In 1961, nearly a decade prior to principal photography began on Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, the filmmaker, whose most recent picture was Touch of Evil, began mulling over a project loosely based on Ernest Hemingway, who that year committed suicide. Welles intended his leading man to be an aging admirer of bullfighting who is enamored with a much younger bullfighter.
This concept ultimately stalled, lingering in the background for Welles well into the close of the decade, at which point the director opted to change the project’s setting to Hollywood and his central protagonist to a fading filmmaker. At last, in 1970, The Other Side of the Wind went into production…and would remain a work-in-progress over the six years to come. It was not until 1974 that Welles finally found his Jake Hannaford, the Hemingway-like figure who is killed in a car crash on his 70th birthday - none other than fellow actor-writer-director John Huston would dive into this pivotal role.
With nearly 100 hours of footage in the can, production wrapped on The Other Side of the Wind in early 1976. Instead of earning a theatrical run, the treatment you’d expect for a Welles-Huston collaboration, the picture would spend decades in legal obstacle hell, languishing long after the director’s death in 1985. Instrumental in saving the film were director (and co-star of the picture) Peter Bogdanovich and producer (and production manager on the film) Frank Marshall, both significantly responsible for getting the picture financed, edited and into the hands of Netflix, where it is now available for streaming.
Considering its awe-inspiring production history (and my admiration for so many Welles productions, perhaps most of all The Magnificent Ambersons), it does hurt a bit to report The Other Side of the Wind, while not without its pleasures, is mostly an incoherent mess, a haphazard satire of 1970s New Hollywood that is too bonkers to be boring but never on the level of Welles’ best work.
The picture opens on the sight of a totaled vehicle, which we learn, via narration from protege Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich), was driven by the now-deceased Hannaford. Earlier that day, prior to his death, we find Hannaford vying to rejuvenate his declining career. His comeback vehicle is hardly a mainstream picture along the lines of Citizen Kane or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre but rather a trippy, sex-packed art house production, performed without any dialogue.
Throughout The Other Side of the Wind, footage from the film within the film, headlined by the stunning Oja Kodar (as “The Actress”) and Bob Random, is intercut, leaving the proceedings all the more dizzying an endeavor. Much of the picture centers on Hannaford’s birthday party at an Arizona ranch where guests, the director himself most of all, become increasingly inebriated. Hannaford is desperate to secure funding for his picture, a quest that seems all the more improbable as the evening progresses.
The Other Side of the Wind is chock full of entrancing performances, with Huston a pitch-perfect fit for the dwindling director. He is surrounded by the likes of Susan Strasberg (as a ferocious film critic), Lilli Palmer (as an exasperated former star of the silver screen) and Mercedes McCambridge (as Hannaford’s longtime secretary), all game for the madness of these proceedings. Alas, these turns are largely upstaged by the disorderly, chaotically edited picture around them - just when a character pulls you in, you’re abruptly swept away.
Amazingly, amidst this starry cast, it is Kodar, in the film within the film, who leaves the most lasting impression. She has a hypnotic, intensely alluring screen presence, with the camera head over heels in love with her - no surprise, given she was the director’s girlfriend over the final years of his life. If the film within the film wasn’t so tedious and ridiculous, one has to wonder how much more the exciting Kodar could have excelled.
The Other Side of the Wind is of course a must-see for all Welles aficionados, warts and all. That does not, however, mean its a great picture. In the end, its production history is leaps and bounds more riveting than the final product before us.