'Orson Welles's Last Movie': Book Review

Orson Welles Book Review - H 2015
Courtesy of St. Martin's Press

Orson Welles Book Review - H 2015

Josh Karp's wild, star-studded history of the director's final film is a must-read for cinema scholars and Old Hollywood gossip-lovers alike.

This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In the summer of 1970, Orson Welles started filming The Other Side of the Wind, about an aging director (played by John Huston) returning to Hollywood to make one last great picture after a self-imposed exile. Welles thought he could shoot the film in eight weeks; it took six years. He was still editing it when he died in 1985 — though to be fair, Ayatollah Khomeini, claiming revolutionary Iran owned the film because the shah's brother-in-law was an investor, had it impounded in Paris in 1979.

Journalist Josh Karp retells this wild story in the supremely entertaining Orson Welles's Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, an early contender for this year's best book about Hollywood. Start with the cast of characters: Welles, his mistress Oja Kodar, Ernest Hemingway, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper — catch your breath, it's not over — Paul Mazursky, Pauline Kael, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and more. Add an array of great stories (some more familiar than others, but all told with gusto), including the first meeting between Hemingway and Welles in 1937, when they insulted each other, fought and then collapsed in laughter at the idiocy of their macho bravado, sealing a friendship that lasted until Hemingway's suicide in 1961. Karp also eviscerates famed New Yorker critic Kael for stealing a USC professor's research and twisting it to argue that Herman Mankiewicz alone wrote most of Citizen Kane.

The author has a way with words, likening Welles on set to the Wizard of Oz, "both real and fake at the same time." But there's substance here, too: Karp smartly puts Welles' lost project in the context of its time, casting a sideways glance at the pivotal era of great young American auteurs that was the 1970s.

The Other Side of the Wind never has been released, as Beatrice Welles, Kodar and the shah's sister had claims on it. With the centenary of Welles' birth approaching May 6, the parties struck a deal in late 2014 for an expected summer 2015 release, with Bogdanovich finishing the edit. The jury is out as to whether the film is a masterpiece or disaster, but the verdict on the "making of" book is clear: It's a winner.