Orson Welles on the set
Orson Welles on the set with Peter Bogdanovich
Orson Welles on the set with Peter Bogdanovich and John Huston
Orson Welles on the set
Orson Welles with John Huston
Left to right, John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
Left to right, Peter Bogdanovich in shadows, Orson Welles, and John Huston
Left to right, Dennis Hopper, John Ford, and John Huston
Left to right, Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, and John Huston
Left to right, Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, and Gary Graver
THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD B
USA (98 mi) 2018 d: Morgan Neville
Struck by the inventiveness of Welles’ own F for Fake (1973), where the director felt he was creating not so much a documentary but a “new kind of film,” Neville modeled this documentary on that film. Made by the director of 2013 Top Ten List # 8 20 Feet from Stardom, this is equally as entertaining, released on Netflix as an accompaniment to the long unfinished work of Welles, The Other Side of the Wind (2018), which is a histrionic look at what might have been, as it was left to others, namely editor Bob Murawski, to finish what amounted to 100 hours of unedited film and the result is impressive, though likely too avant-garde for a commercial audience and hardly a masterwork worthy of being called a Welles film. This moody hodgepodge of self-reflective commentary is at the heart of Welles’ film, which is itself an autobiographical documentary on the difficulties of making of a film, largely improvised, shot over five years, where the mirror reflections of what transpired in Welles’ own life trying to complete the film are simply remarkable, as he was never able to complete the film due to a lack of funding, as it completely dried up after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, as the primary financier was the Shah’s brother in law, a Paris-based Iranian production operated by Mehdi Boushehri, with the new Iranian regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini impounding the film along with all assets of the previous regime, and when brought to French court, they ruled that the film was owned by the producer, not the director, and impounded the original negative of the film, locked in a vault, completely inaccessible to Welles during his lifetime (though he smuggled out a print), dying in 1985 prior to completing the film. When his estranged widow Paola Mori died the following year, the Welles estate was turned over to his daughter Beatrice Welles, and it was up to her to untangle the legal shenanigans that took more than two decades. Making matters even more difficult, Welles left the controlling rights of all his unfinished film projects to Oja Kodar, his longtime companion, mistress and collaborator who co-wrote and co-starred in The Other Side of the Wind. The contentious relationship between Oja Kodar and Beatrice Welles (who believed Kodar destroyed her mother’s marriage), each supposedly speaking for the true motives of the infamous director, led to a stalemate and power struggle that prevented any restoration and distribution of the film until Netflix got involved as late as 2017, with the original prints shipped from Paris to Los Angeles for a final restoration more than forty years after the shooting stopped, hiring a post-production team that included Bob Murawski as editor, Scott Millan as sound mixer, and Mo Henry as negative cutter. Welles himself is seen waxing eloquently about the art of making movies, inspired by his belief in “divine accidents” that inevitably occur, claiming it is the director’s role to manage these unintended consequences. Welles on camera is always viewed as a larger-than-life, Falstaff-like Shakespearean character with that deep resonant bass voice, a consummate showman, continually hyping a sales pitch for his latest idea or movie, all designed to promote interest in his latest project.
With the overwhelming success of CITIZEN KANE (1941), many regarding it as the greatest film ever made, Welles was quickly blindsided by the Hollywood power elite who managed to get him sent out of the country as a goodwill ambassador to Brazil at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller, U.S. Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and a principal stockholder in RKO Radio Pictures, shooting a documentary there which produced the beautifully unfinished film IT’S ALL TRUE (1943). While out of the country his next film was sabotaged, THE MAGNIFICENT ANDERSONS (1942), with the studio heads thinking the ending was too downbeat, so they destroyed the final prints and brought in the actors to reshoot the ending, with the lost footage still the stuff of legends, one of the colossal betrayals in Hollywood history, as no one will ever see the final vision conceived by the artist himself. This betrayal destroyed whatever future Welles had in Hollywood and was a blow from which he never recovered, exiled to Europe in order to procure financing for his films in the 50’s and 60’s, as money completely dried up in the United States, so it was this film project that lured him back to Los Angeles, spending the last 15 years of his life there obsessed with the making of this film, confident it would resurrect his career and lead to a breakthrough, finally achieving the success he felt he deserved after all these years. But that envisioned Hollywood ending was not to be, as evidenced by the heartbreak that followed what he thought was a door opening when he was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the American Film Institute in 1975, basking in the limelight of a room filled with stars and the Hollywood elite, receiving a standing ovation, screening two scenes from the film, all but imploring this august group for money to complete the film, but no one offered a penny. It’s easily the saddest moment of the film, especially since he grew so euphoric at the prospect of a successful return. The hypocrisy, of course, is that they’d recognize him with an award while still refusing to offer him work, continuing a pattern that existed for thirty years. Similarly, the ultimate irony is that the prestigiously elite team of Hollywood specialists required to restore this film forty years after his death is way more extravagant than Welles would have required to finish the film himself. It’s likely sometime late in life that he was alleged to have spoken the words of the film title as a befitting epitaph, as it’s completely in character with his morbid humor. The clips of Welles that are splintered throughout the film are deliciously revealing, as he’s so in command of being in front of a camera, like a youthfully exuberant ham that never knows when to stop ogling for more laughs, but it shows just how comfortable he is in his own skin. Revealing more about Welles than any other documentary, this also shows how much we miss him, as he remains curious and constantly inventive, seemingly with so much to offer, yet his life was filled with such disappointment, which may explain why he ballooned in weight in his final years, where the sad and pathetic reality is that his regular source of income was largely accumulated by becoming a pitchman for a variety of TV commercials.
