Shot in stages beginning in the early ’70s and apparently not completely finished at the time of Welles’ death in 1985, The Other Side of the Wind was the film the director of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil hoped would return him to the big leagues. Unfortunately for Welles buffs the world over, it has spent decades in legal limbo due to a string of rights disputes. These primarily have involved Oja Kodar, the sculptor and actress who was Welles’ companion in the last years of his life, and Mehdi Mouscheri, Welles’ financial backer and brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. (Part of the film’s legend is that it was reportedly seized after the Ayatollah KArchives: Issue #44 ini took power in Iran in 1979.)
According to Bogdanovich, a close friend of Welles’ who had a key acting role in the picture, there’s a possibility the legal situation may be resolved soon, potentially clearing the way for cineastes to finally see if The Other Side of Wind is the masterpiece Welles so desperately wanted it to be.
“I can’t tell you who,” says Bogdanovich, “but there’s an American company that for the last few years—with my assistance—has been negotiating the extraordinarily complicated rights situation. [That situation involves] Oja Kodar, who was Orson’s partner on the picture and owned Orson’s side of it after he died; the Iranian brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran, who owned the other half of it… and the Orson Welles estate, which controls the right of publicity and so on. Those three factions have been negotiating for about three years, and I would say they’re now almost all in the same ballpark. So it may happen in the next six months to a year. Once it’s resolved, it’ll take probably a year to finish it.”
According to accounts from Bogdanovich and others involved in the production, The Other Side of the Wind concerns an aging moviemaker named J.J. Hannaford (played by Welles’ friend and fellow directing great, the late John Huston), who is long past his prime in the business. Returning to the U.S. after years of living in Europe, Hannaford decides to jumpstart his career by knocking out a shamelessly commercial movie loaded with sex and violence. Bogdanovich plays Brooks Otterlake, a hot young moviemaker based, he says, on himself and his own relationship with Welles, to some extent. Among those who reportedly pop up in the film are Kodar, actors Dennis Hopper and Mercedes McCambridge, directors Claude Chabrol, Paul Mazursky and Henry Jaglom, and a young journalist and aspiring moviemaker named Cameron Crowe.
|Its a dirty movie, Welles said. If you can make one, I can.|
Bogdanovich recalls first hearing about The Other Side of the Wind as he prepared to head off to shoot his own acclaimed 1971 effort The Last Picture Show, the script of which Welles hadn’t liked and had referred to as a “dirty movie.” (“It’s an actor’s movie—you’ll get no credit for this,” Welles advised him.)
“Just before I was going to shoot in Texas, [Welles] calls me up and says, ‘I’ve started shooting a movie,’” Bogdanovich remembers. The surprised younger director replied, “You have?” “Yes,” Welles replied. “It’s a dirty movie. If you can make one, I can.”
Welles originally intended for Bogdanovich to play a bit part as a film journalist interviewing Huston’s character. “I do impressions, so he had me doing a kind of film nut—one of those film aficionados who knows everything—but he wanted me to do it like Jerry Lewis,” Bogdanovich explains. Welles planned to shoot the following day, but it turned out that was when the younger director would be flying to Texas. In a preview of the loose, seat-of-the-pants nature of the production to come Welles replied: “Alright, well, meet me at the airport—you know where the planes fly over? Meet me there at noon. I’ll shoot for an hour and I’ll let you go.”
Bogdanovich followed Welles’ instructions and found himself filming a scene with a small crew in the brief span of time before his plane departed.
“He had me doing lines like, ‘Do you think the cinema is a phallus?’” Bogdanovich recalls. “I’m interviewing John Huston, who plays the director—but John wasn’t playing it yet. Orson was playing it off-camera because he hadn’t even decided yet who was going to play it. So we shot for about an hour—funny stuff. I remember, there was a train coming, and Orson said, ‘Quick, there’s a train coming! Get over here! Quick! Quick!’ And he’d get me standing in front of the train so I’d be standing here and the train would go by behind me. ‘OK, talk! Play it here! Quickly!’ Because it was a free train shot.”
When Bogdanovich returned to Hollywood after the Texas location work for The Last Picture Show, Welles had done some additional filming on The Other Side of the Wind, but hadn’t yet gotten so far as to decide who was going to play the central Hannaford character. “He was shooting around it,” Bogdanovich says.
“But then, in ’72, ’73, he went to Carefree, Arizona, rented a big house and started shooting there. And Rich Little was hired to play this film director named Brooks Otterlake. It was a big part—a young film director who does impressions and who is very successful. This was after I’d had three hits, so it was kind of based on me. It wasn’t me, but it was sort of based on me. He’s very successful, and he’s trying to help Hannaford, played at that point by Huston, to finish his picture and get another job. So it was sort of a little bit based on our relationship.”
It turned out, however, that Welles was unhappy with Little’s performance “and eventually let him go or Rich quit or whatever,” Bogdanovich says. When Welles despaired over the possibility of not being able to find anybody to play the Otterlake character in the period of time that Huston was still available, Bogdanovich had a suggestion for a replacement: himself.
