By the 1980s, Orson Welles was alive, creative, charming, and essentially unemployed. He had spent the last decade working on a number of projects, only one of which (F for Fake) saw release. (The most famous of these 1970s projects, The Other Side of the Wind, may see release this year.) Ironically in a decade now remembered as a Golden Age for American directors, when Welles’ name was spoken with reverence on the film sets producing modern masterpieces, the man himself was living in rented houses in Arizona or Las Vegas, acting in small roles in bad movies and doing commercials.
It’s the commercials that contributed the most to the pop culture image of Orson Welles in his later years. This was the character John Candy would play on SCTV, or who Maurice LaMarche would morph into The Brain. If you weren’t a fan of the cinema, and this was an era largely before home video, where to see a Welles film meant probably going to a campus theatre, your knowledge of Welles came from TV. And there, Orson was a regular guest on the late-night talk shows and a regular face in commercials. It probably seemed like a sad and lonely end to a masterful career. (What we forget is that lots of big names did commercials in this era, including Laurence Olivier, who succeeded Welles as the spokesman for Paul Masson wine.)
Welles himself freely described commercials as his “grocery money” gig, and sometimes got quite involved with the theory of advertising. Other times, such as the famous incident when he showed up for work soaked to the gills were less flattering. But most of the time he showed up and did his job, just as he would in any acting gig in a less than stellar film. The only truly frustrating thing for him seemed to be, as time went on, he was being “directed too much” by people who didn’t have the talent.
This is one of the tremendous ironies of Orson Welles: he got everything in his career the “easy” way, by all external measures, but in his eyes, he paid his dues. So, a few years on the stage, a few years on the radio and an education (however brief) under an Oscar-winning cinematographer constituted a comprehensive education. He was also famously literate, devouring three books a day, and later criticized even the good modern directors for not reading enough. But Orson never went to College, never apprenticed in a trade for many years, wasn’t a member of a union other than the Director’s Guild and essentially took a high and privileged road to director’s chair. People who directed commercials, especially in those days, were journeyman freelancers, churning them out for a variety of clients and used to dealing with actors of middling talent who required a lot of help. They were the “blue collar” sort of directors, working every day on projects that were work for professional clients, not artistic expressions. Their style of working is clearly not Orson’s.
Another element here is that there is a difference between elegant dialogue for film or the stage and advertising copy. I can speak from experience that clients sometimes have strange and incomprehensible (and sometimes mutually exclusive) requirements in their marketing language. They seem to have very specific needs, but are unable to come up with the goods themselves. This is the challenge of an advertising writer, which is different from the task of a screenwriter, who most all has to make the material sing on the screen.
Welles must have understood this basic difference, being a veteran of radio and even participating in commercials in the 1930s. He also knew that advertising copy that sounded bad when read out loud would never work in a spoken word environment.
That’s the context of one of the most famous bits of popular culture, the “Frozen Peas” clip. Though it’s associated with Welles in the 1980s, where work like this was his major source of income, it was actually probably recorded in 1970, in London. The commercial was for a brand of frozen peas and a number of other food products, and Welles was recording voice-over to pre-shot footage. It’s clear from the tape that Welles was watching the footage while he was recording, which is rare, even suggesting cinematic ways in which the terrible copy can be invested with some artistry. The tape is infamous for the argument Welles has with the director, and possibly one other person (a technician or perhaps producer/writer) over what he’s forced to say. Things deteriorate as the director tires to micromanage his star, telling him which words to emphasize, to which Welles reacts badly. The clip ends with Welles walking out of the studio with the tape running, saying, half to himself, “No money is worth what you….” and then he walks out of mic range. Listen to the whole clip here.
