It’s been nearly 50 years since Orson Welles called up friend and colleague Peter Bogdanovich, just before the young filmmaker flew to Texas to begin production on “The Last Picture Show,” to knock out some of the earliest footage of what would eventually become Welles’ swan song. Thanks to Netflix and a dedicated crew, “The Other Side of the Wind” finally saw the light of day at the Venice Film Festival on Friday, with a U.S. bow in Telluride set for this evening.
But here’s the pressing question for this space: Is it eligible for Oscar consideration? The answer is yes, but how the Academy — aggressively internationalized in recent years (which could help) — responds to the fever and wit of this acid-trip assemblage is yet to be seen. The film brims with contempt for the new Hollywood of the ‘70s, lionized to this day, and it chips away at the titan-like patriarchs of Welles’ own classic era, embodied by director Jake Hannaford (the growling and eerily wise John Huston).
Indeed, it seems like an Oscar would be a mere trinket to acknowledge such a bold project so strikingly removed, aesthetically, from Welles’ first revered feature (and the greatest film ever made), “Citizen Kane.” But perhaps a special award would be warranted, not just for Welles and his punchy vision, but for the team that brought it out of film lore and, finally, onto screens for the world to see.
The editing of the picture stands out first and foremost. Welles only constructed a 40-minute section himself but Oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski (“The Hurt Locker”) has completed a gargantuan task in approximating what “The Other Side of the Wind” might have been from that guidance and the roadmap left in Welles’ extensive notes. It would be an incredibly radical move for an editors branch that has increasingly leaned in the direction of best-picture players, and make no mistake, “The Other Side of the Wind” is not a best-picture player. But in pieces, it’s dazzling and worth recognizing.
Cinematographer Gary Graver’s work, a mix of formats including 16mm, 35mm, and black-and-white photography, ought to be included in any consideration as well. Graver was seemingly a slave to Welles’ artistic whims late in the filmmaker’s career, judging by Morgan Neville’s companion-piece making-of documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” also screening in Telluride. When Welles died, Graver appeared to be rudderless in the world. He had the filmmaker’s ashes in the trunk of his car for a year and a half, awaiting direction on what to do with them. But we, and “The Other Side of the Wind,” owe much to him. A work print of the film was discovered among his belongings as he had attempted — impossibly, and again, rudderless — to realize a version of its ultimate form. He was the steward of a master artist’s final work, and that is precious indeed.
The screenplay, such that it is, would be an inspired choice from the writers branch. Welles co-wrote with his lover, and one of the film-within-the-film’s stars, Oja Kodar. It’s packed with line after line dripping with meaning and verve, as if Welles were there speaking to us through his characters from the afterlife.
But perhaps the film’s best shot at recognition could be three-time Oscar-winning composer Michel Legrand’s jazzy score. It isn’t all original, so it’s unclear whether it would qualify (this is a fickle branch), but the 86-year-old imbues the picture with undeniable spirit. That would be fitting given the film often invoked when discussing Oscar attention for something like this: Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight,” which was not only nominated for its original score when released 20 years after it was made, it won.
The film itself is unlike anything that will be on offer this season, of that you can be sure. And Welles knew that all too well. “You either hate it or loathe it,” he once quipped. So perhaps, if he’s not already furious at the completion of a movie some say he never really wanted to finish, Welles would burst into laughter — that brilliant visage, eyebrows cutting south — at the idea of today’s industry embracing “The Other Side of the Wind” with an Oscar. Perhaps he would feel vindicated, finally, by the town that ruined him. We’ll simply never know.
But what a note it would be, 77 years after a prize for writing “Citizen Kane,” to one last time write those words: Oscar winner Orson Welles.