clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Against He-Men: The Pleasures of Orson Welles’s Long-Lost Movie ‘The Other Side of the Wind’

Forty years in the making and still right on time, the ‘Citizen Kane’ master’s final film is here

Still of two men in ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ Netflix

In the spring of 1937, Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles—two self-styled Great Men of the 20th Century—came very close to beating the shit out of each other. Welles, who at 22 already possessed that rich, aged-oak baritone, had been hired to narrate a Spanish Civil War documentary. Hemingway, 37 years old and with A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises already under his weathered belt, had written the script. Before recording, the young upstart had the audacity to edit Hemingway’s handiwork—in cutting the fat, Welles later claimed, he was only trying “to make it more Hemingwayesque.” The great prose stylist was not pleased. He insulted Welles by insinuating that he was gay, and thus not manly enough to be narrating a film about war. Welles swiped back, leaning into the caricature (“Mister Hemingway, how strong you are and how big you are!”). Hemingway, infuriated, picked up a piece of furniture, and, for a moment, two Great American Geniuses began attacking each other with chairs. Having expended their aggression with their egos mutually intact, though, they realized that the whole thing was ridiculous and, according to journalist Josh Karp’s book Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of ‘The Other Side of the Wind’, they quickly “collapsed to the floor in laughter, and shared a bottle of whiskey.” This is the story of how the men became friends.

Movie history is littered with similar tales of comedically combative machismo as a preamble to mutual respect (John Huston coming to blows with Errol Flynn; Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz duking it out on the set of The American Friend, only to go out drinking afterward and return to the set in the morning the best of friends). In Hollywood lore, who slept with whom is sometimes as intriguing a question as who punched whom square in the jaw. But one of the many playfully provocative things that Orson Welles’s dizzying, posthumously completed final film, The Other Side of the Wind, suggests is that these two questions might not be entirely unrelated.

The movie’s plot is complex and somewhat beside the point, but here you go: A party is thrown for legendary (and fictitious) filmmaker Jake Hannaford on his 70th birthday. This is also, we learn in the first scene, the day Hannaford will die, in a car accident at the end of the night. A crowd of friends, acolytes, and hangers-on are in attendance to see an unfinished cut of Hannaford’s latest film, The Other Side of the Wind—a stylish, abstract, and explicitly carnal attempt to appeal to the counterculture. Among those attending is the impeccably named Brooks Otterlake, Hannaford’s former filmmaking protégé who has recently experienced the kind of blockbuster commercial success that the older man never achieved. Hannaford needs money to finish the picture, and although he hates stooping to such measures he is hoping that someone at the party—maybe the in-demand young producer he’s invited, maybe Otterlake himself—will provide it for him. There is also the complication that the film’s lead actor has disappeared, and that some people at the party believe it has something to do with the fact that the archetypally macho Hannaford might be in love with him.

Born of the same imagination as Citizen Kane, The Other Side of the Wind is even more ambitious in its structural desire to present Hannaford through a pluralistic prism. It is also head-spinningly meta: Brooks Otterlake is played by Welles’s own mentee turned successor Peter Bogdanovich (who had just finished his commercially successful and critically lauded masterpiece The Last Picture Show at the time of filming), while Hannaford is portrayed by filmmaker John Huston. Hannaford is at one point referred to as “the Ernest Hemingway of the cinema,” and the film takes place July 2, which happens to be the date that Hemingway shot himself. “Hemingway,” Hannaford muses at one point, “that left hook of his was overrated.”

The Other Side of the Wind is a movie made by a male genius, poking fun at the mythic bombast of male genius, while simultaneously honoring it not just by the means of its production (of many examples: Welles pushed the crew to work such long hours that his cameraman collapsed from exhaustion) but its insistence that the dynamics of male genius are interesting enough upon which to base a two-hour psychodrama. And into this fraught and hungover Hollywood moment it comes, thanks to a company whose very existence was unfathomable at the time of Welles’s 1985 death: Netflix. After more than 40 years of botched financing deals, vituperative arguments among the surviving players, and reputation-enhancing mystique, the fates have chosen this moment for the stars to align and the world to at last behold Orson Welles’s fabled, unfinished final movie—a time when we are reassessing the very notion of the male artistic genius and the types of destruction it can wreak on those around him.

