Have you, in your youth, ever seen teacher outside of school grounds? Like at the mall or buying groceries at the local overpriced and obnoxiously pretentious Whole Foods? Isn’t it a strange feeling? Like you’ve spotted an escaped convict, or thirty-two teeth in the mouth of a NASCAR fan, or one of those children three-stacks in a tench coat reading a newspaper. You can’t deny what you’re seeing, but can’t reconcile what you’re seeing with where you happen to see it.
That feeling? That’s the feeling I get whenever I watch Orson Welles try to sell me fine California wine. Let me explain. In the twilight of his career Orson Welles stopped feeling himself. He stopped chasing whatever dreams were left on the withering vine of his life’s work, and reached for an altogether different vine. He descended from one of the finest actors of his time, into a soulless, doll-eyed, sputtering jukebox of manufactured praise for the California winery, Paul Masson.
Your first instinct is to read that and, perhaps, internally, make one of those “aww” noises. But, here’s a thought: don’t. Instead, bask in it. The universe is a cold, random, crumbling machine. It’s nice to be reminded of that. Especially when that reminder takes the form of as massive and influential figure as the man who brought us Charles Foster Kane going the way of Brando and smashing into obscurity.
The best thing is that you can still see Welles underneath it all. In the commercials, he’s still got one of the most powerful voices in cinema. He’s still the smoldering volcano that convinced half the country to believe the world was ending in a hail of alien phaser fire. Orson Welles, even in the outtakes, is still motherfucking Orson Welles. He still howls and snorts and “Ahhhhhhhs” like the wild animal who changed moviemaking forever.
And yes, I did say outtakes. Some enterprising and brave soul kept the camera rolling when Orson Welles turned the commercial into a car crash. And thank you, courageous cameraman. Thank you for showing us the pure distillation of a talented man giving up. And the inherent grace of Welles turns the aforementioned car crash into A Car Crash on Ice: the Skating Spectacular. He’s a showman born, and he shows us in this commercial that not only does he not give a fuck about wine, he doesn’t give a fuck about us, the people he’s been hired to convinced to drink it.
Things don’t always work out. It’s an ugly, necessary, and inescapable fact of life. The human experience is a ceaseless parade of failed ventures and disappointments, and even when you make it to the snowy peaks of personal achievement, you can always go downhill from there.
But Orson Welles holds that bottle of shit wine surrounded by talentless hacks who look like xeroxed polo shirt catalog models. He looks at the camera, and with a voice as rich as his career on fire behind him, reminds us all that sometimes, we can die slowly and shamefully. We don’t, however, need to die without dignity.
Orson says, for Paul Masson, “We will sell no wine before its time.” And it sounds like a war cry. It sounds like a Dylan Thomas rage against the dying of the light. It sounds brave. Even in a dumb commercial.
So be like Orson. When life dumps a shitty bottle of shitty wine in your lap, smile for the camera, and say through your gritted teeth:
“We will sell no wine
before its time.”
Watch the Orson Welles’ career die here: