Exploring the Final Years of Orson Welles, the Errant Genius Cast Out by Hollywood

The Netflix documentary 'They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead' traces the filmmaker's attempt to make a final film, a swan song.

Netflix occasionally throws up pleasant surprises, and not just in fiction. While most publicity is given to drama series or films, every now and then a documentary is released without much fanfare and watching it can be very rewarding. One such, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about the last, abortive attempt by Orson Welles to make a film, is a superb exploration of an artist’s life and creative impulses. It is a sort of a ‘Lion in Winter’ meditation, as we see the great Welles, once feted but now forgotten, trying hard to make a final film, a swan song that will not just be his greatest but also his most commercially successful.

Welles, of course, is the director Citizen Kane (1941) and many more terrific films that followed – The Magnificent Ambersons, Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger and Touch of Evil, and the actor in classics like The Third Man and Othello. Who can forget him as a corrupt cop in Touch of Evil or Harry Lime in The Third Man? Each one has established its place in cinematic history, but it is Kane that he is most known for.

No list of the best films of the 20th century can be made without Citizen Kane in it. It is often in the top three greatest films of all time, and till recently was routinely cited by critics as the top film, till it was displaced by Vertigo. The list is of course heavily weighted towards Western films, but even so, anyone who has watched (and re-watched) Citizen Kane will agree with its greatness. It remains gripping and powerful even today.

Orson Welles was just 25 when he made it, and was a first-time director, having scored a big time success with his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, based on H.G. Wells’ novel, which spread panic in the US about the imminent attack by aliens. Welles asked for, and got, full freedom from the studio to make Citizen Kane the way he wanted to, without interference from executives, something that dogged him through his career.

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The film received good critical reviews but did not do well at the box office. William Randolph Hearst, the powerful newspaper baron of the time, was convinced that Kane was based on him and banned all mention of the film in his publications and also went after Welles. Exhibitors refused to release the film and studio bosses too dithered till he threatened to sue them.

Over time, the film has won over many admirers, both critics and film buffs alike, but for Welles, it remained an albatross he could not shake off. “Citizen Kane is the greatest curse of my life”, he said; all his films were held up to it in comparison, an “impossible standard”. Welles felt burdened by it. He also had to give in to demands that the studio have the final say in every film from them on, and his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was reshot and re-edited while he was away shooting a documentary for the US government in Brazil.

His problems with studio bosses grew with each film – his image as a recalcitrant genius who often went over budget came in the way of getting finance and offers to direct. It isolated him from the Hollywood system.

The Netflix documentary, directed by Morgan Neville, tells the story of his effort to make a film where he would have full creative control. Welles set out to make The Other Side of the Wind in the 1970s, about an ageing director who directs one last film and invites his friends to a party hoping they will fund it. It looks at friendships, betrayal and death, as the director realises the world is crumbling around him and that no one is willing to support him. Welles insisted it was not about him, though it becomes clear as the documentary progresses, that there are many parallels.

While The Other Side of the Wind is being made, it is also being filmed by a documentary crew, a meta device that gets further enhanced by the current documentary, which has put together original footage from the film and interviewed many of the original crew and cast, telling the entire saga of the troubled project. The original’s film-within-a-film style, part black and white, part colour, is Welles’ satirical take on European avant-garde cinema of the time.

Orson Welles in 1941. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead – said to be a remark Welles had once made but which has never been verified too follows Welles’ style. Neville employs rapid cutting and uses disjointed quotes from various people without clarifying who they are are or even who exactly is speaking. The audience is expected to unravel the story, but as the film progresses, a cohesive narrative emerges and things become clearer.

Welles had then just returned from Europe – the second time he had gone into self-imposed exile – and over the years had acted in several, mainly indifferent, films as well as hosted television shows. But it was a film he wanted to make.

He began The Other Side of the Wind with his own money, then got in a European investor and finally an Iranian with close family ties to the Shah. An intermediary embezzled the funds, leaving Welles stranded. The film shooting went on and on, leaving all but Welles confused about what exactly was going on. No one knew the whole story – there was no script and often it used to be written on the day of the shoot. He tried to edit the film over the next few years, meanwhile working on outside assignments to earn a living.

In 1979, with the film only partially edited with the footage that had been shot, things changed when Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution overthrew the Shah. All the Shah’s business links were examined closely and Welles’ film project also came under the scanner. The film’s negatives were seized and kept in a vault in Paris, till the Iranians deemed them worthless, but then a legal battle between Welles’ daughter Belinda and his mistress Oja Kodar meant that the film could not be completed.

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Welles died in 1985, his last dream project unfinished and many of his dreams unrealised – he continued working on several ideas and scripts but there was no one to support him. Hollywood had forgotten him, except to wheel him out once in a while to pay tributes – one scene shows him accepting an achievement award, where he shows clips from his unfinished film, hoping that someone will step forward with the last bit of finance; no one does. He is an icon, but for all practical purposes, a crumbling icon without contemporary relevance.

There is no bitterness or melancholy, but the documentary, with a running time of 122 minutes, reflects on lost fame; Welles continues to be his magnificent self, with a strong presence and the centre of attraction of an adoring band of followers, including the rising director Peter Bogdanovich, who plays a young mentee in The Other Side of the Wind. But the big man himself – morbidly obese and probably broke – becomes a shadow of his past self, living for free in Bogdanovich’s house and looking around for a bit of money to salvage his dream.

After nearly three decades of legal complications and several aborted tries, The Other Side of the Wind was finally completed and released in 2014. Critics have hailed it as one of Welles’ major works and it has a high approval rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes.

They’ll Love Me When I am Dead too has generally been appreciated, as an “entertaining window to the creative process – and late period professional travails – of a brilliant filmmaker”. For Welles fans, this documentary will invoke memories of just how brilliant he was.