Mercedes McCambridge on Orson Welles’s TOUCH OF EVIL
To introduce Mercedes McCambridge's comments about her one day of work with Orson Welles on Touch of Evil, I think it's interesting to note that although she had won an Academy Award, she was not deemed worthy enough by Universal to be listed alongside Marlene Dietrich and and Zsa Zsa Gabor as one of the guest stars in the picture.
It's also clear that both Dietrich and McCambridge agreed to appear in the film without any studio deal in place, or even any kind of payment. They just showed up for a day, or a night of filming, after Welles asked them to appear in the film as a favor to him. The studio had no knowledge of their participation, nor, we can assume, did the actresses agents, since if they did, they would have probably scotched their appearance without a firm contract in place.
Of course, this was back in 1957, when actors weren't under such strict control by their agents and managers. By 1982, no major actor would agree to appear in The Big Brass Ring, written and to be directed by Welles, even if they wanted to work with him, since their agents would certainly have "advised" them to turn down the "paltry" $2 million fee. After all this was a time when Jack Nicholson was being offered $4 million or more to make more "commercial" films.
Unfortunately, the 10% difference between what Welles could offer a leading actor in 1982 and what those top actor's agents could get, would amount to a difference of at least $200,000. So it's not very surprising to see why The Big Brass Ring never got made.
Which is why it is so refreshing to read Mercedes McCambridge's comments, below. She wasn't interested in what kind of money she would get in her "deal" since there wasn't one. Nor were Dietrich, Janet Leigh, or Charlton Heston. They all simply wanted to work with Welles as their director. Today such a concept seems almost beyond belief! Of course, Welles himself agreed to work as director on Touch of Evil essentially for free, since he was already being paid as an actor. Sadly, by 1982, deal making in Hollywood had changed to such a degree, a Orson Welles project on the level of Touch of Evil, like The Big Brass Ring, was simply no longer a viable proposition.
MERCEDES McCAMBRIDGE on making TOUCH OF EVIL
One day in Hollywood, when I was minding whatever was my own business, of the moment, the phone rang, and it was Orson Welles. He was filming Touch of Evil in the late fifties, and he wanted to know if I could come out to the set in time for lunch. Sure I could. Did I have a pair of black slacks and a black sweater? Sure I had. Did I have a black leather jacket? I said I wouldn't be caught dead in a black leather jacket. He said never mind, come anyhow. I went.
At four o'clock that afternoon I was back in my house minding again whatever was my own business. I had been in a movie in the time between Orson's phone call and the stroke of four.
That's what it is like to work for Orson Welles. A phone call or a cryptic telegram giving no information whatsoever serves as the summons, and if you are like me, you drop everything and go to wherever Orson is ... no script, no talk of money, billing, nothing ... go!
The Touch of Evil experience was typical. I arrived on the set in my black pants and sweater. Orson waved at me and forgot about me. I sat on a stool and watched the action. There wasn't any. Janet Leigh and a bunch of greasy-looking hoodlums were cluttering up a very small set that looked like a broken-down motel room. Nothing was being filmed. Orson was thinking. People were just hanging around, waiting for some kind of direction. Finally one of the assistant directors came over to me. He was in shock. He said, "He's going to cut your hair. I mean, he's going to do it ... himself!"
Very quietly I said, "Yes, I know." I expected him to faint. He nearly did. I decided to play the whole misadventure in that attitude ... unflappable! So far nobody else had said anything to me. No representative of the studio had asked me if I wanted to be in the picture; no script person had given me a page of dialogue; no costumer or hairdresser or makeup expert had been anywhere near me. I was a black-clad object over in the comer on a stool, that's all! And if Orson Welles was harboring the faintest notion in his gloriously genius-brain that I was going to ask him why I was there in the first place, he was, oh, so sadly mistaken. I would sit there, unnoticed and unpaid, forever. And not one eyebrow would I twitch in frustration.
At one point he looked up from his script as he was lighting a cigar, and he waved at me again. I waved back. The son of a bitch is just going to let me sit here. I never stopped smiling. When he did approach me, arms outstretched, he greeted me as though I were Stanley and he were Livingstone; he was so pleasantly surprised to find me in his line of vision. Imagine meeting me here! Such a small world! I was placid.
He asked for a light to be brought over to my comer so that he could see what he was doing. So far he hadn't done anything. I beat him to the draw. I said, "I understand you are going to cut my hair, Orson."
Orson said, "No, no, no, no, no, no, my sweet dear girl, not cut your hair; I am going to trim it ever so slightly to give the perfect effect to the character you are going to play for me.” I had to ask if he knew anything about cutting hair. He said that wasn’t important since so little actual hair was involved. I explained that little as it might be, it was all I actually had and I actually hated to lose it.
A small cluster of people had gathered to watch the shearing of the sheep in black. The instrument of torture was brought. Orson clutched the scissors as a surgeon does a knife, and he executed a few very brief snips of perhaps a grand total of twenty hairs. I like to think it was less than what he would have liked to do. He stood back to see if he had achieved the desired effect. It was evident that he was delighted. Then he called for the black shoe polish. Like a five-year-old with finger paints, the man rubbed the foul-smelling goo into my hair until he had made thousands of shiny, tiny ebony curls and ringlets of what had been a mousy brown head! He asked for a pencil and dipped the eraser end into the shoe polish and applied it to a mole on the side of my left cheek. He put some of the icky polish into my eyebrows, and I will always think he was on his way to adding a mustache, but I stayed his hand and froze him with a look that must have terrorized him!
They brought a black leather jacket from somewhere, and I was "ready." Orson said he wanted a heavy, coarse Mexican accent. I said, "You've got it!" He asked me to walk across the studio like a tough, masculine, hood-type broad. I said, "You've got it," and I did it. He said, in a statement terse and unadorned, that he wanted me to burst into Janet Leigh's motel room with all the other hoodlums. As their ringleader I was to give them the go-ahead to have their "group pleasure" with her, and I was to say in gruff accent that I would hang around and watch. Simple little drawing-room comedy scene. Charming! I said, "You've got it!" I did it- And at four o'clock that afternoon 1 was back in my own house on the top of Bel-Air, minding whatever was my own business of the moment. And it turned out to be what Orson wanted it to be: a short shot-in-the-arm lift to the picture. Orson knows what he wants, even when he has no idea of why he wants it!
(From Mercedes McCambridge’s autobiography, The Quality of Mercy, 1981)