The Other Side of the Wind

How Orson Welles Brought Modernism to American Film

Tommy Powers, Writer for The Scoop

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Orson Welles is a fixture of American cinema. He studied drama at Harvard, worked on countless theatre and radio productions, directed thirteen feature films and won two Oscars. His debut picture, Citizen Kane (1941) is frequently cited as the greatest movie ever made.


Welles’ original concept for The Other Side of the Wind came to him in 1961 when he was 46 years old. In the meantime, Welles developed other projects throughout the ‘60s, such as The Trial, Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story. During this time, The Other Side of the Wind slowly grew from a concept into a script. As Welles put it in a 1966 sales pitch: “Our story is about a pseudo-Hemingway, a movie director… he’s become obsessed by this young man who has become … his own dream of himself. He’s been rejected by all his old friends. [By the end, the director has] finally been shown up to be a kind of voyeur … a fellow who lives off other people’s danger and death.”


To understand how important The Other Side of the Wind was, one must understand the context of the time period leading up to its production. The 1950s are remembered as a conservative time for America. It was a time when wholesome crooners like Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole were at the forefront of the music industry and Elvis Presley was seen as radical. The Old Hollywood era was still in full effect, as film did not get much more radical than the sultry experimental thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock and the rebellious melodrama of James Dean. However, these relatively simple times were upended when American military involvement in the Vietnam War began in the mid-60s. A great divide was established on the homefront, and the country was shaken up ideologically. America’s youth spearheaded  boundary-pushing protests to US involvement in the war, and with these protests came breakthroughs for American freedom of speech. Consequently, America began a revolution of art, civil rights, music, literature and sexuality. This rapid change left conservatives disillusioned. They considered these new forms of expression to be depraved, as if their own children were stomping on the traditions that they had built.


Although a clear divide was developing among those around him, Orson Welles did not fall neatly into either category. Judging by his age, he fit the bill of someone that should be frustrated with these new developments in art. After all, Welles had been working in the film industry since the 1930s. There was a time long ago when his style was considered revolutionary, but by the time The Other Side of the Wind was being made, Welles’ style was considered classical by most of his contemporaries. Welles’ ideologies also did not fit with his peers. He considered himself a progressive, and had been one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s biggest supporters. Because the film revolves so much around the changes in American culture in the 1960s and 1970s, it is important to place the demographic that Welles fit into while making The Other Side of the Wind: a white male New Deal Liberal in his fifties.


Production for The Other Side of the Wind officially began in 1970, and despite various issues with casting and financing, Welles wrapped principal photography in 1976. However, despite having all of the necessary footage, the film was far from finished. Toward the end of his life, Welles was not a commercially viable director. Consequently, he had difficulties finding any support from producers, let alone one that would give him creative control. This led to a mess of disputes that caused the release to be pushed back further and further. In addition, Welles is an infamous perfectionist, so his dissatisfaction with the product led to an even longer post-production process. When Welles died in 1985, fifteen years after production had begun, The Other Side of the Wind remained incomplete.


However, plans for a release of The Other Side of the Wind continued after Welles’ death. A team of editors and restorers led by Peter Bogdonavich — a director, personal friend of Welles and actor in The Other Side of the Wind — labored over the footage for decades with hardly any money or support. The editing team’s task was daunting: there were over 100 hours of film in varying conditions, all of which had to be studied in order to best recapture Welles’ vision for the finished product. Rumors of an upcoming release have come and gone periodically since the 1990s, and the film was eventually considered lost. However, just when Welles fans were starting to lose hope, Netflix commissioned Bogdonavich and his team to finish the film and prepare for a 2018 release. At long last, The Other Side of the Wind was released on November 2, 2018, fifty-seven years after its original conception. Welles had been dead for just over thirty-three years.


The Other Side of the Wind tracks the hectic final day of Jake Hannaford (John Huston), an aging director with a rough-riding wit and a perpetual cloud of cigar smoke. It is established in the first scene that the documented day will be the last before Hannaford’s death, which offers a preliminary lens through which to view the events of the film. For example, a scene in which Hannaford discusses past occurrences with a friend from the Old Hollywood days is notable, but when the audience knows that Hannaford is going to die on that day, another layer of depth is added to the scene because it is likely the last conversation between two old friends.


The film begins on set, as Hannaford must finish as much of his movie titled The Other Side of the Wind as possible before a premiere party that night. Hannaford’s film is a clear attempt to connect to the emerging counterculture. It drips with confusing symbolism, has no clear narrative and contains many gratuitous sex scenes. The film-within-a-film parodies European art cinema, particularly Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni.


Later comes the focal point of the film, the premiere party that Hannaford throws at his ranch in Arizona. The partygoers are an eclectic group, including critics, reporters, biographers, movie nerds, a full jazz band, little people that set off firecrackers, members of the cast and crew, some of Hannaford’s New Hollywood proteges (including real directors like Claude Chabrol, Henry Jaglom and Dennis Hopper) and Hannaford’s Old Hollywood posse from when he first started working in show business. Hannaford’s party is hectic, including a power outage, drunken arguments and a fistfight.


On another note, many have speculated that Huston’s character, Hannaford, is supposed to be an autobiographical depiction of Welles. This theory makes a lot of sense, as many of the characters in the film are very obvious representations of people relevant to Welles’ life, including critic Pauline Kael and actress Marlene Dietrich. However, Welles has vehemently denied claims that the film is autobiographical, stating instead that the character of Hannaford is based primarily on Ernest Hemingway and Old Hollywood directors like John Ford and William A. Wellman.


Regardless of his origin, Hannaford is a fascinating character. He is described in one scene as a “big pink lobster”: having a hard exterior, but being soft and vulnerable everywhere else. Although Hannaford outwardly maintains a persona of charisma, experience and toughness, the level of intimacy afforded to his character shines a light on his inner turmoil. With every closeup on Hannaford’s face, we see the world-weariness, despair and longing in his eyes; in every charming anecdote that Hannaford tells, we realize that he is presenting a false image to maintain his reputation.


The most telling depiction of Hannaford’s hidden sadness occurs whenever Hannaford looks at, speaks about or thinks about the lead of his film, John Dale (Bob Random). Any engagement with Dale makes it evident that Hannaford is stewing in alienation and confusion. Dale is a skinny, handsome 20-something blonde boy whom Hannaford is clearly infatuated with. It is possible that Hannaford is sexually attracted to Dale, although Hannaford makes multiple homophobic comments throughout the film. Dale never speaks in any of his scenes, which reflects the discomfort that he feels in his relationship with Hannaford. Dale landed the leading role in Hannaford’s film through an ambiguous set of circumstances. Hannaford supposedly “saved” Dale from a life threatening situation and then forced him to act in his film, thus “saving” him from poverty.


Although Hannaford is the centerpiece of the film, John Dale is vital to the thematic weight of The Other Side of the Wind. Dale is the star of Hannaford’s film, and although it is not made clear if there was any kind of explicit inciting incident, their relationship was rather tumultuous. One day, while shooting a particularly compromising sex scene, Dale walked off set with no intent of returning. This clearly upset Hannaford, although he did an adequate job masking his frustration with apathy.


One of the most notable supporting characters in the film is Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdonavich), the successful protege and right-hand-man of Hannaford. Otterlake is an extremely successful and popular director, but he makes sure to accredit Hannaford as much as possible for his influence and support in spite of Hannaford’s waning popularity in the public eye. Otterlake provides so much energy to social situations that he toes the line between charming and annoying. He relentlessly shares anecdotes, performs impressions and smirks knowingly after his own jokes.


Although he is only in the film for about ten seconds, one of the most important factors to the relevance of The Other Side of the Wind is Dennis Hopper, the rambunctious actor/auteur known equally for his brilliance, his narcissism and his substance abuse problems. In 1969 – one year before The Other Side of the Wind began production – Hopper released Easy Rider, a biker movie and drug odyssey that struck a chord with America’s youth and dominated the box office, earning $60 million on a mere $300,000 budget and making Hopper a bonafide staple of American counterculture. Hopper was on set for a significant part of The Other Side of the Wind, and it is evident from Hopper’s subsequent work, especially The Last Movie, that he was heavily inspired by the themes and artistic choices of The Other Side of the Wind. Hopper used the voice that he had achieved through the success of Easy Rider to spread Welles’ perspective on America’s youth directly to the emerging counterculture, who would be more receptive to Hopper’s message than Welles’.

In the sense that it documents a generational shift, The Other Side of the Wind is most similar to Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which depicts the transition from the horse-and-buggy to an automobile era and its effects on culture, society and class relations. With The Other Side of the Wind, Welles waves farewell to the Old Hollywood era and reluctantly ushers in the volatility of the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture that upended American civilization.

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