Discussed in this essay:
The Other Side of the Wind, directed by Orson Welles. Netflix, 2018. 122 minutes.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, directed by Morgan Neville. Netflix, 2018. 98 minutes.
The one thing everyone knows about Orson Welles is that he began his Hollywood career at twenty-five with cinema’s biggest big bang—a one-off considered by some to be the greatest film the Dream Factory ever produced. Now, seventy-seven years after Citizen Kane and more than two decades after his death, Welles, who was born in 1915 and died in 1985, ends his movie career with another one-off, The Other Side of the Wind. Kane, a movie over which the director enjoyed near-total control, unprecedented within the studio system, introduced new subject matter while providing a new visual vocabulary and narrative structure for American film. None were more impressed than other filmmakers. Just as Vincent van Gogh or Jackson Pollock dramatized the act of painting, Welles dramatized the act of filmmaking. In that sense, The Other Side of the Wind—a movie about the failure to make a movie called The Other Side of the Wind—can be understood as Kane’s sequel.
Posthumously assembled—or perhaps salvaged—from Welles’s forty-five minute rough cut, as well as his notes, and drawing on thousands of feet of unedited footage, The Other Side of the Wind is scarcely less remarkable than Citizen Kane, if hardly as great.1 Welles’s last testament can seem messy and maddening. And though complex in its conception and convoluted in its making, it is a summarizing work that, in its themes and methods, illuminates the entirety of Welles’s oeuvre, and in so doing will burnish his reputation as one of the great American artists of the twentieth century.
1 To those who ask “What is?” I’d answer that many critics and scholars regard Welles’s second, studio-mutilated feature, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and his unsuccessful Hollywood comeback Touch of Evil (1958) as stronger movies than Kane; his two amazing patchwork constructions, Othello (1952) and Mr. Arkadin (1955), both made abroad, have their defenders as well, as do his inspired hack job The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and last Shakespearean film, Chimes at Midnight (1966).
After Kane, Welles is probably best remembered for the period of tragic, spectacular corpulence near the end of his life—a time when, Gore Vidal wrote, the director “wore bifurcated tents to which, rather idly, lapels, pocket flaps, buttons were attached in order to suggest a conventional suit.” We have forgotten the space the young Welles carved out and occupied in America’s consciousness as the creator of the Mercury Theatre. In fact, more than a filmmaker, Welles was a showman-performer. He worked, both as director and actor, on the air and on the stage: avant-garde popularizations of Shakespeare, the so-called voodoo Macbeth of 1936 and antifascist Julius Caesar of 1937, were celebrated for drawing on film and radio techniques. In a still-legendary stunt, he panicked America on Halloween night 1938 by dramatizing H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds as a news report. In 1941, less than six weeks before Kane opened, Welles returned to Broadway with an adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son. The New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson called it “overwhelming” and “the biggest American drama of the season.” Two years later, Welles married Hollywood’s glamorous “love goddess,” Rita Hayworth.
Welles was politically active, too. For a time in the mid-1940s, he wrote a regular column for the then-liberal New York Post. As a Hollywood activist, he was the precursor to John Wayne, Jane Fonda, and Ronald Reagan. He toyed with running for the California Senate and, by his own account, was encouraged by Franklin Roosevelt to run for the US Senate in his native state, Wisconsin. Such was Welles’s authority that when FDR died, in 1945, CBS radio drafted him to record an immediate response.
Lawrence Alloway, the British art critic who coined the term Pop Art, saw it as a tendency essentially concerned with movies, broadcasting, and publicity. Already a celebrity when he made Citizen Kane, Welles was a proto–Pop Artist. An Andy Warhol avant la lettre, he understood that the media might be his medium.
