“A mystery may reveal. It never explains.”
— The Other Side of the Wind
“Los Angeles is the only city where every road leads to the airport.”
1970s Hollywood should have been Orson Welles’s utopia. The success of Bonnie and Clyde, Five Easy Pieces, and Easy Rider had helped to erode the studio system, leaving the auteur paramount. The studios no longer knew what was making money, and executives were still stuck in the halcyon days of a generation prior. Movies were becoming more adventurous, directors were being treated with greater reverence as individual artists rather than puppets for the studios, stories were becoming more counter-cultural. Welles, who had helped bring about the transferral of power from studio to director, was the prototype of the independent filmmaker: the director to be emulated, but never outshone. With a new generation of successful filmmakers entranced and inspired by his work, and indebted to him for his role in creating an environment where they could thrive, the opportunities ahead of him were greater than ever before. The director was king, and Orson Welles was the director’s god.
Despite this, Welles—like his eventual lead character, Jake Hannaford—found himself too broke to be able to finance a major movie, and too successful to be able to live a quiet life. He existed instead in the sort of exile that usually becomes of disposed dictators, paid court daily by a loyal group of cinephiles, actors, writers, and other flunkies dining at Ma Maison, renting a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, and entertaining those who fawned on him, occasionally disappearing for a few weeks to film a role or a record a drunken commercial. “Los Angeles is the only city where every road leads to the airport,” Welles would tell his protégé, Peter Bogdanovich.1 “When you’re in there, they can’t wait to get you out.”
Exiled from the inner workings of Hollywood, Welles lived this life out of necessity, taking business lunches every day with those he hoped would back a new artistic endeavor. As the popular press and contemporary culture moved on from his generation, he felt a desperate need to reclaim his ability to command critical and commercial success as a director. “I think I have to make a very successful box office picture,” he said in 1970. “I think I’m getting too old not to have made one.”
What Welles desired was a strong comeback to reinstate himself as a legend, not just past but present: a picture that would meet his own high, uncompromising standards, be a critical hit, and also prove him a draw for a mass audience. Achieving this triple success would cement his legacy, secure his financial situation so he no longer had to sing for his supper, and vindicate a career that would now both start and—crucially—end on a glimmering high. That picture would be The Other Side of the Wind.
“Everybody will think it’s autobiographical, but it’s not.”
Welles had long desired to make a movie about Hollywood itself, but in the post-Citizen Kane landscape had found those doors closed to him. The Other Side of the Wind would fulfill that ambition, too. It tells the story of Jake Hannaford (John Huston), an aging film director adrift in the new generation’s time, venerated by the new artists but, crucially, not as successful as them—a darling of Hollywood who fell out of favour, a great artist rejected by Hollywood and exiled to Europe who yearns to return and make something great. “Everybody will think it’s autobiographical, but it’s not,” said Welles, somewhat unconvincingly.
Not only did Hannaford’s trajectory blatantly mirror that of Welles, other characters within the faux-documentary strand of the movie represent a veritable who’s-who of the contemporary film scene. The film was both a desperate attempt to claw his way back into Hollywood, and a rejection of everyone already there.
It would also be two films in one. The first was a faux documentary about the last day in the life of an aging, great director, Hannaford, whose 70th birthday coincides with the shooting of his final movie. This last work of art is the second film, an independent artistic endeavor sporadically shown on-screen. Hannaford’s final day revolves around the making and editing of this film-within-a-film, and culminates with a birthday party in which tensions and resentments surface before his unfortunate—and perhaps intentional—death later that night.
The film-within-a-film stands in startling contrast as a satirical take on the avant-garde, New Wave films that the New Hollywood and the fashionable European directors of that period were creating to great critical success. Hannaford’s creation is a synthesis of the European New Wave and ‘70s faux-intellectual eroticism, and a gut-punch to the cast and crew tasked with realising his vision. They don’t understand the film, but are tasked with somehow bringing to life the vision in the director’s head. It is a creation unlike anything either Welles—or, apparently, Hannaford—had ever done before. It is a pastiche of Bergman’s Persona, Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, and Demy’s Model Shop, and holds no apparent plot, structure, or explanation.
