(Alex Ross’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 12/7;via Pam Green.)
The most popular Orson Welles video on YouTube, edging out the trailer for “Citizen Kane” and “The War of the Worlds” broadcast of 1938, is called “Orson Welles Drunk Outtake.” It shows him slurring his way through one of those ads in which he intoned, “Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time.” Whether he was drunk, experiencing the effects of medication (he suffered from diabetes and other ailments), or simply very tired is immaterial. What’s striking about the video is its popularity. This is largely how today’s culture has chosen to remember Welles: as a pompous wreck, a man who peaked early and then devolved into hackwork and bloated fiascos.
The video points to a decades-old fissure in the reputation of Welles, whose centennial fell on May 6th. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the author of the 2007 book “Discovering Orson Welles,” observes that commentary tends to fall into “partisan” and “adversarial” categories—adversarial meaning a tendency to celebrate the early work while detecting portents of disaster. Pauline Kael’s long essay “Raising Kane,” which appeared in this magazine, in 1971, propagated that view: she praised “Kane” effusively but attributed many of its best features to the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and other collaborators. After that film, Kael wrote, Welles “flew apart, became disorderly.” A 1985 biography by Charles Higham condensed the standard story into its subtitle: “Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius.”