After World War II, Welles briefly cast himself as a creator of film statements—The Stranger (1946), his lone commercial hit, was the first Hollywood feature to incorporate newsreel clips of the Nazi death camps—but Charles Chaplin notwithstanding, the big-time director as social critic was a role that did not yet exist in the American motion-picture industry. Moreover, like Chaplin, Welles had powerful political enemies—starting with the media mogul William Randolph Hearst—who regarded him as a Communist fellow traveler or worse. (Welles’s substantial FBI file pays particular attention to Native Son.)
Leaving the “unreleasable” Lady from Shanghai (his mordant goodbye to Hayworth and Hollywood, the movie’s two femmes fatales) as his legacy, Welles departed America for Europe in advance of the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Rather than as a political exile, however, Welles was ironized as a second Erich von Stroheim, a martyred genius crushed by crass Hollywood. Where American reviewers found The Lady from Shanghai barely coherent, French critics saw an intoxicating form of pure cinema—a preview of experimental features like Last Year at Marienbad.
Once he was in Europe, Welles’s movies became a series of existential adventures, started, halted, sometimes abandoned, made scene by scene over a period of years. Given his faith in grandiose, seemingly unrealizable projects, it seems inevitable that he would try to make a movie of Don Quixote. The fascination of these projects—the failures not least—is Welles’s unflagging imagination and perseverance. Othello was the paradigm—a textbook of inventive editing in which Welles seamlessly spliced together footage shot years apart on separate continents. (No movie has ever more impressively demonstrated the power of what Soviet montage theorists called “creative geography”—the capacity to create the illusion of a continuous space.) Mr. Arkadin, a shaggy-dog portrait of a sinister man of mystery, played naturally by Welles (who also wound up dubbing the voices of most of the other male characters himself), was an investigative thriller that, in its sheer nuttiness, might be Citizen Kane as reflected in the funhouse mirror of The Lady from Shanghai.
Welles had put his never-completed Quixote on hiatus when, in the winter of 1956, he was offered the role of the villain in a Universal thriller about a crooked cop. But the movie’s star, Charlton Heston, thought that Welles would be directing the picture. From the acorn of that misunderstanding emerged a splendid oak: Touch of Evil. Hopeful that his Hollywood career was back on track, Welles stuck around, playing a defense lawyer modeled on Clarence Darrow in Richard Fleischer’s fictionalization of the Leopold and Loeb case, Compulsion. More comically, he deranged Martin Ritt’s mostly Actors Studio production of the faux Tennessee Williams comic melodrama The Long, Hot Summer with his bombastic interpretation of the movie’s Big Daddy—his blatant overacting making the naturalistic restraint of Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Lee Remick, and Anthony Franciosa seem all the more stylized.
Failing to land another directing job, Welles returned to the theater and to Europe, where he made his adaptation of Kafka’s novel The Trial (1962), with Anthony Perkins improbably cast in the role of Josef K.; Chimes at Midnight; and a 1968 French telefilm, The Immortal Story, his first completed color movie. In 1970, Welles again returned to Hollywood—now the “new” Hollywood of taboo busters like the X-rated Midnight Cowboy and drug-saturated Easy Rider. He appeared in Mike Nichols’s misbegotten adaptation of Catch-22, spun his anecdotes on TV talk shows, and tried to get his projects off the ground.
The new Hollywood saw the birth of the movie brats and the twilight of the movie gods. Howard Hawks and John Ford were finished. So were the most talented of Welles’s generational cohort. The muckraking action-auteur Sam Fuller was unemployable. Nick Ray, director of Rebel Without a Cause and idol of the French New Wave, was reduced to making a movie with his Harpur College students. The now fifty-five-year-old boy genius of Citizen Kane discovered that while he was revered by young directors and film critics, most significantly Peter Bogdanovich, he was regarded with fearful contempt by the studio bosses and money men whom he hoped would fund him.
Sometimes it was both at once. George Lucas declined to help Welles; so did Steven Spielberg, although he did pay over $60,000 for the prop Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane, which, after Spielberg’s publicized purchase, Welles would mischievously label a fake.