Perhaps the most notable scene of the film-within-a-film—certainly the one that made the biggest impression on Huston’s son, Danny—is one in which Welles’s real-life mistress and collaborator, Oja Kodar, hunts down and seduces her fictional, young, European leading man, amidst rain pouring down around the car she seduces him in. The scene was shot on a shoestring: one crewmember sat in a wheelchair holding lights and wheeled himself past the car to make it seem as if other cars were passing; another crewmember stood atop a ladder and poured six hoses over the vehicle to create a suitably decent body of water. Oja’s necklace pounds against her naked chest, and false headlights glare and race towards them. Welles’s previous productions always had an air of the chaste to them, very rarely displaying anything more than an allusion to sex. Kodar’s influence, by her own admission, changed this entirely. The film-within-a-film is almost wholly erotic. Her bottom and breasts sway throughout the picture; she seduces and allows herself to be seduced, always in control.
Both of Hannaford’s leads—Kodar’s unnamed character, and Bob Random’s John Dale—spend most of the picture nude. But while Dale is vulnerable, overwhelmed and hunted, Kodar is in complete control. Every move is executed to perfection, designed to entrap her prey. There is no dialogue. There is no plot. There is no script. There is simply the aging director’s vision, in 35mm. At the party, Hannaford’s guests mock his silent actress and doubt whether this vision can actually be realized.
As acolytes look to him for reassurance that he knows what he is doing, and the press ask him impertinent questions about his father’s suicide and make catty comments behind his back, Hannaford appears to be in a slight free-spin. He is visibly losing the godlike status that he once held for his guests. Perhaps his greatest resentment is reserved for Brooks Otterlake, his protégé and apparent successor. Otterlake, played by Welles’s own protégé, Peter Bogdanovich, is a former movie-buff writer, who, having given up an attempt to write a book on Hannaford, instead finds himself mentored by the director into becoming a filmmaker himself—quickly and unforeseeably achieving a level of commercial success that his mentor could never quite reach.
Meanwhile, in the real world, production was beginning to slip badly off-schedule. This version of the film—even the vague contours of its plot—would be mapped out years after filming first began, with The Other Side of the Wind becoming, varyingly, a tribute to the so-called happy accidents of spontaneity, a bloated circus on a shoestring budget, a masterpiece locked in a vault for three decades, and a meticulously shot and horrifically organized film with little money, cast, or plot. While Kane took a little under a year to go from first shooting to being released, The Other Side of the Wind took 48.
“[Orson] was the personification of the wind itself.”
Shooting segments of a scene years apart was not new to Welles. In one fight scene in Othello (1952) shot in Massaga, Roderigo kicks Cassio. The returning blow was shot in Orgete, three years and a thousand miles away. Welles was frequently forced to break in the production of his own films to raise some cash for them by acting in others. Filming in this manner required a cast and crew able to trust in (or desperate to please) the director. At one point in the Wind shoot, Welles instructed his actors to look up and pretend to see little people on the roof. “Orson, I don’t get it,” said one actor. “We’re going to put [them] in later,” came the reply. “In Spain.”
Welles could keep a small crew together almost indefinitely due the intoxicating excitement of being able to work with him. One young cameraman was so desperate to get the shot Welles wanted that he ran through a plate of glass, falling into the room before the glass did. It was this devotion that contributed to his almost cult-of-personality status within the film world. People bought into the mythology of Welles because he gave them so much to buy into. His talent, tenacity, and sparkling wit had elevated him beyond his fellow directors from a frighteningly young age.
But his reputation could act against him. Notoriety as a director who considered petty, bourgeois notions of profitability as beneath him meant that studios weren’t keen to finance his projects. With Wind, Welles was forced to meanderingly shoot Hannaford’s material for years on his own dime, running the budget on a shoestring and hoping that financial backing would come when potential investors saw what he had been shooting. Major studios were to have only one role in this production: Welles snuck into studio backlots to film his critique of their system.
Welles eventually obtained financing from the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran (a producer who would find in 1979 that he really needed the cash he had provided). After four years, filming could finally, properly, begin—at least, once Welles had found a leading man.
“Who knows, maybe you can stare too hard at something, huh? Drain out the virtue, suck out the living juice.”