It is the best of times for this movie to be released. It is the worst of times for this movie to be released.

In his later years, Welles liked to tell a joke that was at least partially not a joke: “It never occurred to me that I wasn’t [a genius] until middle age.”

“Being declared a genius from birth leads life in many directions,” Josh Karp writes in his lively 2015 chronicle of the making of The Other Side of the Wind. “A normal childhood, however, is rarely one of them.” Welles’s lofty aspirations were encouraged by his mother, Beatrice (he used to claim that the first word she ever spoke to him as a baby was “genius”), who died when he was 9. The following year, he was profiled by Wisconsin’s Capital Times: “CARTOONIST, ACTOR, POET AND ONLY 10.” At Illinois’s Todd School for Boys, the headmaster also saw a precocity in Welles and allowed him, Karp writes, “to indulge any interest and avoid anything that didn’t capture his imagination.” The latter included “sports” and “math.”

By his early 20s, Welles was a full-fledged American wunderkind, having established his own theater company and generated a national uproar with his faux-alien-invasion radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. A move to film was inevitable; he made Citizen Kane, still routinely listed among the greatest movies of all time, when he was 25 years old.

If the first quarter-century of Welles’s life unfolded like a fairy tale, the remaining 45 years were an odd cautionary fable about the perils of youthful success and failing to live up to one’s “potential.” (To be fair, this was the way Welles himself framed it: He said that he began his career with the “best luck in cinema history” and ended it with “the worst bad luck.”) For so long, that has been the party line about Orson Welles, but the further we get from the perils and particulars of his life the less it seems to be true. For, however compromised by studios and editors the existing versions are, can a career really be a disappointment if it left us with movies like The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, and soliloquies delivered as perfectly as the cuckoo-clock speech in The Third Man?

Still, all his life, what if was a constant buzz in his ear. The older he got, the more the unfulfilled promises of his early reputation haunted him, as did the mythic, unfinished version of his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, which had been heavily recut by the studio without his oversight. Welles vehemently discouraged people from sifting for autobiography in his movies and, most odiously, from asking what his own personal “Rosebud” was (“I never even went sledding”). Still, it’s hard not to think of Charles Foster Kane when you hear a story that Welles’s longtime partner and Wind costar Oja Kodar told at his memorial service, about a time in the later part of his life when she found him in his living room, alone, quietly weeping. He was watching The Magnificent Ambersons on television. What if, what if, what if.

There is a thick air of elegy hanging over The Other Side of the Wind. “He died many summers ago,” an aged Brooks Otterlake tell us in a voice-over (at least partially written and recorded by Bogdanovich recently, as he mentions that the time was “long before cellphone cameras and computerized images.”) He continues, in character (or as much as you want to believe), “For years, I personally didn’t want this document shown because, frankly, I didn’t like the way I came off in the piece. But I’m old enough now not to care anymore how my role in Jake’s life is interpreted.”

Not unlike the Paul Masson wine Welles shilled for later in his life, The Other Side of the Wind has become richer with age. It has outlived not only much of its cast and crew but also most of its objects of satire and the cultural changes that Welles perceived as threats—the post-’60s counterculture and the New Hollywood auteur or, namely, Michelangelo Antonioni and Bogdanovich himself. But the maverick star-director doesn’t have the same cultural clout it once did, and no one is angry about Zabriskie Point these days, if they’ve seen or heard of it at all. Hannaford’s movie, one member of his entourage speculates, is his attempt to say something about “kids today.” But it is now tomorrow, and, perhaps unwittingly, this living, breathing picture has come to say something about how the kids are all old.

The irony—which wouldn’t have existed had this movie came out in the ’70s, as planned—is that, for all the talk that Brooks Otterlake represents a radically new generation of filmmaker, Bogdanovich became something of a Wellsian figure himself. A 1971 New York Times profile of Bogdanovich, fresh off the release of The Last Picture Show, was headlined, “Peter Still Looks Forward to His ‘Citizen Kane.’” But the years when The Other Side of the Wind were shot turned out to be the highlight of Bogdanovich’s career. Later in the ’70s, he directed a string of flops like Daisy Miller and Nickelodeon, and continued to pursue young, blond women until one of them, a 20-year-old Playboy model named Dorothy Stratten, was killed in an apparent murder-suicide by her estranged husband. (Bogdanovich, now 79, later married her sister.) Maybe he was, like Welles, stuck trying to live up to that old and impossible mythos of a Great Man, but it only lead to creative purgatory and tabloid intrigue. One of the first sentences of his Wikipedia page contradicts the promise of that Times headline: “His most critically acclaimed and well-known film is the drama The Last Picture Show.”