Welles’s attempted comeback is the subject of The Other Side of the Wind—a movie about the failed comeback of a celebrated maverick director, J. J. “Jake” Hannaford, played by the celebrated director John Huston, who was cast in the role some three years after Welles began shooting.
Welles maintained that the idea for The Other Side of the Wind originated in his 1937 encounter with a rude and aggressive Ernest Hemingway, who objected to what he considered the younger man’s effete reading of the narration Hemingway wrote for the antifascist documentary The Spanish Earth. But more than a portrait of the artist as a pompous ass, The Other Side of the Wind is a response to the mix of idolization and avoidance Welles encountered in early 1970s Hollywood, as well as the new permissiveness of the movies.
Ostensibly concerning the last day of Hannaford’s life, before he wrecked his sports car, James Dean–style, The Other Side of the Wind has two strands—both shot for Welles by the talented, fiercely loyal young cinematographer Gary Graver. The first strand is mainly Hannaford’s seventieth birthday party, apparently hosted by a retired screen legend (Lilli Palmer), at which Hannaford shows excerpts from his new, independently financed film, The Other Side of the Wind. The second strand consists of excerpts from the film itself. These mostly star Welles’s young companion and muse, the Croatian artist Oja Kodar, a silent, statuesque figure, characterized throughout as a Native American and billed only as the Actress.
Intentionally baffling, the Wind within the Wind is a beautifully composed, sometimes risible, occasionally brilliant parody of then-fashionable European art cinema. The specific object of Welles’s satire is Michelangelo Antonioni, a filmmaker Welles evidently detested, not least for getting MGM to bankroll his American flop, a would-be evocation of youthful revolution, Zabriskie Point. (Welles’s antipathy is additionally striking in that Antonioni’s 1975 thriller The Passenger is a descendant of Mr. Arkadin.) Here, The Actress is seen, often naked, as she impassively haunts a number of empty Western-movie locations, and several times ravishes a hapless hippie called John Dale. (Looking like a Warhol Factory hanger-on, the actor even has a sort of mock superstar name, Bob Random.)
The framing film is also aggressively contemporary in the way it verges on softcore porn. An early shot is a close-up of topless models jiggling their breasts. Much of it is shot cinéma-vérité-style with a handheld 16-mm camera. Replete with frantic zooms and mega close-ups, this film, too, is transparently a film. Lights and cameras are visible, while the beleaguered maestro Hannaford is surrounded by a mob of acolytes—Bogdanovich playing the most important, Brooks Otterlake—as well as a documentary crew filming and otherwise recording the scene.
Chaos reigns. The party, which was evidently shot off and on over a period of five years, alternates between color and black-and-white while maintaining a constant frenzy.2 Huston, who joined the party late, was only available for a limited time and consequently is often shown in reaction shots. It’s fun to imagine the shoots in which the entourage besieged a nonexistent character. Often centrally framed, Bogdanovich, who stuck with the project for years, anchors much of the frantic activity, a sullen constant in a sea of bitchy chatter.
2Although The Other Side of the Wind is pretty much sui generis, I wonder if Darren Aronofsky, a current aspirant to Welles’s throne, didn’t get an early peek. The punishing eternal house party he staged for Mother!, his self-described allegory of ecological disaster, seems like it might have been made in imitation of Welles’s scarcely less grueling but far funnier shindig.
The movie’s two strands merge after a fashion when, once some footage has been shown to an indifferent producer, Hannaford screens additional material from his work-in-progress at the party. This sequence is blatantly trippy, complete with psychedelic superimpositions and scored to hard rock. The Actress tours a disco, strolling past toilet stalls where people are having sex. Then, in the movie’s most celebrated scene, a seven-minute tour-de-force of camera placement, she undresses the catatonic John Dale and initiates tantric sex with him in the back seat of a car driving through a monsoon. That the scene can be read as a parody of Hollywood disposability is suggested by the abrupt manner in which Dale is ejected from the automobile—tossed out bare-assed in the rain—once The Actress is through with him.
