During the post-screening panel following the New York Film Festival premiere of his new film They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, award-winning documentarian Morgan Neville revealed that of all the artists, political figures, and cultural personalities he’d examined, it was Orson Welles—artistic genius and Hollywood enfant terrible—whom he’d found the most endlessly fascinating. From his earliest days as a child prodigy who could read at two and perform Shakespeare at ten, Welles ceaselessly innovated and transmogrified every art form he encountered. In the 1930s he changed the face of American theater with productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar which transplanted the plays, respectively, to Haiti and a Nazi Germany-esque fascist state. His Mercury Theatre radio production of “The War of the Worlds” became the stuff of legend after it reportedly caused a panic among several communities that assumed it was a news report and not a fictional work. Most notoriously, Welles changed the face of cinema forever with his debut film Citizen Kane (1941), widely considered by many critics and historians like Roger Ebert as the single greatest movie ever made.
Yet his tyrannical nature and flagrant contempt for playing nice with the studios made him a Hollywood pariah, resulting in a two decade self-imposed exile into Europe after his film Touch of Evil (1958) was partially reshot and reedited behind his back by Universal Pictures. But with the dawn of the 70s the atmosphere in Hollywood had changed—the New Wave had arrived and with it a new cadre of actors and directors who made challenging, complex, and highly personal films that bucked traditional commercial expectations, introducing new levels of sex, violence, and psychological complexity to American audiences. Feeling the time was finally right for a comeback, Welles returned to Hollywood, gathered a ragtag team of friends and admirers, and embarked on the film he believed would reclaim his throne as the great American moviemaker: The Other Side of the Wind. Welles would never complete it, dying of a heart attack in 1985 after nearly fifteen years of on-again, off-again production.
The story of The Other Side of the Wind is a microcosm of the life and work of Welles himself—ahead of its time and ground-breaking, yet doomed by a mixture of personal hubris and seemingly cosmic interference—and it is this dueling story of art and artist that Neville seeks to tell with this new film. Neville himself was perhaps the perfect pick for the project: as a boy, he gobbled up the Welles films his parents preserved in their home Betamax collection and, as a college student, a chance screening of his criminally underrated film essay F for Fake (1973) inspired him to pursue a career in documentary filmmaking. He certainly approaches his material with the smirking reverence of a long-time friend, filming the talking heads interviews with the surviving cast and crew with Welles’ trademark oblique camera angles and mise-en-scène and interspersing shots and lines from his various acting roles into them, effectively allowing Welles to comment on and respond to his interrogators. But Neville’s most curious flourish is the addition of an extra layer of ego upon the proceedings with the use of Alan Cumming as a black-and-white, omnipotent narrator reminiscent of Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone. Perhaps unnecessary, but it’s a not-unwelcome touch as it passes on the burden of expository backstory to Cumming, thereby freeing up Neville to focus solely on Welles’ final film, a production cursed by a rotating cast of actors he was forced to fire and recast several times, Iranian funding that fell through thanks to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the seizure of much of the finished footage by French authorities.
Eager to create a film unlike anything before it, The Other Side of the Wind ambitiously sought to be two films in one. The first inadvertently predicted the found footage genre as it reconstructed the final hours of the life of aging Hollywood director Jake Hannaford from the perspective of the countless cameras fixed on him from the journalists and fans attending a screening party where he attempts to secure “end money” to finish his last film. Welles cast these roles with real-life counterparts, with close friend and legendary studio-era director John Huston as the aging Hannaford, rising directorial genius Peter Bogdanovich as Hannaford’s protégé Brooks Otterlake, Susan Strasberg as a thinly-veiled parody of combative film critic Pauline Kael, and Welles’ lover Oja Kodar as the unnamed erotic enigma starring in Hannaford’s unfinished comeback film. (Directors Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, and Paul Mazursky also make cameos as representatives of the French and Hollywood New Waves.) The screened footage of Hannaford’s movie represents a film-within-a-film which Welles deliberately modeled on 1960s “European atmospheric films” à la Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Explicitly sexualized and impotently directionless, it consists of ponderous, wordless footage of an androgynous male lead pursuing a frequently naked Oja through a series of construction sites and empty streets, literally climaxing in a brilliantly shot and edited sequence where the two have sex in the backseat of a car in the midst of a rainstorm.
Both films, of course, were autobiographical—the Hannaford scenes mimicking Welles’ fruitless attempts to gain money from a metamorphosed film industry which acknowledged his brilliance but refused him monetary support, the Oja scenes externalized figments of internal yearning for the muse that fired his imagination in his last decades. Not that Welles would have admitted it—again and again the documentary insists that he hated autobiographical readings of his films. Therein the essential paradox of Orson Welles, the leonine prodigy who never outgrew or escaped the hurts and wounds of a tempestuous childhood marked by parental absence and betrayal. The portrait of Welles in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is a tragic one: a domineering despot incapable of surviving without the sacrificial devotion of his followers like cinematographer Gary Graver, a fan who shot pornos on the side to support himself financially while slaving away at his hero’s final film; an abusive autocrat who self-medicated his despair with Fritos and Fudgsicles to the point of cartoonish obesity while squatting in Bogdanovich’s apartment; the damnedest charmer you ever met who laughed as long and loud as the best of them but insisted his softer side never be caught on camera. By all accounts, it’s an accurate one, both to the man and his self-created myth.