The Big Brass Ring (1999)

In the last years of his life, Orson Welles and his companion / muse Oja Kodar tried to get this script produced – approaching Warren Beatty, for instance, to star. A decade and a half on, George Hickenlooper (Hearts of Darkness) and writer F.X. Feeney (Frankenstein Unbound) did some sprucing-up on the piece and did get it made, though it's not clear how much Welles remains. I'd guess some of the actual Wellesian in-jokes are new, but they mostly resonate – a politician telling a journo that a name which is to prod him into a revelation was written on a sled he had as a child, the 'chimes at midnight' speech that reinforces a sort of Hal-Falstaff relationship between independent gubernatorial candidate William Blake Pellarin (William Hurt) and bizarre gay ex-senator political genius Cuban resident Kim Mennaker (Nigel Hawthorne, in the role Welles wrote for himself). It has a lot of smart political talk but hinges on an amazing bit if improbability in which brothers switch identities so the one with no hopes gets drafted to Vietnam while the other moves on to have a political career, and winds up with the politico reunited with his crippled other self (Gregg Henry).

Hurt is rather remote, as a supposed 'white knight' (his racist candidate is a 'white nightmare') who cheats on his wealthy alcoholic wife (Miranda Richardson) with an investigative reporter (Irene Jacob) and the script never quite sorts out which of the brothers posed for gay pin-ups taken by the political guru. It's possible that Welles, in the '70s and 1980s, didn't have the connection with American politics on a level with Robert Altman (or Keith Gordon in Waking the Dead) - and thus couldn't make this set-up convincing. It may be that he was also just looking for a way of doing Falstaff again, setting himself up as the presiding genius of another carnival, living on a riverboat full of bizarre drag queens. Hawthorne plays gay a lot better than Welles could and even has some Sir Humphrey smarts in the political analyses, but he's also not huge enough a figure in all sorts of ways - in that Mennaker is scripted as a mix of Welles, Kane, Falstaff and Gore Vidal.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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