As with most cultural artifacts more than 40 years old, some aspects of The Other Side of the Wind have aged poorly: a Croatian actress (Welles’s mistress Kodar) playing a Native American woman who is routinely referred to as “Pocahontas”; a recurring visual gag involving “midgets”; a borderline pornographic fixation with Kodar’s body that sometimes seems like a simple boast that the director was bedding her. But the squirmiest part of the movie to watch in 2018 involves the character Mavis Henscher, a naive teenage girl whom Otterlake brings to the party but with whom—probably to get back at Otterlake—the 70-year-old Hannaford rather cruelly and lasciviously flirts. Many believe the character was a jab at Bogdanovich’s then-girlfriend, Cybill Shepherd, the glamorous 20-year-old actress Bogdanovich had cast in Picture Show and for whom, over the course of shooting, he had left his wife and children. Still, Shepherd was an up-and-coming superstar who was a lead in Bogdanovich’s film; the fictional Mavis Henscher has far less power and comes across as nauseatingly young and inexperienced.

Perhaps that’s because she was. Welles and some members of his crew had just eaten breakfast in a diner when they’d been discussing who to cast as the “pretty, dim young blonde” Mavis—when they realized they should just cast the teenage waitress that had served them that morning. Though Cathy Lucas had never acted before, they persuaded her mother to let her take time off school (just as Hannaford lecherously suggests to Mavis in the film) and join the cast of an Orson Welles movie. (It remains her only IMDB credit.) Although Mavis makes it through the night unscathed, her presence is troubling, simply because everyone else at the party, male and female, treats the whole ordeal as entirely ordinary.

In Morgan Neville’s Welles documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (which is premiering on Netflix alongside the completed Other Side of the Wind), Welles says that the idea for the movie was born from his fascination with “the whole mystique of the He-Man.” He adds, “This picture we’re going to make is against He-Men.” I was not so sure the first time I saw it, so invested is it in the Shakespearean clash of male egos and the bluster of futile aggression. But on second viewing I realized I was looking too hard, perhaps myself too invested in the myths of Welles’s genius. He and his posthumous collaborators have engineered something much more aerodynamic. The Other Side of the Wind is, actually, a breeze.

In a notorious 1971 New Yorker essay—which pissed off Welles so badly that, in Wind, he based a particularly noxious character off of its author—Pauline Kael called Citizen Kane “a shallow work, a shallow masterpiece.” (This did not preclude her from thinking it a “great movie.”) What I find most refreshing about The Other Side of the Wind is that it, too, fits that description, and I think even invites it. It is, subtly, “against He-Men.” It allows you to consider the ways in which, contrary to what many of us are taught, masculinity can very often be shallow and absurd. “Don’t dig too deep into The Other Side of the Wind: it’s largely surface,” film critic David Edelstein writes. “But what a surface.”

And that can be enough. We have a tendency, as critic Lili Loofbourow pointed out earlier this year in an excellent essay about “the male glance,” not just to overlook the work of female artists but also to “overread” the works of male artists, particularly those we are primed to see as auteurs—as male geniuses. Oddly enough, at the end of the movie, Jake Hannaford (and Orson Welles) comes to a similar conclusion. “Who knows, maybe you can stare too hard at something, huh?” Hannaford says, to an audience who’s been waiting 40 years to consume and pick apart this very film. “Drain out the virtue, suck out the living juice.” Maybe it really is much more simple. “You shoot the great places and pretty people. All those girls and boys. Shoot ’em dead.” This movie is a funeral for the old, restrictive idea of the untouchable male genius and its impossible expectations—the brazen, maverick filmmaker who can get away with whatever he wants. The Other Side of the Wind has arrived 40 years late. But in its odd way, it’s right on time.