The A to Z of The Other Side of the Wind

November 17, 2018

A conventional review doesn’t seem appropriate when reviewing an Orson Welles film, particularly one that’s getting a release more than 40 years after actually being made, so Stephen Vagg thought he’d tackle it A to Z.

A is for AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, which Orson Welles was given in 1975… and used the occasion to tub-thump for money to finish The Other Side of the Wind. To be honest, that story and all it involved and what it meant for Welles (and Hollywood) is more moving than anything in Wind itself – but the film is still fascinating, provoking and a reminder of what a talented man Welles was.

B is for Bogdanovich, Peter, perhaps the most famous acolyte and chronicler of Welles, who plays a character based on himself in the film. Bogdanovich began his career as an actor, as he often takes pains to point out, and has carved out a decent part-time career for himself as a character player. His performance in Wind is not one of the film’s best, but it doesn’t matter because he’s so spectacularly well cast and brings such fascinating baggage to the role. It’s also heartbreaking to see this early ‘70s Bogdanovich be so cocky and confident on screen, and to know what hardships were facing him down the track (several flops, the murder of girlfriend Dorothy Stratten, two declarations of bankruptcy). There’s also a “young dumb blonde girlfriend of the director” character played by Cathy Lucas based on Cybill Shepherd, which understandably annoyed Bogdanvich. Shepherd herself and Bogdanovich’s ex-wife Polly Platt can be glimpsed in the film.

C is for completion, fear of, something which (some) amateur psychologists think Welles suffered from – pointing to all the unfinished films he made in his life along with Wind (Don Quixote, The Dreamers, The Deep, Filming the Trial, It’s All True). Defenders argue Welles would’ve loved to have finished those films if he’d had the money and support – indeed, some get very touchy at any suggestion otherwise. Personally, I think it’s possible to reconcile both the view that he was let down by other people and he contributed to the problem. To me it makes total sense that Welles might put his heart and soul into a film and then get cold feet towards the end, when energy runs low, funds run out, and you fear the finished project isn’t going to be as good as you hoped. And I get the feeling he knew that had Wind been released in his lifetime there’d be a bunch of reviews that would say “another disappointment from the maker of Citizen Kane”… as they did for F For Fake and Chimes of Midnight and for everything else since Citizen Kane. It doesn’t make the fact that he didn’t make more completed movies any less tragic.

D is for The Deep, another unfinished film of Welles’, this one made in the late ‘60s. It was based on the novel which was filmed by Phil Noyce as Dead Calm, and I hope someone like Netflix puts that together too. I have a feeling that with its thriller plot it might be more accessible to non film buffs than Other Side of the Wind.

E is for editing, done by Welles and (after Welles died) Bob Murawski. Murawski did a stunning job of approximating Welles’ style – he imitated the great innovator with supreme skill, and if anyone deserves an Oscar from this film apart from Welles and Gary Graver it’s him.

F is for Ford, John, who I’d argue had as much, if not more, influence on the character of Jake Hannaford than any other figure, including Welles and Ernest Hemmingway. Like Ford, Hannaford was self-consciously macho, Irish, had a clan who would hang around him, had Peter Bogdanovich as an acolyte, John Milius as another acolyte (he inspired the Jack Simon character played by Gregory Sierra) and was possibly gay (read Maureen O’Hara’s memoirs for the dish on that).Of course, there’s a lot of Welles in Hannaford but I would say there’s more Ford.

G is for Gary Graver, the DOP of Wind, and Welles’ right hand man for the last fifteen years of the latter’s life. Their relationship was fascinating and complex – Welles was a father figure and inspiration to Graver, though the relationship was possibly abusive (Graver was rarely paid and at Welles’ beck and call). It’s rich emotional material, more interesting than any of the relationships depicted in Wind, to be brutally honest. It has to be said Graver does a brilliant job of photography on Wind, and one hopes he gets an Oscar nomination.

H is for homosexuality, a theme which interested Welles later his career – such as in his film script for The Big Brass Ring, and The Other Side of the Wind, which hints that Jake Hannaford has a crush on his leading man. Mind you, there’s a lot of straight sex in it, too. A lot. Hey, it was the seventies.

I is for Iran, the country of the film’s co-financier Mehdi Bushehri, the brother-in-law of the Shah. When the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the legal situation of the film became extremely tricky and contributed to its delay in being released. Which is classic Orson Welles – his productions didn’t just have financial troubles, they had troubles that involved revolutions.

J is for John Huston, who plays Hannaford – rather surprisingly since Welles normally nabbed the best roles in all his own productions. Huston’s performance is fine, but you can’t help wishing that Welles had taken the role – he had more of a twinkle in his eye, more humour, more fun. And of course, the scenes with Bogdanovich would have taken on an extra dimension. I do love how Welles and Huston were BFFs in real life though.

K is for Karp, Josh, whose superb book on the making of the film is required reading for anyone interested in it.

L is for legal troubles, which dogged this film even more than other Orson Welles productions. I think any creative person would have adored the chance of working with Orson Welles. I think any lawyer would have been terrified.

M is for McBride, Joseph, a noted film historian, biographer, screenwriter, author and educator, who appears as a character based on himself, and wrote one of the best books on Welles, Whatever Happened to Orson Welles, which did so much to revive appreciation in the considerable achievements of Welles’ later years.