The Other Side of the Wind is only one of the projects that Welles spent the last dozen years of his life juggling while making TV commercials to finance their completion. These include Don Quixote; a nearly finished thriller, The Deep; a one-man version of Moby Dick; The Dreamers, based, like The Immortal Story, on material by Isak Dinesen; and The Merchant of Venice. There were also two completed, highly self-reflexive documentaries, F for Fake (1973), a film about art forgery made with Oja Kodar, and Filming Othello (1978), in which Welles revisited his early-1950s Shakespeare adaptation.
Publicity was part of Welles’s DNA. If Norman Mailer hadn’t thought of it first, Welles might have imagined the title Advertisements for Myself. The New York Times first reported on The Other Side of the Wind in 1976, quoting the filmmaker to the effect that, after six years, the principal photography had been completed but the project was stalled because the movie’s investors were withholding funding.
Later the problem became world-historical—Welles lost his Iranian backer when the shah was toppled by Ayatollah Khomeini—and, after Welles’s death, familial. His unofficial widow, Kodar, had possession of Welles’s forty-minute work print, but, thanks to French inheritance law, his daughter Beatrice Welles controlled the thousand reels of camera negatives that the Iranians stored in a Paris warehouse.
The cinematographer Gary Graver and others struggled to find money to finish the film without Welles. In the mid-1990s, Kodar allowed several scenes from the work print to be included in the documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band. Things stalled again; Graver, who knew the material better than anyone, died in 2006, leaving Kodar, Bogdanovich, and Bogdanovich’s onetime assistant, the now-prominent producer Frank Marshall, as the surviving witnesses.
A decade later, the New York Times ran a front-page story announcing that Filip Jan Rymsza, a Polish-born producer in his mid-thirties, had brokered a détente between Kodar, Beatrice Welles, and the Iranians, aiming for The Other Side of the Wind to be ready for the hundredth anniversary of Welles’s birth. Five months after that, it was reported that the producers were planning a crowd-funding campaign to raise the money—abandoned two months later in favor of an unnamed investor, revealed in March 2017 to be Netflix, which has also released a making-of documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.
The completed film was spearheaded by Marshall and Bogdanovich, who told the New York Times that Welles “did some very complicated editing before it was taken away from him. I don’t even know if I can approximate that kind of cutting because it is very fragmented and idiosyncratic. All we can do is the best we can, using the script, his notes and what he has left.” Jorge Luis Borges described Citizen Kane as a labyrinth without a center; The Other Side of the Wind, as elusive as its title suggests, is more like the shattered hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai, self-reflected in its narrative shards.
Whether by Welles’s design or someone else’s, The Other Side of the Wind presents itself as a car wreck. The opening shot is an image of Hannaford’s totaled roadster. A voice-over from Bogdanovich explains that what follows is a film made of bits and pieces, an assemblage of Hannaford’s unfinished movie—it serves to introduce both Hannaford’s Other Side of the Wind and the other Other Side of the Wind, namely Welles’s.
Indeed, having reached its finished form forty-eight years after Welles began shooting, The Other Side of the Wind never stops talking about itself. Some of this—like the references to Hannaford shooting without a script and “making it up as he goes along”—seems a direct message from Welles. Other things—the camera contemplating an empty drive-in movie screen as Hannaford muses that, in looking at things too hard, maybe you “shoot ’em dead”—could serve as a confession by those tasked with tidying up Welles’s mess.
Who can say? The Other Side of the Wind is founded on substitutions and parodies. Lilli Palmer, playing the retired actress hosting Hannaford’s party, stands in for Welles’s old pal Marlene Dietrich. Susan Strasberg replaced Jeanne Moreau as a character sometimes referred to as the Lady Critic and generally regarded as a version of Pauline Kael. (“Raising Kane,” Kael’s infamous takedown of Citizen Kane, crediting the movie’s originality to its screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, was published in The New Yorker in early 1971.)
