Orson Welles Tilting at Windmills


When it comes to art, Josh Karp’s new biography of Orson Welles proves that the real story is in the attempt and the process, not the final product. Karp focuses on Welles’s effort to make what would have been, had Welles finished it, his last film. But even though it’s about a movie we’ll probably never see, this book won’t leave you wanting.

The story of the making of Welles’s last project, grandly titled The Other Side of The Wind, reads in summary like the world’s most compellingly bizarre film pitch. In essence, Welles was directing John Huston in a roll part Ernest Hemingway, part Huston and part Welles. The legendary project began in 1937—when Welles got into a fistfight with Hemingway. Welles was brought in to read Hemingway’s text over footage from the Spanish Civil War. As Welles suggested changes, Hemingway began to sour, eventually declaring that every time Welles said infantry it “was like a cocksucker swallowing.” Welles, unsurprisingly, started baiting the macho author until the two great men were wrestling on the floor while images of actual war and death projected over them. It’s perhaps even less surprising that a short time later the two were sharing a bottle of whiskey and forging a lifelong friendship.

No one wanted to give Welles money to finish a film about a director looking for money to finish a film.

The original idea for the film came from a Hemingway story about a bullfighter. For Welles, bullfighters represented artists, but so did the bulls—“sacred beasts,” as he called them, celebrated in arenas and receiving their “death in the afternoon.” Famed documentarians the Maysles brothers filmed Welles talking about the project during the decade he lived in Europe, but by the time he returned to Hollywood in 1970, the bullfighting protagonist had changed into a filmmaker: Jake Hannaford, a once-powerful director trying to make one last important film (after he himself returned from years abroad). The title of Hannaford’s film-within-a-film? The Other Side of the Wind, of course. As Welles said to Huston, “It’s a film about a bastard director…. It’s about us, John. It’s a film about us.”

The plot of The Other Side of The Wind takes place during Hannaford’s last day alive, when his personal and artistic struggles are laid bare—chiefly in a scene at his own party, where Hollywood’s elite casually critique his unfinished, autobiographical film as it’s projected around the house. Welles used his famous friends to play the Hollywood partygoers, including Rich Little, Paul Mazursky, Peter Bogdanovich and a very stoned Dennis Hopper, who aptly observed “everything becomes a movie in front of that camera.” When Bogdanovich, Welles’s longtime friend and protégé, stepped in to fill the unexpectedly vacated role of Peter Otterlake (Hannaford’s young protégé), things became even more surreal.

Orson Welles mediumBut the production subsisted hand-to-mouth. After a long run of creative compromises, Welles mistrusted studios, of whom he said there is “no madness in their method.” He intentionally tanked funding deals for fear of tampering with his pure vision. Only Welles’s legendary stature and infectious zeal could attract men like cameraman Gary Graver, who devoted himself to Welles and worked on the film for 35 years, long after his director’s death. The crew dubbed themselves “Volunteers in Service to Orson Welles,” working slavishly for him (once 72 hours straight because they were about to lose a set), sometimes under illegal conditions and for often delayed, nonunion pay. They did this because Welles’s commanding sense of vision was palpable, and the chaos of production intoxicating. The stories that illustrate Welles’s impressive powers and personal sacrifices (including paying a crew member with his Citizen Kane Oscar), and the chaos on set (like Huston drunk-driving the wrong way up a freeway off-ramp with a cameraman beside him and a boom operator lying in the trunk) are too many to list.

The project, meanwhile, existed primarily inside Welles’s mind. Almost no one knew the bigger picture of the story. They worked for the man, not the project, though the line between the two would become harder and harder to see. Fueled by Cuban cigars, cigarettes, feast, famine, Fresca, cough syrup, painkillers and, most of all, his extreme love for the filmmaking process, Welles worked seven days a week, sometimes all night, rewriting a script that he frequently discarded in favor of improvisation. He planned to shoot the film in eight weeks, but he worked on it for 12 years. When the AFI honored him in 1975, Welles teased some of the footage. But, though the audience showered him with respect and love, no one wanted to give Welles money to finish a film about a director looking for money to finish a film.

Huston later said The Other Side of the Wind was an “adventure shared by desperate men that finally came to nothing.” In Karp’s book we see Welles as the larger-than-life figure he was, echoing Don Quixote, Captain Ahab and Shakespeare’s Falstaff (the subject of another Welles passion project, Chimes at Midnight). As a man more in love with making art than finishing it, Welles had a keen sense of the bittersweet, un-completable business of life. In his last project he sought to do the impossible, to capture how and why we live and die—a mystery as ineffable as the wind itself. When asked what his title meant, Welles answered, “I haven’t the foggiest.” In the end, Welles was wise enough not to know.

Photo courtesy of Everett