Orson Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind, was never finished and no one knows with certainty what it was meant to be about. John Huston once asked Welles and got a cryptic answer. “It’s a film about a bastard director…” Welles answered Huston. “It’s about us, John. It’s a film about us.”
The May issue of Vanity Fair publishes a piece adapted from Josh Karp’s new book, Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind (St. Martin’s Press). It’s a book to look for, all about the making and non-making of a film whose title couldn’t even be explained. According to Karp, Rich Little, who was also in the cast, asked Welles about the title:
“Orson,” Little asked, “what does The Other Side of the Wind mean?”
Looking down over his reading glasses, Welles, in his rich baritone, said, “I haven’t the foggiest.”
Though the film came to be about the film industry, it was initially going to be loosely based on novelist Ernest Hemingway:
The initial inspiration for The Other Side of the Wind can be traced back to an event that took place more than 30 years before Graver walked into Schwab’s that summer day and found Orson in the pages of Variety.
Orson Welles in 1937.
It was May 1937 and Welles entered a Manhattan recording studio to narrate a Spanish Civil War documentary whose script had been written by Ernest Hemingway—who happened to be in the sound booth when Orson arrived.
Only 22, Orson was not yet the Orson Welles, but he was on his way as a talented voice actor earning $1,000 a week during the Depression and a Broadway wunderkind who’d had the audacity to stage an all-black Macbeth.
Looking at Hemingway’s script, Welles suggested a few changes, as he recalled to a reporter decades later. Wouldn’t it be better, for instance, to eliminate the line “Here are the faces of men who are close to death,” and simply let those faces speak for themselves?
Hemingway was outraged that anyone would dare tamper with his words and went after Orson, implying that the actor was “some kind of faggot.” Welles responded by hitting Hemingway the best way he knew how. If Papa wanted a faggot, Orson would give him one.
“Mr. Hemingway, how strong you are!” Welles said, camping it up with a swishy lisp. “How big you are!”
Grabbing a chair, Hemingway attacked Orson, who picked up a chair of his own, sparking a cinematic brawl between two of the great creative geniuses of the 20th century, who duked it out while images of war flickered on a screen behind them.
Eventually, however, the pair realized the insanity of their fight and soon slumped to the floor laughing, cracked open a bottle of whiskey, and drank their way into friendship.
Twenty years after this encounter, Welles would work on a screenplay about a hyper-manly, middle-aged, American novelist living in Spain who has lost his creative powers and become obsessed with a young bullfighter in whom he sees the promise of youth and perhaps something more. Meanwhile, a Greek chorus of sycophantic biographers, worshipful grad students, and literary critics trailed the writer, reminding him of his own greatness.
Sometime after Hemingway killed himself, on July 2, 1961, Welles changed the locus of the film to Hollywood and turned the novelist into a sadistic man’s-man filmmaker who may also be a closeted homosexual. He decided that all of the action would take place on a single day—July 2—which became his main character’s birthday and the last day of his life.
There is so much more to this stellar piece: so many other anecdotes, angles and stories. It can all be found in the May issue of Vanity Fair, and here. Look for the book later this month and — maybe! — we’ll finally get to see the film within the year.