Few films would have been as knowing, satirical, poetic and ahead of their time as Orson Welles’ last famous “unfinished” film of the 1970s, The Other Side of the Wind. In one of the great “I’m glad I lived this long” moments in film history, right now you can contribute to a crowdfunding effort to finish Welles’ film, all these years later, by going here. But it’s worth a look back at this film, its legend and its long and storied production.
The Other Side of the Wind would have been the most elegant expression of Orson’s mature artistic style, and his commentary on what he saw happening around him in the early 1970s in film, namely the veneration of the “director-as-auteur” and the blending of European and American styles. Of course, Orson had already defined what an auteur could be as well as achieving that union of American and European styles back in the 1950s. This would have been his comment on how the young generation, the Spielbergs and the Scorseses, who worshipped him, were using the medium.
One of the new developments in the late 1960s that wasn’t around when Welles was started out was the academic film school. In the old days, film directors learned their craft and apprenticed for sometimes decades in the industry before being assigned a film for themselves. Sergio Leone, for example, worked as an assistant director for 10 years before making his first film. Now, in this new world of film schools and self-conscious directors, these young people were graduating at age 23 and expecting to be immediately working as a director. What’s more, they studied and worshipped with a quiet reverence the work of other directors, particularly the films of the Italian and French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s. For his part, Welles never understood much of that. Orson was always fond of picking on the style of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, for example, lamenting how the young folks can’t ever seem to finish a shot and cut to the next: they have to linger and linger on shots of the horizon or a plastic bag or something. “Just cut!” he would scream at the screen. But of course it wasn’t lost on him what they were trying to accomplish.
Another element that’s very important in Orson’s new style was eroticism. This came from his new love partner (and life partner) Oja Kodar, a Croatian artist and writer who inspired him in every way. Always squeamish about showing such things on film, Orson would tease his friend Peter Bogdanovich about the sex scenes in The Last Picture Show, saying he just made “dirty movies” now. But again, this was not uninteresting territory, if done right, and it represented a new challenge. Times were changing, and Orson didn’t want to be left behind.
Therefore, The Other Side of the Wind had many artistic points to make and blended many styles. It’s a real Welles project, a film within a film, and almost within another film. Extremely post-modern, very experimental and way ahead of its time.
The basic plot of the film would concern the last night in the life of old movie director Jake Hannaford. Hannaford, an amalgam of many directors of Orson’s generation, is trying to fit into the new world of cinema and not doing well. Scenes from his last movie are being screened for friends and reporters at an elaborate party at his house in the deserts of Arizona. (Much of the film was shot in a house in Carefree.) We see these scenes, filmed in beautiful 35 mm, though we never see the whole the film. They’re self-consciously arty, with some explicit sex and a lot of arbitrary oddness: Welles’ comment on his impression of modern cinema. But since at the party where the film is being shown there are loads of reporters and media types, we’ll also see footage from this source, except here it will be all handheld 16 mm and 8 mm footage (this was a bit before video became common in the news), as we see Hannaford being hounded by reporters, dealing with the personalities in his films, interacting with friends from the old days and finally ending with Hannaford driving his car off a cliff, just as the sun comes up.
It’s a daring and original structure, which still reads as experimental although one can imagine how it would have all been put together. Hannaford was originally supposed to be played by Peter O’Toole, but Welles instead hired his old friend John Huston for the role, which was a better fit. Huston, a hard-drinking, risk-it-all director who was also shockingly intelligent and much more cultured than his tough-guy image suggested, inhabited Hannaford. The guests at the party would be played by essentially whoever Welles could get to come out to Carefree for a couple of weeks and party, improvising scenes all night. It became something of a “happening” as shooting stretched on for months and even years. Rich Little, for example, appears in some scenes. Character actor Peter Jason remembers being summoned from New York to appear in the film “at once”, only to arrive at the party and being fed a big T-bone steak and spotting Welles and Huston getting drunk around the pool. (Some of these extras had bright futures. The “Line Producer”, such as this film had any sort of “producer” was in fact a young former College football player named Frank Marshall, who later worked with Spielberg and now runs Lucasfilm with his wife and professional partner, Kathleen Kennedy.)
