The filmmaking career of Orson Welles is an American tragedy. Hailed as a genius in his early youth, Welles became the wunderkind of Broadway, staging ambitious and groundbreaking adaptations of Shakespeare. He then transitioned to the radio where his Mercury Theater caused a national stir with their inventive adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Naturally, that was followed by a trip to Hollywood. RKO Pictures gave Welles an unprecedented contract with creative control and he turned in for his debut feature a film that would become widely considered the greatest American movie ever made, Citizen Kane. But how is it that the man behind Citizen Kane would find himself exiled from Hollywood and spend the last decades of his life seeking elusive funding for his various projects? The life and art of Orson Welles and how it all culminated in the unusual story of his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, is the subject of a new documentary by director Morgan Neville, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which arrives on Netflix at the same time as Welles’ long-awaited final film.
Actor Alan Cumming is the film’s narrator and host as They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead alternates between biography of Welles and telling the unusual story of how The Other Side of the Wind was produced and then unfinished for nearly 40 years. Neville’s documentary is slick and glossy, moving quickly in using new interviews and archival footage to paint its tragic portrait of Welles’ final years of artistic struggle.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is a fascinating documentary because of the wild production of The Other Side of the Wind. In archival footage, Welles is selling the film before production had even started, billing it as a work of stylistic ambition blending documentary and improvisation with a story crafted by the auteur. Peter Bogdanovich, an admirer and friend of Welles as well as an accomplished director in his own right, along with Frank Marshall, who would eventually become a blockbuster Hollywood producer, are among some of the people involved with The Other Side of the Wind who recall the years long production.
Teaming with loyal cinematographer Gary Graver, who became Welles’ cameraman by simply calling him up, the famed director would embark on a production that would last nearly 7 years. It would stop and start based on Welles’ ability to secure financing. The legendary director John Huston would star as Jake Hannaford, a formerly acclaimed director poised to make his comeback with a daring art film. The stubborn and cagey Welles refused to acknowledge any autobiographical link to the character. Meanwhile, Welles grew unhappy with the work of Rich Little as Hannford’s protégé Brooks Otterlake and would replace him with Peter Bogdanovich, the director playing a role similar to real life. This created complications as Bogdanovich had already filmed scenes as a different character.
Then there’s the production of the movie within the movie, also entitled The Other Side of the Wind, in which Oja Kodar, Welles mistress at the time, played a mysterious sexy woman wandering across a desolate landscape followed by Robert Random’s movie star character of John Dale. As recalled by those involved, this was Welles’ take on the European art films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, a blend of homage and satire. As the production drew on and on, Huston would leave to direct his own films and return to work on Welles’ film. Other members of the cast and crew including Welles himself would have to depart the production in order to make a living. All in all, over 100 hours of footage was shot for the film, and the outtakes accompanied by rare interviews with Welles represent some of the most fascinating elements of They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.
Welles struggled to finish editing The Other Side of the Wind. His seemingly never-ending process strained his friendship with Bogdanovich whom he was living with at the time. Bogdanovich’s then girlfriend Cybil Sheppard recalls how Welles’ looming presence in the household strained her relationship with Bogdanovich. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead then examines the various betrayals that occurred in Welles personal and professional life, including the infamous slash and burn editing of The Magnificent Ambersons while he was overseas filming the documentary It’s All True. Morgan Neville handles this aspect of Welles’ life with a delicate balance, illustrating that sometimes the great filmmaker wasn’t at fault for some of the bad luck that plagued his later life and other times it was directly the fault of his ego and immense appetites.
Things were further complicated when the Iranian Revolution toppled the Shah’s regime. The Shah’s brother-in-law was a financier of The Other Side of the Wind and legal proceedings in France went on for decades, resulting in the film being sealed in a Parisian vault. Welles died before the legal issues that kept The Other Side of the Wind locked away and it would be even longer before Bogdanovich, Frank Marshall and Netflix would team up to finish Welles’ lost work to debut over 40 years later on the streaming service. One is left to wonder just what this larger than life figure in the history of cinema with such a prickly attitude would think about his final passion project winding up on a service such as Netflix.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is one of those documentaries that is more fascinating than its subject. As I mentioned elsewhere, The Other Side of the Wind is more a historical document than a good movie. But Morgan Neville has crafted a documentary that tells the story behind the film that is fascinating, lively in its construction, often funny, and always tragic. It’s an important work of documentary filmmaking because time makes us forget how towering figures are often exiled and forced to the fringes of obscurity in their life before being revered in death.
They'll Love Me When I'm Dead
A slick, lively documentary by director Morgan Neville, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead tells the fascinating story of Orson Welles’ final years and his long lost final film The Other Side of the Wind through new interviews and rare archival footage, resulting in a funny, compelling, and tragic work of non-fiction.