AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Orson Welles (1975)
"The American Film Institute Salute to Orson Welles" (original title)

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Title: AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Orson Welles (1975– )

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Edgar Bergen ...
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17 February 1975 (USA)  »

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AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Orson Welles  »

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Features The Lady from Shanghai (1947) See more »

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Rosebud's revenge
26 October 2002 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews



Each year since 1973, the American Film Institute have given their Lifetime Achievement Award to a prominent film star or director. (Always someone still alive at the time, who is willing to show up and give an acceptance speech.) The first two recipients were John Ford and James Cagney. In 1975, the third AFI Award went to Orson Welles, the first recipient honoured for his achievements as both an actor and a director. (Cagney directed one minor film, which wasn't mentioned during his AFI lovefest.)

An AFI tribute typically alternates between film clips from the work of the guest of honour, and testimonial speeches by Hollywood celebrities whose name value will bring in some TV ratings, even if they never worked with the recipient of the award. The Welles tribute features one actor who worked significantly with Welles throughout their separate careers (Joseph Cotten), and several actors who worked with Welles on only one occasion (Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Dennis Weaver from the cast of 'Touch of Evil'), plus some celebrities who (to the best of my knowledge) had never worked with Welles at all, including Ingrid Bergman and Frank Sinatra.

There are some excellent film clips here. Near the end of the evening, we are shown an extensive clip from 'Chimes at Midnight', Welles's film based on Shakespeare's Falstaff plays. The clip consists of several battle scenes, with men in armour clashing in a fog-dark forest, on foot and on horse; unfortunately, the scenes seem to be strung together with no connecting material, and the result is very confusing ... however, since real battles are usually confusing, this isn't necessarily a flaw in Welles's film. We also see Welles as Falstaff (or perhaps it's Welles's stunt double) galumphing about at the fringe of the battle, in a pot-bellied suit of armour that makes him look like a stove. Since we're seeing these scenes out of context, it's not clear if we're meant to laugh at this ridiculous figure.

Sinatra introduces the film clip of the famous climactic scene from 'Lady from Shanghai', featuring the shoot-out in the hall of mirrors. I've always considered this one of the greatest cinematic set-pieces of all time; by itself, it proves Welles's genius.

At the end of each AFI tribute, the guest of honour strides to the podium amidst a standing ovation and appropriate theme music. For Cagney, the music was 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'. For David Lean, the music was the 'Colonel Bogey March' which was used so famously in 'Bridge on the River Kwai'. What theme music is appropriate for Orson Welles? Answer: Sinatra sings a song more closely associated with himself, rather than with Welles ... 'The Lady Is a Tramp', but with new lyrics that really aren't very good. A typical line: 'He picked Cotten when nobody would, that's why the gentleman is a champ.' Afterwards, Welles rises to the occasion and speaks a few gracious words.

This tribute was given to Welles at a good point in his career, when he was still respected as a Grand Old Man of movies, and had not yet become a bloated sell-out, hawking table wines and anything else that would bring him a few dollars. I recommend this tribute for Welles fans (although die-hard Welles scholars won't see any film clips they haven't seen elsewhere), and as a potted summary of Orson Welles's career.


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