Yesterday would have been Orson Welles 100th Birthday. It’s very hard to imagine what cinema would’ve been like today had it not been for Welles’ auteur genius, especially on Citizen Kane. Despite what you may have heard, there were movies made prior to 1969, most were very good too. Citizen Kane is a great film—probably the best film. It’s always ranked very high on film scholar lists as well as rags like Entertainment Weekly. It’s the achetypical model of great filmmaking, a film “Mona Lisa” if you will. Sure there are paintings before and after the Mona Lisa as well as better ones but it’s probably the most famous great masterpiece out there. It’s tough to beat. Most people above the age of 5 know what the Mona Lisa is. And I consider Citizen Kane the Mona Lisa of film. Orson was also known for other films and works as well as the infamous War of the Worlds Halloween radio broadcast that was so remarkably genuine to the gullible listeners that they actually believed space-men were attacking New Jersey!
Unfortunately, like most young geniuses (Welles was 26 when Kane premiered), their stars shine too brightly far too briefly. Not too much directing was done by Welles and was mostly an actor for most of his career until his death in 1985. Growing up I knew him as Lew Lord in The Muppet Movie and the guy who narrated the Nostradamus documentary, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. In fact looking at his acting career it seems he was a narrator a ton. He was a great director but it’s a shame he didn’t make more films like Kane and Touch of Evil.
But he also has a lasting impression as a great actor in commercials. He, more or less, paved the way for bright and excellent actors to take seemingly meager roles in television commercials. Do you think it’s beneath Samuel L. Jackson to make a credit card commercial? Does Sam Elliott have anything better to do than lend his voice for car commercials? I’m sure the answer is yes to both those questions but had it not been for Orson Welles’ making wine or frozen pea commercials and taking them to the highest level, then we would not have Matthew McConaughey selling us Lincoln town cars.
Here is the legacy of Orson Welles and his best commercial moments: