Rob Edelman: The Other Side Of Orson Welles

Nov 26, 2018

CITIZEN KANE, which dates from 1941, is more than a now-mythical debut feature. Much more... It is perhaps the all-time-great American film, and it thrust Orson Welles, its then-twenty-something director/co-screenwriter/star, into the Hollywood pantheon. One can pen a book, if not a lengthy chapter in a book, on the who’s, what’s, and why’s of CITIZEN KANE. Indeed, plenty already have... But not much has been revealed about Welles’ last feature film. Its title is THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Over 100 hours of footage were shot over a several-year period in the early-to-mid 1970’s-- or, a decade or so prior to Welles’ death in 1985.

For a range of reasons, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND never was completed until 2018. After being screened at various film festivals, it went directly to Netflix and now may be seen by one-and-all. It was not that long ago that THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND would have enjoyed major theatrical play pre-home entertainment. But the dynamics of the motion picture business now are way-too-different, for better or worse, and one only can wonder what Orson Welles would have to say regarding the business of the motion picture industry in 2018.

Now as for THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND: It is the tale of an older filmmaker and his plight and fate as he completes what will be his final feature. He is labeled a “great gentleman,” a “great artist,” and the “Ernest Hemingway of the cinema”-- and he just may be Welles himself. He is played by another beloved filmmaker-scriptwriter-actor. That would be John Huston. Appearing throughout are some then-aging Hollywood personalities, including Mercedes McCambridge, Paul Stewart, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster... A then-young Peter Bogdanovich, one of the film’s many producers, plays Huston’s protégé. Of special note for me is Edmond O’Brien, who acted in a host of film noirs in the 1940’s and 50’s and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1954’s THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA, starring Humphrey Bogart. Here, O’Brien is a shell of what he once was onscreen. He suffered from Alzheimer’s and died in 1985-- or, a decade past working on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Edmond O’Brien was not yet 70 years old. 

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND is effective on several levels. First is the mere presence of those onscreen. Next, it is a portrait of America and Hollywood in the mid-1970’s, when just about all filmmakers were men and women of a certain age were little more than clothes-less sex objects. It is a peek into a show-biz world that wraps itself in illusion. But most intriguing of all is what we are told about Orson Welles that we might not already know. This comes in the form of questions, from Welles’ purpose in making THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND to his view of himself as a filmmaker. For me, was Orson Welles a truly great Hollywood creator, a genuine artist? Or was he a self-absorbed individual who neither understood nor accepted the business side of Hollywood? Ultimately, Orson Welles just may have been a combination of the two.

Also available on Netflix is a new documentary with a revealing title, one that easily might be conjured up by Welles himself. It is a view of Orson Welles and his plight and fate post-CITIZEN KANE. That title is: THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD.

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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