Restored and Revived: Peter Bogdanovich is back with 'The Other Side of Wind,' a Keaton doc and a career tribute
“One day at lunch, Orson turned to me out of the blue and said, ‘If anything ever happens to me, I want you to promise me you’ll finish the picture.’ I said, ‘Oh, Orson, nothing’s going to happen to you.’ He said, ‘I know, but if it does, promise me you’ll finish the picture.’ I said, ‘Of course I will, but it won’t.’ And we changed the subject.”
Peter Bogdanovich recently recycled that still-vivid memory from 1976 on the occasion of actually, emphatically and finally keeping his promise to Orson Welles.
Forty-eight years after those cameras first started rolling, the movie reached the marketplace, world-premiering on August 31, 2018, at Venice‘s film festival, knocking off its North American premiere the next day at Telluride’s and touching down Sept. 29 and Oct. 10 at New York’s en route to a long-time-in-coming national release Nov. 2.
The picture in question and, for decades, in financial quicksand—The Other Side of the Wind—was one Welles was interminably crafting to restore himself to the sunburst of glory he first experienced in Hollywood with 1941’s Citizen Kane.
Its focus is on a once-lionized, now-dying film director out of favor with The New Hollywood—a rather transparent portrait of Welles himself, played by John Huston (with some additional latter-day looping by his actor-director son, Danny Huston).
It seems Huston’s character is tossing a last-hurrah screening bash for an unfinished comeback film. In attendance are four Oscar winners (Edmond O’Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Crowe and Huston) and four Oscar nominees (Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, Paul Mazursky and Bogdanovich). Only the writer-directors—Crowe and Bogdanovich—are still with us. Also present, as party guests in their posthumous film bows: Lilli Palmer, Claude Chabrol and Stéphane Audran, Cameron Mitchell, Susan Strasberg, John Carroll and Charles Foster Kane’s major domo, Paul Stewart. Among the still-living: Les Moonves and critics Todd McCarthy and Joseph McBride. It looks, and plays, like a starry if dimly lit come-as-you-are clambake.
Death did come to Orson Welles Oct. 10, 1985—the same day his Battle on the River Neretva co-star, Yul Brynner, died—triggering a Kane-or-The King front-page battle.
Norma Desmond’s gnawing self-delusion of “getting back up there” with one last flick consumed Welles’ final 15 years. Seven were spent accumulating 100 hours of footage that would eventually be whittled down to a comprehensible, if chaotic, 122 minutes. Eight more went to fundraising to complete his wannabe magnum opus.
Subsequent generations of star directors contributed to this cause, the most recent (2015) being Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson, but eventually it was the film’s original production manager-turned-producer, Frank Kennedy, who brought it in.
The Other Side of the Wind arrived at the New York fest with cinematic accessories: They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (yep: a crack Welles once made to Bogdanovich) is a 98-minute documentary directed by Morgan Neville detailing the making of this movie, and A Final Cut For Orson: 40 Years in the Making, a short from director Ryan Suffern, is an additional postscript covering the same turf but in less than an hour.
Bogdanovich entered the big picture when Welles rang him up one day in 1970 and asked, “What are you doing Thursday?” It so happened that Thursday he was off to Texas to begin The Last Picture Show, his own Citizen Kane, but Welles cajoled him into dropping by the set for a few hours to play a journalist interviewing Huston. As the filming inched on and Bogdanovich’s profession switched and solidified, Welles recast him as a young director on the rise, replacing Rich Little, who didn’t work out as well as Welles wanted and was reduced in the editing room to a party-guest bit.
Bogdanovich is still play-acting director. Next, he heads for Toronto to do the role of a film director named Peter in the Stephen King chiller It: Chapter Two. “It’s just a one-day shoot. The director and I are friendly: Andy Muschietti. He’s a very sweet guy. He wrote it for me. He said, ‘I want you in the picture,’ so he wrote me a scene.”
Also, he is still playing director for real: His latest, The Great Buster, just picked up the Venezia Classici Award at the Venice Film Festival for “Best Documentary on Cinema.” It seems Orson Welles isn’t the only screen icon on his plate; he has room for a 102-minute look at the life and films of the funniest stoneface in the business.
Joseph Frank Keaton was laying ’em in the aisles at age three, doing slapstick with his vaudeville parents. He became Bustelin, Lloyd,” he recalls. “A lot of those were silent films because my father, who was about 20 years older than my mother, grew up with silent pictures, so that’s what he took me to see. It was a great thing he did. I was being introduced to the foundation of the medium, really—a time of telling stories without talk. I don’t think he knew I was going to be a filmmaker, but he certainly had me looking at visual stuff right away. He was a painter and painted in the apartment. I grew up with compositions and colors and the smell of oil paint.”
Keaton’s heyday was centrally located in silents and never made it to talkies (which was a good thing since his deep, unmodulated voice never quite matched his looks).