In Paris one balmy evening, Peter Bogdanovich asked Welles if he would consider casting himself as Jake Hannaford. Welles said no: “Who should play it is John Huston. Huston is the best, and I’m the second best.” He would retrospectively describe this decision as “a piece of unselfishness which I have regretted ever since.” The role of Hannaford was not the part of a lifetime, but it was the part of this period of Welles’s life. Just as Kane represented the Shakespearean ambitions of the young actor/director, Hannaford represented the debilitating self-loathing and doubt that weighed upon the elder Welles’s psyche. If Welles was using Wind to cement his legacy as a leading light to a new, talented, obscure generation of cinemates, then nothing could have been more fitting than to insert himself as its lead. The core issue with this casting revolved around the level of honesty that it would have required—honesty about feelings of betrayal, isolation, resentment, and self-loathing—that Welles often struggled with. Putting those feelings to film was one thing; playing the role himself, another. Giving Huston the part of his autobiographical character allowed Welles a reasonable claim of denial/distance to the worse (and most open) elements of his character.
Besides, Huston offered near-perfect cover. Both Welles and Huston were self-mythologizing, intelligent, and mischievous. Both men were tall, deep-voiced, fine actors, part suave womanizer and part over-indulgent inebriate. Both enjoyed high culture. Bon vivants, hell-raisers, and spenders of money (their own and that of others), Welles and Huston were able to play up their deep growls, their camp machismo, their raconteurial spirits. The differences between the two men—Welles’s perfectionism and Huston’s devil-may-care opportunistic outlook, or Huston’s taste for fighting against Welles’s penchant for eating and gossiping—were not enough to make Hannaford clearly one or the other.
By 1974, Welles was confident that he could wrap the majority of the film following a 10-day shoot with Huston in Arizona. It was no coincidence that the location Welles chose in Carefree, Arizona was the mid-century abode next to the one that Antonioni blew up in Zabriskie Point. Welles was there to cement his reputation above the generation below, to outdo them—to cement himself as the ultimate independent filmmaker, the king of auteurs.
Every character in Wind feels as if they know Jake Hannaford, and attempts to either confidently explain his themes to passing journalists and gossips, or use the aging director as a source of amusement. People hover around Hannaford like flies, thrusting cameras and microphones into his face, pestering, jostling, intruding. Even the hungry rising-star director Otterlake started off as a young writer working on his book. “I’m doing a film and he’s doing a book about Mr. Hannaford,” one member of the media excitedly claims. Otterlake rolls his eyes: “And I know somebody somewhere who isn’t.”
“Orson said, ‘Play it like it’s us.’”
Like much of the cast, Peter Bogdanovich’s role in The Other Side of the Wind was based on a prominent member of the filmmaking world. Unlike much of this cast, he was playing a pastiche of himself—a role that changed in the movie as his real-world role to Welles changed outside of it. Bogdanovich, who in 1970 was a young, twerpish, cinephile writer interviewing Welles for a book, was initially brought on for a part in the picture as a young, twerpish, cinephile writer pestering Hannaford with impertinent questions and a thrusting microphone.
Welles, always one to enjoy the feeling of extending favor to a young devotee, had extended the hand of friendship to the acolyte in awe of him. In doing so, Bogdanovich transcended—maybe even rejected—the generation of filmmakers he was coming of age in, retreating into a world of which Welles was king. By 1974, much had changed. Rather than remaining in his place as an apostle to Welles, Bogdanovich had impudently become a successful director in his own right. In the four years that Welles had taken just to shoot the preliminary scenes for Wind, Bogdanovich had released The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon to huge commercial and critical success. Naturally, his role in Wind had to change. Welles’s protégé was now to play Hannaford’s former mentee who was now beginning to eclipse him. “It’s about an older film director, and a young film director,” Welles told Bogdanovich. “And the betrayal of their friendship.”
People began to suspect that Bogdanovich had transcended—or perhaps usurped—his mentor. While Boganovich had once jealously circled Hollywood’s great and the grand, living from scraps that John Ford and Fritz Lang would throw his way in documentary interviews, now Orson Welles himself was living rent-free in a wing of Bogdanovich’s mansion, a charitable act made possible by his protégé’s superior commercial success. “Movies and friendship,” dictates Hannaford at his party. “Those are mysteries.” In a moment Freud would consider to be a little on-those-nose, Hannaford takes Otterlake’s young, blond girlfriend (modelled on Bogdanovich’s real life partner, Cybill Shepherd) from him. Welles, like his character, thrived on friction. By pitting acolytes against one another, or demeaning them in front of others to raise his own ego, both directors could retain their sense of superiority in the face of a constant feeling of inadequacy.
