Orson Welles and Hollywood Are Finally Getting Along

The late director won't have final cut, but the piecemeal restoration of The Other Side of the Wind may be his best industry gig since Citizen Kane.

RKO Radio Pictures

Orson Welles famously struggled to finish his films while he was alive, so now, nearly 30 years after his death, Hollywood’s helping him out. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Royal Road Entertainment, a production company based in Los Angeles, had successfully negotiated to complete Welles’s final, unfinished feature The Other Side of the Wind just in time for the auteur’s 100th birthday this coming May.

What a gift it will be: Wind will get a better Hollywood treatment than the director ever received in his own lifetime. Orson Welles’s last film will not be by Orson Welles per se. But he probably would have been delighted by the way it's all panning out so that he retains directorial control. The film is set to be reconstituted piecemeal by two original members of the set—line producer Frank Marshall and star Peter Bogdanovich, a director in his own right (and Welles’s former protégé). The finished product will adhere to Welles's very detailed instructions; Welles, who worked for 15 years on the project, left behind 45 minutes of edited material and extensive notes for the remaining 10 hours of raw footage.

In his lifetime, Welles acted in commercials to finance his films, which sometimes stalled midway through as he pulled together funding. That was the case with Wind, which was also plagued by other unforeseen barriers to completion—a disrespectful producer who Welles accused of embezzling film funds, and a meddling investor, the brother-in-law to the shah of Iran, who forcibly took the film away in a fit of concern over Welles’s expenditure. Welles smuggled the edited remains out of Paris in 1975.

Royal Road, on the other hand, spent five years trying to fulfill Welles's vision. This involved negotiating with the many parties that held partial rights to the film, including Welles’s longtime partner Oja Kodar, his daughter Beatrice Welles, and the Paris production company L’Astrophore. It’s all in the interest of a timely, buzz-generating release, a prospect that escaped with Welles when he was alive: The auteur was notoriously languorous about executing his vision in post-production, one of the reasons why Don Quixote, The Merchant of Venice, and 19 other projects remain unfinished.

This posthumous arrangement makes The Other Side of the Wind a career-capper like none Welles could have scrupulously staged himself. Welles created layer upon layer of meta-dimensions in the plot. But he couldn’t have imagined how well the theme would have aged. Take the premise: At the film’s open, the protagonist, a middle-aged film director, has just died in the aftermath of his 70th birthday party. (Welles, who died at 70, even considered playing the character, but eventually gave it to another real-life directorial icon, John Huston). The rest of the film reconstitutes the party from footage taken by TV, documentary, and student directors at the festivities. Included is an unfinished film-within-a-film of the director character’s last movie, a daring, unfinished effort rendered in the style of Michelangelo Antinioni. In the context of the Royal Road news, it’s more like a film-within-a-film-within-a-film.

None of these personal connections was lost on Welles in his lifetime. But he might have loved the way his death has given them more dramatic significance. The director, who famously incited a small panic by reenacting War of the Worlds on the Mercury Theatre on the Air radio program in 1938 (though accounts the hysteria have been greatly exaggerated), delighted in confusing entertainment with reality.

With The Other Side of the Wind, he deliberately played with the fuzzy boundaries between fiction and his own life. In the film, the director character tells partygoers his latest film will be “hip [and] with-it”—that is, filled with sex and violence. In reality, Welles was telling Peter Bogdanovich in pre-production that The Other Side of the Wind was going to be a “dirty movie” along the lines of Bogdanovich’s influential 1971 film The Last Picture Show.

Even if the director’s own touch will be abstracted in the cutting room, there’s no doubt this reconstituted version will magnify his myth. Welles was already famous in Hollywood when he launched his career at the age of 25 with Citizen Kane, thanks to a successful theater career. After his groundbreaking freshman effort, which he directed, produced, co-wrote, cast, and starred in, his stardom as a cinematic "boy genius" became immortal.

Some argue it all went downhill from there. But Welles cultivated a level of celebrity that allowed him and his fans to redirect blame from himself towards the movie industry. The Magnificent Ambersons was mutilated on the cutting room floor by Hollywood producers. Othello and other movies in the '50s and '60s were financed out of his own pocket and, also, jeopardized by producers. Welles was “forced to become a celebrity”—as a political commentator for a weekly radio show and daily writer, vaudevillian director, and all-around playboy—to finance his remaining films. While much of this is true, it's also true that Welles often wasn't shrewd in his business dealings.

The shortage of Welles-edited footage on The Other Side of the Wind suits his grandiose influence, which has always been outsized compared to his actual output. Diehard Welles enthusiasts argue his 12 films are the best 12 films to ever be attributed to a single director, but at the end of the day the tally shrinks in comparison to commensurate presences in cinema history—like Jean-Luc Godard (52) and Alfred Hitchcock (59).

Whatever the end results of The Other Side of the Wind may be, this iconoclastic legend of the underserved boy genius will endure. If the film is bad, Royal Road Entertainment’s editing will likely be on the stand. If the production feels a bit cheap, it will be the product of the U.S. government’s harsh taxes on Welles’s European company in the '60s and '70s. If it feels rushed, it may be attributed to the fact that the crew was forced to sneak into lots, and pretend to be film students, to shoot without the proper permits. This will all play in to the delightful tradition of excusing Orson, of imagining how his genius could have manifested on film if the conditions were right, if Hollywood had stopped being so stingy and given him a proper budget.

Now they have, but Welles's reputation won't suffer. Does this mean The Other Side of the Wind could be the chef-d’oeuvre of the director’s legacy? Welles might have loved if it were, if only because it would amplify the sounding chamber between reality and fiction he strove to create in his films. That the guerilla footage of The Other Side of the Wind will be pieced together from his disembodied narrative notes, the snatched remembrances of those who knew him—it all sounds very Citizen Kane.