It was “Orson Welles Day” at the New York Film Festival, so proclaimed one of the festival’s honchos from the stage, introducing two films: “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” a doc on the last years of Welles larger-than-life life, and his famously unfinished last film “The Other Side of the Wind.” To fully appreciate either film, you really need to see both.
I attended the screening for “Wind” several days ago, and at first was less than impressed. But without its companion piece “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” you only half-grasp what Welles was up against and the dark forces that were overtaking him, as he smoked, drank, and ate his way to his inevitable end.
Seeing one film without the other leaves too many questions unanswered. You’ve got to take in what Welles was doing, what he needed to do, and why he didn’t really do it. There’s a sense that to finish “The Other Side of the Wind” was going to feel like a creative death to him. And he didn’t want to die, so he kept putting hurdles to block his own progress to delay the film’s completion. When Wells passed away in 1985 at the age of 70, the driving force to finish his final work died with him. Editors Jason Zeldes and Aaron Wickenden and producer Morgan Neville have done the super-human job of putting all the pieces together and making coherent sense out of the mountain of footage, covering the last decade or two of Welles’ well-chronicled, formidable time on this planet.
And all four hours are essential viewing for the true appreciation of America’s greatest cinematic genius in his utter decay.”The Other Side of the Wind” is the story of a great film director at the end of his career. Jake Hannaford is played with great relish by a braying, alcohol-infused John Huston. Welles was originally going to play the part himself but gave it to Huston as “a gift.”
It’s dizzying in its overall impact. How enthralling, how sad. What ambition, what folly. Yet Welles exuberance is felt throughout over, and over again, enjoying himself to the hilt. He loved making movies, and “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” a phrase of Welles’ own, posits the question that perhaps that is all ever Welles wanted. Forever filming, but never finishing “The Other Side of the Wind” or any of his last projects, all incomplete.
Welles wanted to keep shooting and shooting and editing and editing but nothing was ever good enough, so he’d replace cast members and rewrite his own script over and over again. Endlessly. Always exhausting his resources, always running out of money and time.
A totally nude Oja Kodar incongruously wanders through “Wind” with no dialogue, but her magnificent curves are photographed from every conceivable angle. She looks at everything she surveys with utter disdain. And in a shocking, revelatory sub-plot, a blond young man runs naked through the decrepit movie settings that Welles used when he had no where else to shoot. The youth’s nude torso is photographed as sensually as Ms. Kodar’s. Ruth Warrick who was a member of Welles’ Mercury Theater and played Kane’s first wife in “Citizen Kane” told me that Welles himself was gay. “Everybody knew it, but you weren’t supposed to talk about it.” But “The Other Side of the Wind” puts his latent homosexuality on full display.
If Welles was indeed a closeted gay man, how incredibly paralyzing and sad that must have been for someone who cultivated a Hemingwayesque man’s-man machismo façade.
In one telling moment in “Wind,” Hannaford (Huston) finds his backyard populated by dozens and dozens of blond bewigged dummies, presumably stand-ins for the young men he could never have. He takes his shotgun and blows each of their heads off, one by one. For me, it was one of the movie’s most disturbing and telling images.
Welles surprisingly says in voice-over on the sound-track that “Citizen Kane was my curse. Everything I ever did since then would be compared to it and found wanting.”
What an incredible, day-long Special Event “Orson Welles Day” it was! And kudos once again to the New York Film Festival for presenting us with this one-two punch that Welles aficionados have waited decades to see in any form, now reconstructed in one iteration of its overwhelming, disquieting, shattering entirety.