Back in the real world, no one—not the cast, not the stars—but Welles himself seemed to know what the picture was actually meant to be. Wind had gone from a passably simple movie-within-a-movie premise to a sprawling, uncontainable, years-long odyssey into Welles’s relationship with betrayal, his standing in the world, his own self. Divorces were made in the making of this film. Careers were not. One night, John Huston turned to Welles and asked what the hell the movie was actually about. “It’s about a miserable prick,” came the reply. “This is his swan song. It’s about us.”
Favours were called in. Money was scraped together. Weeks, months, even years of work were performed for little (if any) pay. For Welles’s followers, a chance to work with the director was enough. As one member of the crew said, “We have an entire crew who would let him do anything.” Welles would push his team to the brink of alienation. And at the exact moment he realized that he had pushed too far, he would wrap an arm around them and say, “Have I told you what a great job you’ve been doing for me lately?” Few other directors could retain devotees so well amidst such thankless conditions. Fulfilment came not from a smooth production, nor from promised commercial success, nor even from having a clear plotline, but from the sheer honor of having Welles’s light occasionally shine upon them. Only Orson Welles could inspire men to work against their own self-interests for years in order to see his vision come true. To Kodar, with his cape fluttering behind him, he looked like “the personification of the wind itself. But I knew the other side of this wind. Because Orson was the wind that was capable of caressing you, lifting you, making you dance.”
“I hate every kind of goodbye.”
In They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, the making-of documentary of a movie about a faux documentary about the making of a movie—in case you needed more meta—Simon Callow vocalizes a suspicion that Welles really didn’t want to finish Wind. The never-ending shoots and edits and re-edits allowed Welles to maintain the illusion that he was in control, that perfection could be realized. As Welles himself said, “I hate every kind of goodbye. And every time those lights go out, it’s a little death and a little goodbye.”
Oja Kodar said Welles “would act in other directors’ movies in order to finance and to direct his own. Then just before the end, he would throw away all this money and effort, which he invested into his film, for the sheer pleasure of not finishing it.” Wind is Welles’s tribute to the ecstasy of making a film, and the agony of releasing one. In many ways, it is the twilight of the greats. It is a jagged, odd, lonely, and desperately layered film, intimately aware that it is its star and creator’s dying breath.
By 1976, The New York Times was asking whether Welles would ever finish his film. Wind had become a “circus of scattered souls” according to one crewmember, a self-help group run by its own cult leader. The New Hollywood had ended around ’75 with the rise of blockbusters. The zeitgeist had moved on. Even Welles’s attempts to capitalize on—or mock—a younger generation had become outdated. At the beginning of pre-production, the New Wave of cinema was displacing the generation that Welles, if not entirely at home in, at least felt he understood. By the time filming wrapped up, the New Wave was wrapping up, too. Wind was dated before it was even complete. By the late ‘70s, its actors were starting to drop. Welles would die in 1985, Huston following two years later. In 1983, Henry Jaglom asked Orson Welles if he could ever finish the film, citing the death of his castmates. “Edmond O’Brien just died. Tony Selwart is blind. John Huston can’t move,” came the reply. “I don’t want to think about it now. The film has become strangely dated, but in an interesting way. I’d have to turn it into an essay film on that period. Because that’s when all the young movie people wanted to be auteurs. And not to be Spielberg, as they do now. It was a different time.”
Today, of all the major players, only Kodar and Bogdanovich remain. The latter, a young man at the time of its creation and an old man at the time of its release, made sure to complete the picture decades after its inception, in the dusk of his own life, along with Welles’s daughter, Beatrice. His piecing together of Wind for its 2018 release was more an archaeological excavation of a god-emperor’s lost remnants than a simple cut-and-paste assembly, a painstaking tribute to the work of art that his master, tormentor, and friend left behind.
A week and a half before Orson Welles’s death, Bogdanovich spoke to him on the phone: “I said, ‘Jesus, Orson. I feel like I made so many mistakes.’ And he said, ‘Well, it does seem difficult to go through life without making a great many of them.’”
- This, and other quotes not otherwise attributed throughout, come from Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about the making of The Other Side of the Wind.