Bogdanovich, well known for his impersonations, replaced the professional impressionist Rich Little. And according to Welles, John Huston replaced Welles. “I cast the best part I ever could have played myself with John Huston,” Welles told an interviewer. “He’s better than I would have been—and I would have been great!”
Great or not, there’s no doubt that The Other Side of the Wind is catnip for a certain breed of cinephile.
Familiar faces and historical footnotes abound. Directors Paul Mazursky, Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hopper, and Claude Chabrol appear, usually fleetingly, as themselves—along with obscure actors, including the sword-and-sandal star Cameron Mitchell, seasoned character actor John Carroll, and Jewish vaudevillian Benny Rubin. Even Les Moonves is somewhere in the cocktail party crowd.
Some of these folks carry specifically Wellesian baggage. Paul Stewart, a longtime member of the Mercury Theatre (and Kane’s butler in Citizen Kane), as well as Mercedes McCambridge (another Mercury Theatre veteran whom Welles had once called “the world’s greatest living radio actress”), appear as Hannaford henchmen. Hannaford’s unctuous factotum Billy Boyle (played by Welles’s sometime factotum, the director Norman Foster) has the thankless task of screening rushes for an arrogant studio executive, Max David, recognized by at least one journalist as a stand-in for the former Paramount boss Robert Evans.
In truth, The Other Side of the Wind is never windier than when tossing off inside jokes. “I’m Marvin P. Fassbinder,” one pompous Hannaford fan declares, referencing the then-obscure German filmmaker. (“Of course you are,” the great man graciously allows.) The nastiest jape may be the blond teenager in an Archie Bunker T-shirt (non-actress Cathy Lucas), who appears as Hannaford’s girlfriend. According to They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Welles was jealous of Bogdanovich’s success and intended her character to be a parody of Bogdanovich’s protégé and leading lady Cybill Shepherd.
The enigmatic introduction of several Goyaesque dwarfs scampering through the proceedings heralds the narrative’s collapse. The party devolves into a disjointed insult fest. Hannaford and Otterlake attempt to top each other with Shakespearean bon mots. John Dale’s former English teacher arrives only to be gay-baited by Hannaford, who, it may be surmised, is himself a closeted homosexual smitten by his leading man. (Hannaford slugs the uppity Lady Critic who has suggested as much.)
Target practice! Fireworks! The party moves to another location (revealed in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead as the house next door to the one in Arizona that Antonioni appeared to blow up at the end of Zabriskie Point) and then to a drive-in for more projected rushes. “Someone must have given you the wrong reel,” someone says. It’s all wrong but it’s all right.
An enigma resolved by a small army of admirers (who perhaps should be known as the “Rosebud brigade”), The Other Side of the Wind is arguably and paradoxically Welles’s most personal work and, in that sense, too, a descendant of Citizen Kane. The most obvious example of Kane’s influence on American directors is the ultra-aestheticizing Hollywood tendency known as film noir that developed in its wake. But Kane also inspired Maya Deren’s dreamlike Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), the short movie that invented the idea of an American avant-garde film artist, with the filmmaker placing herself on camera to work out her fantasies and unconscious desires. As Meshes of the Afternoon is Deren’s psychodrama, so The Other Side of the Wind is Welles’s. Even though he never appears onscreen, it’s a movie in which he addresses his own condition—his ambivalent attitude toward celebrity, contempt for the movie industry, sense of thwarted virtuosity, desire for recognition, and general sense of desperation—with startling frankness and clarity.
Does it work? Does that matter? As another boy genius once sang, “There’s no success like failure and . . . failure’s no success at all.” Sure to be wildly overpraised and cursorily dismissed, The Other Side of the Wind is often awful and frequently great, occasionally at the same time. The main thing is that it gives Welles the last word. Once more, from beyond the grave, he has commandeered the spotlight, turning it on an epitaph of his own writing.