I don’t know for certain if I’ve ever had the chance to espouse on this site exactly how much Orson Welles means to me. As a child, I was obsessed with his radio work on Mercury Theater and The Shadow, blasts through the nighttime ether via WKST-AM radio (the first station that Alan Freed would work at before he coined the term rock and roll). In the late 1970’s, the opportunity to watch classics films wasn’t as simple as grabbing a movie off the shelf or streaming it. No, when Citizen Kane aired on broadcast TV, it was a major event. I remember my father sitting me down and telling me that we were about to watch something special.
That may have been the birth of my lifelong love for Welles work, but it’s only grown as I’ve read innumerable books and watched so many documentaries that attempt to explain his genius and madness. Now, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead explains even more as it details his legendary lost film, The Other Side of the Wind.
Directed by Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), this work tries to explain exactly the trials and tribulations of this film, which ties together Welles attempted from European exile in the wake of the new Hollywood to the Iran crisis and the dissolution of his friendship with his acolyte, Peter Bogdanovich.
This movie had to have been hard to make for many of the people caught in the wake of Welles. For Cybil Shepherd, he was the combative old man who lived in the same wing as her in the home of her lover Bogdanovich, so forgetful that he’d put lit cigars into the pockets of his robe. For Bogdanovich, he went from hero to villain, vilifying him with Burt Reynolds on The Tonight Show and placing a character into the film that was a not-so-thinly veiled assault on his relationship with Shepherd.
Nobody was more impacted by Welles than cameraman Gary Graver, who volunteered to work with the artist at a young age and then basically gave his life and sanity over. Welles was the central figure of his life and to supplement the money he lost working for him (he was given the 1941 writing Oscar that Welles won for Citizen Kane, but was sued by his daughter to get it back when he tried to sell it) by working on films like Trick or Treats and Mortuary. This film also sheds a light on the fact that Graver also worked as a writer and director in the adult film industry, often credited as Robert McCallum. He didn’t just make one or two films. More like 135 and he was inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame for his contributions to the adult film industry. In fact, in order to get Graver back to work on his film faster, Welles himself would personally cut a scene in the film 3 A.M.: The Time of Sexuality. While a hardcore lesbian scene, it totally looks like an Orson Welles movie, complete with low camera angles. How many major directors silently work in the adult industry just to finish a film they’d been trying to complete for a decade?
As time moved on, characters would become real people and real people would become the characters in the film, in an extreme magical rite of sorts. Welles was obsessed with the nature of reality, with what is the truth and what is an illusion (see all of his perfect film F for Fake for more). The near decade creation of The Other Side of the Wind both predicted and reacted to the changing story of its creator’s life.
The strangest thing of all is that They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is a documentary about the last film in Welles life. But so is The Other Side of the Wind, when you get right down to it. Then again, there were over a hundred hours cut together to make the latter, so of course, it needs some further exploration and interpretation.
My favorite part of this documentary are all the moments where you wish there was more, such as Welles conversation with Dennis Hopper about the changes in Hollywood. I’m fascinated by Welles, well, fascination with femme fatale Oja Kodar. And amazed that Rich Little would agree to appear in this when he comes off so badly. Anything for Orson, one assumes.
If you love Welles at the level that I do (I can totally understand Graver throwing away his life to work with him), you’ll love this. And even if you don’t know a single thing about him, this is an intriguing meditation on the nature of art and reality.