Thursday 19 May 2016

The Demon Drink: Orson Welles and Paul Masson

So it's fair to say that a certain part of me has always wanted to be Orson Welles. Not only was he one of the authentic greats of twentieth-century cinema (Citizen Kane, A Touch of Evil), he was also the man who brought us the world's most famous radio drama (The War of the Worlds), a highly-regarded actor in his own right (who does everyone remember from Britain's one truly canonical fim, The Third Man?), a talented magician, a collector of beautiful women (married to Rita Hayworth, Dolores del Rio and Paola Mori; lover of scores more) and an all-round bon viveur. Like Elvis Presley, he was charismatically good-looking, astonishingly talented, changed popular culture for ever. I mean, who wouldn't want to be Orson Welles?

Trouble is, the downside. Again like Elvis, he ended his life as a bloated, self-parodying slob, a landfill version of himself, reduced to imbecilic voice-overs (Bugs Bunny: Superstar springs to mind) and tv ads for 1970s whitebread America. Unlike Elvis, however, he also advertised one of the principal agents of his own decline: drink, in the form of the Paul Masson wine range. We sell no wine before its time was its strapline.

We know this, of course, because YouTube - that world repository of memory and shame - has got a few Paul Massons kicking around. Here's Orson tackling Masson's Emerald Dry; here he is again, with what at the time was known as an American Chablis; and here, with a Californian Burgundy; and again, with Masson's own-brand Champagne. It's pretty much the same turn each time. The settings are what middle America thinks of as high-tone, Beethoven actually playing in one ad. Four-fifths of Orson are invisible below the level of a table. The remaining fifth, big enough to make a medium-sized child out of, does its best to stamp some kind of exclusivity on an industrialised mass-market product, while at the same time not howl with rage and misery at the ruination of its genius. Oh, and not look too shitfaced.

We know how shitfaced Orson was thanks to the out-takes, just as scrupulously YouTubed as the final cuts but watched by about five times as many people. To be honest, it can sometimes be hard to tell the out-takes apart from the broadcast versions, such is the air of visceral collapse that infects all his performances; but in the case of the Champagne nightmare, he has to share the camera with a couple of youngish bit-part actors, whose dumb-faced terror is all the additional commentary you need at this stage of the great man's career. Muaaahhaaahhh! The French Champagne has always been celebrated for its excellence! he cries, as the couple looks on, willing the earth to be struck be a giant asteroid. Poor old, drunk, Orson.

One's instinct is to look for someone or something to blame. American culture would be a good starting-point, that corporate philistinism which routinely presides over the destruction of the nation's most singular and remarkable talents. Did Picasso have to scrounge a living in his later years by endorsing pastis? Was Herbert von Karajan ever reduced to promotional work for the Avis car hire company? No. It doesn't have to be this way. So why destroy Orson Welles? Another suspect: Orson himself. His success came so quickly and so immoderately, his talents were so prodigious, that he never worked out how to get on the right side of the industry he was transforming. Combine that with similarly extreme personal appetites (he had to be filled with diet pills and tied into a corset before appearing on-screen, even when relatively young) and it's hard to imagine him not throwing it all away.

Or then again, blame Paul Masson. What kind of business would take a permanently-inebriated, three-hundred-pound, washed-up genius and ask him to sell one of his own addictions? Or then again, blame the wine industry - an industry so monomaniacally in love with the idea of its own prestige that the only idea it can possibly entertain, is to hire one of the most prestigious names in the history of cinema in order to say something that would test the patience of William Shatner. But the worst of it? The fact that for millions of people, this, rather than Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, is now his epitaph. As Orson himself put it: Muaaahhaaahhh.



  1. Watching those commercials is almost enough (not quite, but it's a close call) to put me off drinking. They definitely don't have me yearning for a glass of Paul Masson. God knows what effect they had on sales.

  2. Well - allegedly - sales of Paul Masson wines grew by some 30% during the time that Orson Welles was advertising them. Coincidence? Post hoc propter hoc? It does boggle the imagination, certainly


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