Thursday, March 3, 2016
ORSON WELLES'S LAST MOVIE: The Making of "The Other Side of the Wind"
"Orson Welles's Last Movie" pretty much begins with a meant-to-be-funny-but-isn't anecdote in which Welles is confronted by a homophobic Ernest Hemingway and reacts by acting like a "faggot" in front of him, leading to a battle and then the two collapsing into laughter. The anecdote may be apocryphal but it does somewhat figure in this convoluted story of Orson Welles and his attempts to finish -- or not finish -- The Other Side of the Wind. The book almost unfolds like a mystery as the reader wonders why few people have ever seen the completed footage of the film despite the fact that there is quite a lot of it. Disgusted with interference from studios who took final cut away from him for The Magnificent Ambersons and other films, Welles decided to go the independent route, and hired several people to help him who were devoted to the charismatic actor/director and willing to work insanely long hours for a comparative pittance. (Meanwhile Welles continued to live quite well and indulge his enormous appetite.) The plot of The Other Side of the Wind deals with a film director who, much like Welles, is making what he believes will be his final film while his world falls apart around him. Welles reportedly based the lead character on "macho men" like Hemingway and director John Huston, who plays the lead in Welles' movie. The Big Reveal at the end is that the director, who has affairs with most of his leading ladies, is actually more attracted to his leading men, and in love with the latest male star who has, apparently, only been using him. The big butch guy who is secretly gay and kills himself was a stereotype even in the seventies -- even The Sergeant came out earlier -- so Welles may not have been as ahead of his time as he thought he was. How self-revealing Welles was being with his screenplay (which was mostly in his head) is also open to debate. In any case, due to legal entanglements and the fact that the owners of the film won't release the rights (without a huge pay out, one suspects), it is unlikely the general public or film enthusiasts will ever see any of the movie. Those who have seen the footage claim that certain sequences have the same remarkable imagery and camera work of Citizen Kane, but whether it's as good a movie is another question [one suspects it has moments of brilliance but may not have added up to a whole even if it was finished; and the gay angle sounds awkward]. Author Karp isn't a film scholar, but Orson Welles's Last Movie is well-written and well-reported, and is a completely absorbing look at a gifted, difficult artist trying to make a movie outside of the studio system and putting it together like a patchwork quilt.
Verdict: Very good read with interesting details and a "cast" of dozens really pulls you along. ***1/2.