Book Review – The Making of The Other Side of the Wind: Orson Welles’s Last Movie

Orson Welles began filming The Other Side of the Wind in 1970. He died fifteen years later, the film incomplete. It was to be his masterpiece, as important to him as Citizen Kane (1941), if not more so. The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, reveals the whole fascinating, frustrating story of its production, up to the present day, where the effort to release Welles’ final work continues.

Over the fifteen years of its production, Welles constantly sought funding, cast members died, marriages were destroyed and everyone involved did everything possible to complete the film. While money was always an issue, the biggest roadblock was its director, who could never commit to an end date, always striving to bring his work even closer to perfection.

The Other Side of the Wind was to be a satire of Hollywood in the 1970s, where young, bold filmmakers brushed away the last of the old studio system. It centers on the birthday, and last day, of 70-year-old director Jake Hannaford. Played by fellow legendary filmmaker John Huston, Welles always insisted that the role was not autobiographical, but there are parallels that must have been obvious to even the director himself. It co-starred Susan Strasberg as a Pauline Kael-like critic, Peter Bogdanovich as pretty much himself and the director’s mistress and collaborator, the Croatian artist and actress Oja Kodar.

The Press Scrambles to Cover Hannaford’s Birthday Party in TOSOTW

From the beginning, the film’s production was intense. The crew would work sixteen hour days and six day weeks, all of them ready to drop from exhaustion but devoted to Welles. The director was demanding and often temperamental, on multiple occasions firing his entire crew, but they were all so eager to work with a genius that they’d simply give the director a few days to cool down and then return to work as if nothing had happened.

Welles was completely devoted to his craft, typically spending the night typing new script pages and coming to the set in his robe. He drank can after can of Fanta, stuffed himself with rich food, and fortified his body with a table full of drugs that kept him alive as he struggled through each new breath. His passion for filmmaking was the thing that gave him life above all else.

The elements that made the process of making movies addictive for Welles astonished those who worked with him. Even the way that it was filmed would be unusual, as footage would come from thirty-five-, sixteen- and eight-millimeter cameras. He was endlessly inventive, playing with perspective to achieve remarkable results, and always with the most budget friendly effects he could manage.

Huston in TOSOTW

Welles was also a gifted film editor, working with tiny pieces of film to mold the precise effect he desired. He would use footage collected over years of filming, and sometimes the final product would be highly unusual. In a scene where Kodar changes clothes in a bathroom, it is edited to include footage of her acting in the same segment at age twenty-nine, thirty-two and thirty-three.

This movie without end became a familiar legend in the industry. When Strasberg told her agent she’d been asked to do a film with Orson Welles, he told her another client had done a project with the director years ago and had a great experience. The name of that film? The Other Side of the Wind.

By the 1970s, the industry was eager to pay tribute to Welles: he was the third to be honored with a lifetime achievement award by AFI and the Academy of Arts and Sciences gave him an honorary Oscar. While Welles would use these honors to promote his work in progress, his admirers were not as eager to fund his projects.
There’s plenty of attention given to the administrative aspects of the production, from the involvement of patient, but anxious Iranian investors, to the constant lack of a budget or financial documentation.

Welles needed a patron, but got businesspeople who wanted a good investment. He was an artist with no regard for time who struggled to finish his projects because he wanted to keep working to perfect them. While he was due that respect to a point, his refusal to ever finish the project was troublesome. He’d go to great lengths to avoid discussing an end date, hiding, refusing to sign contracts–and yet still asking for more cash and equipment.

Karp discusses Welles’ better known collaborators, like his mistress of twenty years the Croatian actress and artist Oja Kodar and director Peter Bogdanovich and lesser known players, the most intriguing being the director and cinematographer Gary Graver, one of Welles’ most devoted supporters throughout the process of making and funding the film, so much so that he destroyed his own life to work with him.

It can be painful to wade through all the details of the production of The Other Side of the Wind. The book often becomes tedious, but through no fault of Karp. It’s a long, drawn out story and the only way to understand why the film has still not been released is to soak up every last frustrating detail.

Nevertheless, it is overall an entertaining read, full of interesting anecdotes and above all a great tribute to Welles as an artist. It also brings up the question of whether an artist can thrive, or even survive in a world that is increasingly focused on the pursuit of money. This is a world which Welles would never acknowledge. Were it not for that scramble for wealth, it is very likely the film would have been released by now.

For a quick glimpse of The Other Side of the Wind, take a look at this clip featuring Huston, Strasberg and Bogdanovich:

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