N is for Netflix, famed for their market dominance, the high quality TV shows, and the patchy quality of their movies. The restoration of Wind is one of the best things that the company has ever done, the best “original” movie they’ve ever released, and they should be proud of it.

O is for Oja Kodar, who co-wrote and appears in the film, and was Welles’ creative and romantic partner during the latter years of his life, even while he was married to (and lived with) another woman. You old hound dog, Orson! Kodar spends a lot of Wind’s running time walking around nude – I mean a lot – and is front and centre in what is already the film’s most famous sequence, riding cowgirl on Bob Random in the front seat of a car while her necklace beads slapp against her body and rain splatters outside. Welles’ admiration for Kodar’s body clearly didn’t extend to wanting to hear her talk – she doesn’t say a line in the entire film. She was apparently a leading reason in holding up the release of this film, which is a shame, since she is an arresting presence.

P is for pornography, which Gary Graver used to make to pay the bills while working free for Orson Welles. Orson even famously helped him out once, editing a shower scene in a porno called 3AM. Wind is easily Welles’ most sexy film, with plenty of nudity and copulation and even a dildo in the opening scene. I always thought Welles was a great lost maker of horror films (just look at how creepy the Xanadu scenes were in Citizen Kane) or action flicks (see the house of mirrors shoot out in Lady from Shanghai, or the battle sequences in Chimes at Midnight). After watching Other Side of the Wind, I’m convinced he would have made first rate porn and erotic thrillers too.

Q is for Q and As, which appear a lot in Wind – scenes of people standing around asking questions and replying. Did this happen to Welles in real life? Does it happen in real life? It felt weird to me watching the film but maybe this was how things were in the seventies and/or among famous directors.

R is for Rich Little, a celebrity impressionist originally cast in the role later played by Peter Bogdanovich. Little shot most of his part but then walked out on the film because he had a professional engagement. Welles promptly recast the role and no doubt stewed on the betrayal – which a lot of selfish self-centred people do, which Welles clearly was, despite all his genius.

S is for Susan Strasberg, daughter of Lee and Paula, a one-time wunderkind of Broadway whose career had become reduced to mostly appearing in guest shots on TV dramas when she got the call to appear in Wind. She plays – quite well – a figure based on Pauline Kael, who famously both defended and criticised Welles in print. Welles clearly remembered the latter – her essay Raising Kane – more than the former. The finale of Wind involves Hannaford punching this character in the face for suggesting he might be gay.

T is for They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a stunning documentary about the making of Other Side of the Wind, focusing in particular on Welles and his relationships with Bogdanovich, Kodar and Graver. It’s gripping, moving and captivating – a more emotionally affecting movie than Wind itself, though Wind is more innovative technically.

U is for Unknown Actors, which Welles delighted in using in his projects over the years. Sometimes it paid off – but there are some performances in Wind which are simply bad, such as Geoffrey Land as the Robert Evans style studio head, and Cathy Lucas as a Cybil Shepherd type. Gregory Sierra, a good actor, is disastrously miscast as a character that’s meant to be based on John Milius.

V is for vision, Orson Welles’, which is all over this film. A visual feast, full of ideas, erratic, overwhelming, stimulating. I know this is a flawed movie and I’ve been critical in this take, but I should also add it’s full of moments and scenes that have stayed with me, and I’ve seen it three times in a month, and each time gotten new stuff out of it. To counter balance that…

W is for writing, a skill at which Welles was never that good at, at least not compared to his abilities as an actor and director. If he had the help of a skilled collaborator like Herman Mankiewicz (as on Citizen Kane) or was adapting William Shakespeare, he was great, but he struggled more when writing on his own or with Kodar (eg The Big Brass Ring, Mr Arkadin). Wind has a great set up – a party in the last 24 hours of a director’s life – and plenty of ideas for drama: he’s gone bankrupt, his girlfriend is young enough to be his granddaughter, his leading man has quit, he might be in love with his leading man, he has to borrow money off his former protege. But none of these are really developed – the film is more interested in style and philosophical chat. There’s no confrontation with the girlfriend, or the leading man. No real resolutions, except death. And Welles fans will leap to his defence and go “oh that’s the way he intended, he’s subverting the form”. And I’m sure he intended to. But I’d also argue, looking at the whole of his career, that he simply wasn’t a very good screenwriter, and that’s reflected in Wind. And I also think it’s possible to say that, and say that the film is still fascinating and entertaining and well directed.

X is for X rated, which this film flirts with being at times. A dildo in the opening scene! (see pornography)

Y is for young Hollywood vs old Hollywood, which this film exemplifies. Hannaford is, like Welles and John Ford, very much a creature of old Hollywood, surrounded by cronies (played by old pros like Norman Lloyd, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Lili Palmer and Edmond O’Brien)… but who was so talented and such a maverick that he was immensely appealing to young Hollywood, as shown in the film (and in real life) by people like Bogdanovich, McBride and Jaglom.

Z is for Zabriskie Point, the 1970 Michelangelo Antonioni film which featured a house that is used in Other Side of the Wind. Welles mocks Antonioni’s film-within-a-film in Wind – lots of arty shots of Oja Kodar walking around naked not saying anything. Welles fans claim this is brilliant satire, which it is, but there’s so much of it. Kodar walks around not saying anything in the “real” section of the film, that you wonder how much he was sending it up, and how much he was simply having fun doing it himself.

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