When Welles concocted his plan to return to America in 1970, Hollywood was changing, as the power of the studios was dissipating and it was becoming a youth market targeting the younger generation, with films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), The Last Movie (1971), or McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), a time when Welles was viewed with reverence in Europe and by this new generation, described as “somewhere between a Zen master and God,” where he should have been welcomed like a conquering hero, as John Huston was with THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975), yet he never completed another picture. At the time he was living in the Beverly Hills Hotel, which was not concealed from the public, so up and coming cinematographer Gary Graver enthusiastically gave him a call expressing a desire to work with him. Using a montage of his own collected films, Neville amusingly reassembles his telephone response, giving it a dramatic life or death urgency, testing the young cameraman in his hotel suite, agreeing on the spot to work with him, as he had a reputation for working fast and cheap, which turned into a Mephistophelean deal with the devil, with Graver having no life of his own after that, working with Welles for the next 15 years (the only person to work for both Welles and Ed Wood), ruining his family life by literally being worked to the ground for no pay, going to desperate measures, working in the porn industry under an assumed alias to earn a living, where in a hilarious moment Welles is seen ingeniously helping edit a porn film in order to get Graver back working for him. Another interesting tidbit is Welles working with the comic impressionist Rich Little on his own television program, becoming enamored with his talent, an odd couple, to be sure, offering him a role in the film that was later filled by American director Peter Bogdanovich, as Little had a small window of opportunity to shoot with no possibility of working beyond a cutoff date, as he had touring commitments. Welles took a gamble and nearly completed what he needed, but fell short, having to toss all that footage and start all over again with Bogdanovich. That was really the beginning of the end on this project, as things started taking a turn for the worse. This documentary, however, is unique in showing plenty of footage of Rich Little on the set that is not present in the film. Bogdanovich, interestingly, does several impressions of Rich Little doing an impression. Welles’ connection to Bogdanovich mirrors his own career, as Bogdanovich was the wonder boy whose first film was the highly acclaimed The Last Picture Show (1971), discovering a young 19-year old Cybill Shepherd, having an affair with her, with Welles curiously casting a young teenage blond in his own film meant to resemble her, Cathy Lucas as Mavis Henscher, though embraced by the aging director John Huston who lasciviously takes her under his wing. Bogdanovich went on to have plenty of success before his career mysteriously fizzled out, exactly like Welles, and hasn’t had a hit movie in decades, though he recently completed a documentary on Buster Keaton, The Great Buster (2018). It’s sadly curious that in the decade of making this film, both Huston and Bogdanovich were lauded by Hollywood for their work, but Welles was routinely ignored, becoming so desperate for an editing machine that he literally moved into Bogdanovich’s editing studio in the basement of his home, not for three weeks, as was expected, but for three years, happening during a particularly difficult turn in Bogdanovich’s career, becoming a huge strain on their friendship. Interesting that Bogdanovich began as a young cinephile enthusiast idolizing Welles, recalling the morning Welles called telling him to meet on a roadway next to a runway at the Los Angeles airport, doing Jerry Lewis impressions for him during the shoot, then successfully directing his own films, with Welles moving into his own house in no hurry to move on. Believing he was creating a masterpiece, though “maybe it’s just people talking about a movie,” the painful legacy of Welles’ film is beautifully detailed in this film, which is easier to follow and arguably much more enjoyable to watch than the doomed picture Welles shot.