“I said, ‘Orson, why don’t you let me play it?’ ‘That never occurred to me,’” Welles replied. “‘You’re playing that other part.’ ‘I know, but that’s just a few scenes, anybody can do that.’ And so I cast myself,” Bogdanovich says.
Bogdanovich spent 10 days shooting the role at the Arizona location, “this huge, ramshackle house with about 12 bedraggled, exhausted-looking crew members wandering around,” he says. Welles’ famously idiosyncratic habits were much in evidence as filming moved ahead in an unorthodox fashion, with the cast and crew never knowing what to expect next from the larger-than-life auteur. Bogdanovich recalls one moment when a crew member approached Welles to say: ‘Orson, the boys are kind of hungry. It’s three o’clock and they haven’t had lunch.’” Imitating Welles’ famous booming voice, Bogdanovich remembers him replying: “Alright! If they’re hungry, if they don’t want to work anymore, let ’em go eat! I’m not hungry, I’m staying here! If they have to eat, let ’em go!”
Welles and Bogdanovich were soon the only ones left on the set. “Finally, after about 15 minutes, he looks at me and says, ‘Are you hungry?’” Bogdanovich recalls. “I said, ‘A little bit.’ And he says, ‘I’m absolutely starving!’ So he goes into the kitchen and on top of the refrigerator is the largest bag of Fritos that you’ve ever seen. This must have been the industrial family size or something. And he picked it up, ripped off the top of it and sort of threw [the Fritos] out on the table.” Grabbing an enormous handful of Fritos and shoving them in his mouth, Welles said, “You don’t gain weight if nobody sees you eating.”
For Bogdanovich, Welles’ creative approach to all aspects of moviemaking—from his visual style to his work with actors—came from “never really having anything written in stone. It was always, ‘Well, that could be better.’ Including dialogue, how he was gonna stage it, everything. He thought it ought to be fresh and you ought to keep yourself open to the possibility of doing it differently. He didn’t do things odd or strange because he thought, ‘This will be odd or strange.’ It’s just the way he saw it.”
Never forgetting the special access he had to one of American cinema’s greatest innovators, the lifelong film buff Bogdanovich frequently tried to pump the older director for his reasons for making specific creative decisions. Welles’ typical answer: “I don’t know. I thought it looked better.”
Bogdanovich, who recently contributed an audio commentary track to the DVD release of Citizen Kane, disputes the idea that Welles spent his latter years stewing in bitterness over the way Hollywood had rejected him after his Kane glory days. Welles’ feelings about the film business and his own legend were more complicated than that, Bogdanovich says. “It would come out in funny ways. Orson really wasn’t bitter, it wasn’t his thing. And he didn’t play the martyr.” On the other hand, when it was announced that Welles was to receive a special Oscar at the 1970 Academy Awards and Bogdanovich asked him if he would attend the ceremony, the older director replied that he would not, despite being virtually right around the block in Beverly Hills at the time. “They’re not gonna get me that way,” Welles said.
“And he didn’t go,” Bogdanovich recalls. “He called Huston and asked Huston to accept it for him. And I was sitting with Orson at the Beverly Hills Hotel, in the fucking bungalow, watching the Oscars. And Huston goes up, you know, half a mile away from us or whatever it was, and says, ‘I’m accepting this. Orson’s in Spain working and couldn’t make it. And this is for you, Orson.’ And Orson says, ‘Thanks, John! Bring it over!’”
Of all the myths about Welles, Bogdanovich most strongly disagrees with the idea that Kane was “the only movie he made, and the rest of his career was nothing. That was the attitude during all of Orson’s life after Kane. It was a difficult cross to bear, so Kane became a kind of cross for him. Because they used it to beat him up with, and I thought it was pretty disgusting. I mean, what about [Welles’ 1952 version of] Othello, which is, in fact, the first independent American film? All independent films came after. It was a movie he spent three and a half, four years making, all with his own bread. Won the grand prize at Cannes; it was an extraordinary piece of work. Dismissed. Touch of Evil, you don’t get thrillers better than that. Dismissed. Magnificent Ambersons, for the first hour is about as good a movie as anybody ever made, and is as unusual as Kane and probably would have been a better film than Kane because it’s much more emotional. Destroyed. Nonetheless, the first hour is better than most people’s films.”
As for Bogdanovich’s own favorite of Welles’ works: “I think Chimes at Midnight is his best film. He thought it was his best film. I think it’s beyond praise. That battle sequence is the best battle sequence ever done because it’s the only battle sequence that tries to show you how horrible war is, up until Spielberg did it. And I think Steven was influenced by it.”
If The Other Side of the Wind does indeed finally see the light of day some three decades after Welles began shooting it, it’s likely to open up a fresh discussion on the singular impact and artistic legacy of one of the most influential moviemakers of all time. As for the public’s view of Welles the man, Bogdanovich isn’t particularly optimistic that the film—or anything else, for that matter—will help clarify much about the widely misunderstood genius.
“He wasn’t really understood, but then most people aren’t,” Bogdanovich says. “And one of the things I’ve noticed since he died is how difficult it is to conjure up somebody who’s passed away. How difficult to say what they were like. It’s almost impossible. And that’s what Citizen Kane is about, isn’t it?” MM