Man Speech
1949: Orson Welles is on set for Carol Reed’s latest Brit Noir, The Third Man, in Vienna. Co-starring with his old buddy Joseph Cotten, Welles was very much in his element, especially as the character of Harry Lime, who has vanished, is perhaps dead, and whose absence the film revolves around. It was the kind of mythic role Welles was born to play. His entrance in the film is probably the greatest in screen history. But it was Lime’s “cuckoo clock” speech that the film will always be remembered for. Welles worked in some of the script—though legend has told it, at times, that he made it all up—but here certainly ad-libbed the speech’s magnificent ending. Nothing prepared could have better articulated his character’s cynical worldview. Arguing for instability as beneficial to society, he notes, “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Welles later said that the Swiss informed him that they had never made cuckoo clocks. No matter.
2. The Frozen Peas Commercial
“Sorry,” Welles says, “there’s no sentence in the English language that you can begin with ‘in’ and emphasize it.” And so the derision begins to take hold. There’s nothing quite as hilariously heartbreaking as listening to the studio recording of Welles arguing with the director of some lowball frozen peas commercial over his voice-over. “You don’t know what I’m up against,” he tells the director, regarding the script. “This is a lot of shit, you know that?” As the back-and-forth becomes more and more fraught with hostility, what we really hear unfolding is a great, great director protesting his (unfortunately) necessary suffering at the hands of a far lesser one. “The correct reading is the one I’m giving you,” Welles tells the director. As the tension continued to mount, Welles decided he’d simply had it, and ended up leaving the studio in protest. Sometimes the man’s dignity could only take so much.
F For Fake Trailer
1. F For Fake
The greatest Welles story of all goes something like this: in 1973, stumbling through a career where he simply couldn’t catch a break or complete a film that meant anything to him, the has-been (never-really-was?) movie director Orson Welles made what is the greatest American film ever produced (sorry, Citizen Kane and whoever did that one!). Neither narrative nor documentary, fact nor fiction, F For Fake can be classified as one thing and one thing only: pure cinema. A dizzyingly postmodern look at fakers, F For Fake follows, in theory, art forger Elmyr de Hory and fake-Howard-Hughes-biographer Clifford Irving. These brilliant charlatans are shown up, however, by the greatest con game of them all—cinema, and its chief American practitioner, one Orson Welles. But never fear—cinema’s nature as a deceptive medium is what lends it its inherent powers. As the famous Picasso quote—which appears in the film—goes, “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.”
*Due to overexposure, a certain radio broadcasting prank has been omitted from this list.
The Third Man plays at the Film Forum from Friday, December 18 - Tuesday, December 29.
F for Fake is available in a sweet Criterion edition on DVD.