Drink and bad marriages sped his decline. Crawling back to the scene of his great triumphs, MGM, he was reduced to “technically advising” Red Skeleton on how to do silent slapstick in a sound era, remaking. Keaton classics like The General and The Cameraman as Skeleton’s A Southern Yankee and Watch the Birdie. He spiraled all the way down to American International Pictures and How To Stuff a Wild Bikini.
A critical mind like Bogdanovich’s reshuffled the deck to end the film on a happy, even hilarious note, saving the best for last (specifically, Keaton’s decade of fevered creativity in silents). “Critics have commented on the fact I did it out of chronology, but I didn’t want to leave the film on a downer. There’s an old show-biz maxim, y’know, to always leave ’em laughing. That was the prescient idea I had on this picture—and the only really good idea I had. It came about in terms of construction because I heard that Buster had received a long standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival the year before he died, and I thought, ‘Well, that gives me an excuse to go back and show audiences the films they were applauding.’ It worked that way.”
It did, and when flicked off at the end, they make for a sidesplitting credit crawl. “I had a brilliant editor, Bill Borgan, who had a lot to do with that. He deserves credit because he dug up a lot of archival stuff that covered everything I wanted to talk about. Bill was the editor who helped me make my Tom Petty documentary work.”
Hollywood never gave Keaton his proper due—or even a decent biopic. The Buster Keaton Story was “a terrible movie,” in Bogdanovich’s view, but he allowed that Donald O’Connor was the only one then who could get away with the title role. John Ritter, whom he hired for They All Laughed, he thinks, had comparable comic chops.
Throughout the picture are loving Keaton testimonials from quite an eclectic, knowing crew: Mel Brooks, Bill Hader, Werner Herzog, Carl Reiner, Richard Lewis, the Bogdanovich-taught Cybill Shepherd, Nick Kroll and Quentin Tarantino.
The Great Buster, now playing at the Quad Cinema, has prompted dueling film retrospectives at the theatre—one on Buster Keaton, one on Peter Bogdanovich.
Bogdanovich Redux allowed him license to tinker with the originals and come up with his own Directors Cuts for the Quad exhibition. What’s Up, Doc? required little cosmetic surgery. “It opened at Radio City Music Hall, and when Barbra Streisand tells Ryan O’Neal at the end, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry,’ the laugh was so big you couldn’t hear what he said, which was ‘That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.’ So we put in two silent crosscuts of them looking at each other—and it still didn’t get a laugh. When it went to DVD, I took them out. They weren’t needed.”
Similarly, The Last Picture Show didn’t need much work. “It opened to a great critical reception, but someone made the comment, ‘Too bad we don’t see where the two boys live.’ There was a scene we shot that discussed that. So I said to the producer, ‘Goddamn it, ya see? We shoulda kept it in,’ and he restored the scene while the movie was still in theatres. Then, when it came out on laser disc, I took advantage of that and put in seven minutes that had been cut out. When it came out on DVD, I took out a minute. It was a minute that spoiled one of the jokes, so I took it out.”
Texasville, the Last Picture Show sequel that Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich made two decades later, went into release 25 minutes shorter than originally intended because all references to the original film had to be removed. “The original head of the studio, Peter Guber, promised to reissue Picture Show in theatres when Texasville came out, then Frank Price took over the studio. He hated me and refused to do it, so we were forced to cut it. It was released on Pioneer laser disc in the long version—but who has laser discs? Currently, we’re trying to get Criterion to put out the long Texasville and make it as black-and-white as The Last Picture Show.”
The most radically revised entry in the Bogdanovich retrospective was his paean to early flickers, Nickelodeon. “There’s about five minutes that wasn’t in there before, but the biggest change was going from color to black-and-white. That’s how I originally wanted it, but they wouldn’t let me shoot in black-and-white, even though Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show were in black-and-white and were hits. The stupid head of the studio who later shot himself insisted on color, so I said to Laszlo Kovacs, the cameraman, ‘Let’s light it for black-and-white because one day we’re gonna print it in black-and-white.’ When I did print it that way, it looked terrific.”
It’s easy to understand Bogdanovich’s affinity for Welles. Both got off to brilliant beginnings in film, then fumbled, fizzled and never fully recovered. Welles came on with Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and, later down the road, Touch of Evil. Bogdanovich never got better than his first three A-team efforts: The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon; six actors were Oscar-nominated for those (Ellen Burstyn, Madeline Kahn, Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman, Tatum O’Neal and Ben Johnson), and the last three won. He would have gotten more had he not turned down The Godfather, Chinatown and (perhaps wisely) Duck, You Sucker.
The notion he might have the same career trajectory as Welles never occurred to him till critics likened his film arrival to Welles’. “To have your work compared to Citizen Kane is incredible—certainly, it isn’t true, but it’s nice to have it written,” he said at the time. “I hope I’m not repeating what happened to him—you know, make a successful serious film like this early and then spend the rest of my life in decline.”
In a way hard to overlook, that came to pass. Years later—according to Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls—Bogdanovich walked up to producer Irwin Winker, extended his hand and cracked, “Remember me? I used to be Peter Bogdanovich.”