Orson was clearly in the bad mood from the start, first reading the copy as written, about a farm in Lincolnshire where peas grow every July. At this point he stops and asks the director, “Do you really mean that?” Then he mumbles a suggestion, referencing the video playback to which he is dictating, “Don’t you think you really want to say July over the snow? Isn’t that the fun of it? I think it’s so nice that you see a snow-covered field and say, ‘Every July, peas grow there’.” But then, rather than addressing the timing or the cinema quality or getting into an artistic discussion, the director asks him to make the most trivial, the most inane and the nonsensical of changes, saying it, “In July” rather than “In July”. What appears to be happening is that he’s diffusing and swatting away Orson’s interesting suggestion by just telling him to throw away the word “July”. It’s at that point that Orson goes ballistic, tearing a strip off the unfortunate man (who, to be fair, did just try to rather artlessly give Welles the brush-off). The quote deserves to be repeated, at least in part:
WELLES: Why? That doesn’t make any sense. Sorry. There’s no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with “in” and emphasize it. Get me a jury and show me how you can say “in July” and I’ll go down on you!
At this point, the session is clearly in trouble, and his next attempt at reading a bit of copy from another ad elicits another meaningless instruction from the hapless director, to “roll around” the word “shoals” more. Welles once again starts insulting the director, and reads from another bit of copy, this time for beef burgers, finally ending it by fairly spitting, “This is a lot of shit, you that?” When more direction arrives, Welles finally delivers his improvised demolition of modern direction, advertising, the film industry and the world:
WELLES: The right reading for this is the one I’m giving it. I’ve spent twenty times more [time] for you people than any other commercial I’ve ever made. You are such pests. Now what is it you want? In the depths of your ignorance, what is it you want? Whatever it is you want, I can’t deliver, because I just don’t see it.
The question to ask in the cold light of day has to do with whether Orson was correct, or whether the director was correct, and the only real argument here was about Orson’s directorial suggestion right at the beginning of the clip. Here was the great Orson Welles in the studio, offering directorial advice based on 40 years of experience in film and radio, and rather than discussing it with him, the corporate director tries to clumsily change the subject. That’s when Orson realizes that they just want him for his voice, and he’s been reduced to the level of dancing bear. Everything from that point on is Orson acting out his own frustrations about the situation in which he finds himself professionally, the quality of material he’s forced to enact, and the sort of people who seem to have more seniority in the industry. The hapless director was probably thinking that he had 20 commercials to record that day, and couldn’t waste valuable studio time having an artistic exploration with Orson Welles over the timing of the word “July” in a peas commercial. If that had been any other voice actor, the direction would have been, “Just read it this way and lets’ get on with it,” but instead the director tries to do an end-run around Welles’ intellect, not realizing that this man has a genius-level IQ.
Welles was probably right that re-timing some of the voice-over in these commercials might make them more interesting. But where did he expect that conversation to go? Did he expect to sit down with the director for the rest of the day and re-edit all the footage, carefully taking the time to wring out every shred of irony? In truth, he probably wasn’t thinking at all, but was just caught with his director hat on, unconsciously and almost involuntarily acting as a film artist.
The elephant in the room is that everyone understood that this work was beneath Welles’ dignity. But everyone also understood that he needed the money. So, they kept their eyes on the very specific task at hand and deliberately avoided raising any other issue. The director would have much rather talked about word emphasis than editing or directing with a true master, not because he didn’t think he could learn anything, but to open up that door would expose the embarrassing reality of the situation a little too much. In his very British way, the director was being polite to a fault.
People love to point to this clip as evidence of how far Welles had fallen, but outtakes from the 1930s Mercury days (there’s a rehearsal record of Julius Caesar somewhere in which a 22-year-old Orson barks orders and makes asides in the same way as here) show that Welles refused to sit still for lesser minds. Though not particularly physically active as an actor, his mind was always careening from one idea to the next. Even when playing Shakespeare he was spinning about five different plates, and wouldn’t have had it any other way. To take that race car and make it do slow right hand turns around a tacky suburb all afternoon, the equivalent of tedious commercial voice-over, is almost the very definition of “bad fit”. Welles was never going to be happy taking slow right turns. But that’s how he spent much of his final years.