The film would also have another, perhaps even more daring element: a same-sex relationship. In the mythology of the character of Hannaford, Welles developed this idea that for years, Hannaford would terrorize and manipulate his leading men by stealing their wives or girlfriends. But that was a smokescreen, as he really always wanted to be with the men themselves. In this film, over the course of the party, Hannaford would break down and finally admit this to one of his longtime leading men in attendance. The original script called for a love scene between them at the end, and a “Thelma and Louise”-style dual suicide. This openness to homosexuality no doubt comes from Welles’ long years in the theatre, and particularly his mentors Hilton Edwards and Michael Macliammoir, a couple for decades. He would revisit it again in a later script, released after his death and written in the early 1980s called The Big Brass Ring. But for such a story to emerge in the early 1970s would have placed Welles far ahead of the cultural curve.
Since we don’t have much of this film to actually watch, it’s difficult to get a sense of it other than through the stories of its making. There do exist a few scenes, some rough montages of the party and a couple of complete scenes from the “fake film” Hannaford is presenting at the party, one of which is a very hot sex scene in a car, which would have raised many eyebrows, particularly coming as it did from Orson Welles. But there are legends upon legends about this film. Orson grabbing the camera one moonlit night in Arizona, for example, and dancing with a grace that surprised everyone while shooting a scene. Huston and Welles’ constant friendly banter, like when Huston once yelled between takes, “Orson! What page are we on?!” To which Orson replied, “John, what the hell does it matter what page we’re on?” And Huston growled back, “Because I want to know how drunk I’m supposed to be!” Or Orson mercilessly cutting into those who analyze and review film, having Bogdanovich (playing a critic) repeat the line in a high, nerdy voice, “Mr. Hannford, do you think the camera is a phallus?”, which would never fail to make Orson explode with laughter.
Filming continued off and on between 1973 and 1976, but ultimately the film was never finished. The shooting strategy, producing scenes other than the “film within the film” segments by constant improvisation and handheld cameras, produced miles of footage with no form and no shape. Welles would have given it that form in the editing room, and did make some progress on it. But as always, the expense of such a project led him to make bad business deals, and in one of the weirdest stories in film history, the film wound up the property of several European investors and government of Iran. In later years, Welles would periodically appear in French courts to beg for the rights to the raw footage, which he insisted was useless in anyone else’s hands, a sidelong way of stating that hanging onto it until he died wouldn’t let them slap it together and release it as “Orson Welles’ last movie”. Ultimately the film did outlive its creator, but even after Welles’ death in 1985, the legal battles dragged on and on.
And then it became a question of who would be qualified to give the footage shape even if it was acquired. Oliver Stone, whose style seems to suit the multi-format, montage approach, was ultimately shown some of the footage by Kodar but walked away, claiming, “This is beyond me. It’s too advanced.” Now that the footage is all available, Frank Marshall himself has gotten involved and brought in Bogdanovich and a number of others, including film historians like Joseph McBride, and if they get the money, they’ll finish the movie to the best of their abilities.
What will that give us, exactly? Certainly not “Orson Welles’ Last Movie”. For one thing, he went on to write other scripts and plan other films. This wasn’t the end for him, as he had another decade of life ahead. And it won’t be Orson’s film anyhow, since he missed out on some of the most important post-production. Also, the “time” of the film has passed, making it a time capsule of how some Hollywood veterans saw the new American cinema in the early 1970s. That’s a pretty small target to hit, nostalgically speaking. No doubt the deeply “seventies” style of the footage will be off-putting to some, as perhaps the graphic sex. But for all its potential flaws, whatever product emerges from this process will be precious. Welles didn’t live very long and didn’t make many films. When an artist dies, one of the things we as the audience mourn is the fact that there will be no more new art from them. Here, at least, we’ll give Orson a chance to give us a little more.