ORSON WELLES’S LAST MOVIE: The Making of “The Other Side of the Wind”
by Josh Karp
(St. Martin’s Press; 2015)
Do we really need another book about Orson Welles?
That particular shelf is already bulging with titles, the heavier tomes causing it to sag in the middle, like a geriatric accountant.
There’s Simon Callow’s three-volume biography, and offerings from Welles’ personal circle (Bogdanovich, McBride, Jaglom, Gary Graver), various and varied academic studies and overviews, scholarly types and cineastes weighing in on all things Orson. And it’s funny how starkly the lines are drawn: it seems you either consider Welles to be a genius, a larger than life talent frustrated and bedevilled at every turn by idiotic producers and gutless sycophants of the Hollywood studio system…or a spoiled, over-rated egoist who parlayed one admittedly ground-breaking movie into a career spanning almost fifty years.
So give credit, I think, to author Josh Karp for coming down squarely in the middle of that seemingly endless debate. Karp leaves no doubt that Welles’s body of work, while not lengthy, boasted other gems besides “Citizen Kane”. Personally, I consider “Chimes at Midnight” every bit as good as “Kane”…and much warmer and more humane. The new king’s rejection of his old friend Falstaff is a magnificently constructed scene and acted to perfection. The growing despair and pain in Welles/Falstaff’s eyes as he realizes the extent of Hal’s betrayal is almost unendurable.
Karp also recognizes what a brilliant editor Welles was—he had his own, personal Moviola and was happiest when assembling his grand visions out of the smallest bits and pieces of celluloid. Witness the battle scene footage from “Chimes” or the way Welles expertly cuts to disguise paltry budgets and crude production values, matching episodes shot months and thousands of miles from each other (“Othello”).
But I think it’s safe to say Karp has his misgivings regarding Welles’ last film, uncompleted upon his death in 1985. “The Other Side of the Wind” was going to be his magnum opus, his return to form. At the same time, it was Welles using all the tools at his disposal to lash back at a Hollywood that had rejected an entire generation of older directors (Welles, Ford, Renoir), essentially putting them out to pasture. “The Other Side of the Wind” starred John Huston and featured a number of familiar faces from Welles’s entourage (to save money on casting), shot by a cinematographer (Graver) who worked fast and cheap, having cut his teeth on quickies and exploitation films…
The production was prolonged, very prolonged. The years dragged by and the crew changed, actors quit, died, or were replaced and the script…ah, yes, well, Orson was constantly revising and updating it, reacting to production necessities but also regularly introducing new elements and threads. Producers and studios asked to see the screenplay, Welles steadfastly refused. He would pitch it to a few of them, screen one or two scenes, but should they deign to question him or reveal any confusion, he was abrupt, dismissive.
A contrary auteur? An independent artist who refused to cede the slightest control to greedheads in suits? Or a man well past his prime, physically and mentally, his powers much diminished, no longer possessing the decisiveness and strength of mind to approach the monumental task of assembling all that footage (11 1/2 hours digitized so far) into a coherent narrative?
Welles knew “The Other Side of the Wind” was destined to be his last film. He was aware the culture of Hollywood had changed and the new people in charge were money men, ex-agents and lawyers with little interest in creating or disseminating Art. Despite a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1975, no one was anxious to back a project by a noted maverick, someone who clearly held most of the contemporary film world in contempt and was unlikely to kowtow to trends or commercial considerations. TOSOTW loomed larger and larger in his eyes, as a swan song but, also, vindication for all the slings and arrows cast his way by inferior minds and second-rate talents. He ran existing footage over and over again, cutting and recutting sequences. He coaxed and browbeat his young, inexperienced crew into another day of shooting, hurling orders and abuse at them, fuming and fulminating as he inhaled those enormous cigars he favored.
By the time he realized he was in over his head, it was too late. He’d invested too much money, time and energy into TOSOTW to abandon it, but lacked the courage and honesty to face the folly of his creative vacillations. He had to maintain the illusion that this much-touted movie was a work of art in progress, while taking great pains to ensure it was kept under wraps, film reels piling up like cordwood.
The legal woes, a print of the film seized by the new Islamic regime in Teheran (one of the movie’s backers was allied with the former Shah), money mishandled, possibly misappropriated…welcome distractions, as far as Welles was concerned, excuses he could proffer when asked about the status of his troubled tour de force.
A few months ago, I noticed a crowd sourcing project seeking donations to complete “The Other Side of the Wind”. For a measly one million dollars, a team of Welles scholars and aficionados will confront those miles of footage and somehow shape the mess into something resembling what Welles envisioned. The group didn’t reach their funding target and in a way I’m glad. I share Mr. Karp’s doubts that any version of “The Other Side of the Wind” will do Welles justice and might, like many posthumous efforts, inflict lasting damage to his legacy. There is a certain voyeuristic appeal to seeing some of the film, perhaps a few selected scenes, but I harbor no illusions that “The Other Side of the Wind” is a “lost” masterpiece waiting to be discovered by the adoring masses.
Leave it in the vaults. Dead and buried. A monument to what could have been, or a failure of nerve…or the brilliant, errant leavings of a stubborn, willful personality. But more than anything else, an old man’s last shot at relevancy, the fire still burning, though the hall has grown empty and silent, the guests long since departed.