Having practically run out of living artists to hire, Netflix has reached back in time to reanimate Orson Welles, or at least, one of his unfinished films, “The Other Side of the Wind.” Painstakingly stitched together, the movie remains a mildly intriguing mess, and far less worthwhile than the accompanying documentary about it and the latter stages of Welles’ career, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.”
The one-two punch paints a fascinating portrait of an artist who remained a rebel throughout his career, shadowed by the early greatness of classics like “Citizen Kane,” his larger-than-life appetites and the studio hierarchy that failed to support him.
Welles actually began “Other Side of the Wind” in 1970, working on it, on and off, until his death in 1985. The movie itself is a paean to self-indulgence – one he cowrote with his then-girlfriend, Oja Kodar, who also stars (if you can call it that, given the limited dialogue) playing a character in the movie within the movie.
Welles insisted the plot wasn’t autobiographical, a conclusion resisted – as the documentary makes clear – by everyone close to him. His good friend and fellow actor/director John Huston plays J.J. “Jake” Hannaford, an aging filmmaker desperately trying to finish his film – one that’s over schedule, and over budget – while surrounded by toadies, hangers-on and studio types watching dailies that they’re struggling to comprehend.
In terms of the burden of dreams (to borrow from another documentary about a filmmaker, Werner Herzog), the central character’s plight has a good deal in common with Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” where the adulation of fans has mostly become an annoyance.
The film that Hannaford is making, meanwhile, features lots of nudity, nearly all of it female and most of it gratuitous. Welles shot the movie in guerrilla fashion, squeezing out footage when he could, documentary style, with the help of a small but loyal, star-struck crew.
Most of that is amusingly explored in the accompanying documentary, which recounts how impressionist Rich Little somehow wound up in the film, only to be fired by Welles and replaced by director Peter Bogdanovich, whose performance is, charitably, uneven. A parade of notable players pass through the movie as Hannaford’s posse, including Edmond O’Brien, Cameron Mitchell and Paul Stewart (the latter another link to “Citizen Kane”).
“Movies and friendship. Those are mysteries,” Hannaford says near the end – a line that sums up the film, without redeeming it.
Off screen, the documentary – directed by Morgan Neville – captures Welles’ self-destructive streak and desperation, which included alienating ardent admirer Bogdonavich by going on “The Tonight Show” and bad-mouthing him, in a manner that strained their relationship.
The Welles portrayed remains a mass of contradictions – bitter over the handling of “Touch of Evil,” his acclaimed thriller, but eager to receive a career-achievement award that he thinks will jump-start his career. Seemingly comfortable operating amid chaos, he cheerfully refers to a director as “the man who presides over accidents,” conveying the romance of filmmaking while forever frustrated by it.
The aforementioned crew on “The Other Side of the Wind” included producer Frank Marshall, who was part of the effort to transform the hundreds of disjointed reels of film left behind into something that would approximate Welles’ vision. In a sense, Netflix has posthumously extended Welles the respect and creative latitude that eluded him in life.
It’s hard to call the operation a success, but to those for whom Welles’ name still denotes something vaguely magical, it’s worth watching the documentary, which – in much the way the journalist in “Citizen Kane” sought to better understand the man by unlocking the riddle of Rosebud – provides some insight into what made its legendary subject tick.
“The Other Side of the Wind” and “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” premiere Nov. 2 in select theaters and on Netflix.