A pre-emptive stab at the mockumentary format is just one of dozens of pleasures contained in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, a dizzied meta docu-fucknut whose clarity of vision is all the more dazzling with 40 years’ hindsight. Filmed in the 1970s and subsequently left dormant long after Welles’ death, the heroically assembled final cut is now upon us. In its time, it might have been met with a bewildered ambivalence and received reappraisal later. As a new release, Welles’ final film has become an event, a classic-in-waiting.
Though it stretches “autobiographical” to its limit as a descriptor, it’d be foolish to assume Welles’ protagonist, film director Jake Hannaford (John Huston), is merely a concoction. Like Welles, Hannaford is a titan of the Old Hollywood, then facing its reckoning from fresh-faced American auteurs laying waste to the studio system. Attempting to complete work and secure financing on his new motion picture, also called The Other Side of the Wind, Hannaford throws a huge party for industry figures, journalists and documentarians at his ranch near Los Angeles for his 70th birthday, unaware it will also be his last – he will be dead the next morning.
Alongside him is his young protégé and heir-apparent to his throne: fellow filmmaker Brooks Otterlake, a spectacularly morose creation given life by an equally spectacular Peter Bogdanovich, a director who, at the time, was hot off the praise for his own film, The Last Picture Show. How screenwriters long to think up a character such as Otterlake, wry and deprecating towards anyone and everyone, albeit beholden to a master’s will – Hannaford, in this case. Perhaps the only other key player in need of an elaboration is John Dale, the leading man in Hannaford’s film who is conspicuously absent, though in person only – much as Hannaford might try, Dale’s name follows him around the party.
Recanting further details of Other Side’s narrative or small herd of characters would be no friend to brevity, nor would it be of any use. The opening titles might boast the most extravagant cast this side of Altman (Bogadnovich! Chabrol! Hopper! Strasbourg! Foster! McCambridge!) but they all orbit around Hannaford anyway, as does seemingly everyone in Welles’ barely-fictionalised Hollywood. As Otterlake notes in a brief exchange with a biographer writing a book about Hannaford, “I know someone somewhere who isn’t.”
Even so, Welles’ full-blooded script puts some meat on his story’s already hefty bones. He has (or had, though thinking of it entirely historically dampens the film’s being a fresh reminder of his power) a skill of condensing weighty, or indeed embarrassing, concerns in Hollywood to one resplendent exchange. Case in point: a member of “Hannaford’s mafia”, an unaffectionate term for his toxic production team, has assembled around two dozen mannequins of John Dale in Hannaford’s garden.
“All those John Dale’s of yours are certainly lifelike!” says a party-goer.
“So is Mr Dale,” replies the crewmember. “To look at him, you’d swear he was real.”
Nonetheless, in spite of Welles’ chaotic dedication to collectivity across his ensemble, it’s Hannaford’s arc that dominates all others, and swallows them whole. Fortuitously for Welles, Huston’s performance as – indeed, his embodiment of – Hannaford is breathtaking. Carved in Huston’s perfect face are decades of Hollywood animalism. His top teeth jut out slightly and manipulate his voice into a thespian growl, whilst simultaneously encouraging his lips to beckon for the puff of another cigar.
Under Huston’s guise, Hannaford is unequivocally a cannibal, ravenously picking off those around him until he can be the only remaining target for his own carnivorousness. More than that, though, he is a wounded lion, fruitlessly trying to hide himself from the bright light of the Old Hollywood’s afterlife by making films that are blatantly hollow exercises in emotional detachment via visual excess. The titular film-within-a-film looks delicious and makes no sense (Welles makes clear the satirical implications of Hannaford’s picture by having characters comment on its nonsensicality constantly), conceded to be an outlet for Hannaford’s strange power plays on his leading man.
Indeed, rumbling beneath the surface of Welles’ savage planet of hacks, leeches and double-crossers is conversation regarding the damaging exertion of masculine power, sometimes fuelled by homoerotic jealousy. It’s there in Hannaford’s masochistic practices behind the camera towards John Dale, for which Hannaford also uses Oja Kodar’s unnamed and wordless Other Side co-star as a proxy torturess. It’s there in Otterlake’s Freudian gasping for ‘Daddy’s (Hannaford’s) approval while he scrounges off his mentor’s prestige.
Even in the general speculation around Hannaford in the film, there is a pre-emptive “male genius” critique hiding in the dark corners of Hannaford’s mansion. As biographers attempt to document his ingenuity, only Susan Strabserg’s Juliette Riche appears to understand the veneer Hannaford has created for himself – and she is quite obviously a woman in a man’s world.
The Other Side of the Wind is Welles’ prophetic monument to the handover between Old and New Hollywood, and how badly both sides handled it. Even though the background behind its eventual unveiling has been the story for decades, hopefully the catalogue of delights this film affords its audience will be the story for decades after.
By Thomas Atkinson
Thomas Atkinson is somehow in his second year studying journalism at City, University of London, hailing from the New Forest. He has spent much of the past five years watching movies, and some of the past three years writing about them. Some movies he really quite likes a lot are Beau Travail, Zodiac, Heat, Only Angels Have Wings, Close-Up and Eraserhead. His life-force largely consists of Ted Danson’s bow ties in The Good Place, Pauline Kael’s books, and the intro to OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya!’, which he rightfully claims to be the greatest song ever written. He has Letterboxd.