movie review

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead Is Intoxicating

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Once upon a time, when discussing the fate of one of his other unfinished projects, a years-in-production adaptation of Don Quixote, Orson Welles noted that he was thinking of calling it When Are You Going to Finish Don Quixote? He was (mostly) joking, I think, but many took him at his word. Understandably so: Welles was at heart an inventor, a director unafraid to change the very underlying concept of a film if the situation warranted it — and, given his difficulties finding funding to complete some of these movies, the situation often did warrant it.

When Are You Going to Finish The Other Side of the Wind? might have been a good alternate title for They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Morgan Neville’s documentary about Welles’s newly-released, long-in-the-making, even-longer-in-the-editing, posthumous magnum opus, The Other Side of the Wind. Such a title certainly would have been in the spirit of Welles, who towards the end of his life suggested that he might turn Other Side, which was already a mockumentary, one with its own film-within-a-film, into a documentary about itself. In other words, a documentary about a mockumentary about a fake film. (Does your head hurt yet?) “I’m going to stand outside of it and talk about it, as myself,” Welles told the critic Bill Krohn in 1982. “Less as a narrator, more as myself … a movie within a movie within a movie.” Neville even includes a scene here in which Welles off-handedly contemplates this idea aloud to a few reporters.

All of this suggests that, in some ways, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, now available on Netflix, is not just a documentary about Orson Welles’s final picture, but rather an integral part of said picture — a completion of Welles’s whole project, the nature of whose creation ultimately became as important to the director as the film itself. That may well be why Netflix bankrolled this along with Other Side, and why the two have been released together. “The movie and its making are the masterpiece,” David Edelstein wrote recently, in his review of The Other Side of the Wind, and he’s right. He recommends seeing Welles’s film first, then Neville’s, then Welles’s again. I don’t think you could go wrong either way. (There’s also a very good short featurette called A Final Cut for Orson, about the editing of Welles’s final work, embedded in the “Trailers and More” section of Netflix’s page for Other Side, so you might want to fit that in, as well.) These are essential, interlocking elements of a single, ever-changing phenomenon.

That may help explain why Neville starts off by aping Welles’s style to some degree. As befits the title, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead kicks off with the legendary director’s death, as narrator Alan Cumming reminds us that this is how many of Welles’s own films started (The Other Side of the Wind, for one). Neville also uses his subject’s signature techniques, such as the vocal collages that dated back to Welles’s radio days and that he utilized in cinematic works like The Magnificent Ambersons and F Is for Fake. In these, a multitude of voices, some unidentified, will speedily chime in on a matter. “Everybody will think it’s autobiographical, but it’s not,” Welles says of Other Side, in some footage from the 1970s. The replies come rapidly from a variety of interviewees: “Yeah, bullshit!” “Of course it is.” “It must be autobiographical!” “No doubt it’s Orson.” This stylistic device makes sense here, since this Greek chorus-like quality is one of the key features of Other Side itself, which is all about the ceaseless buzz of speculation and judgment and interpretation around an aging movie director.

Neville also playfully uses film clips, culled from an endless bounty thanks to Welles’s prolific appearances, to give everything both a present-tense and a mythic dimension. Someone mentions giving Orson Welles a call; we cut to a reasonably strapping Orson Welles in 1947’s The Lady from Shanghai, picking up the phone; then we cut to a heavier, bearded Welles in Ten Days’ Wonder, 24 years later, saying, “Hello?”; then, Welles in 1955’s Mr. Arkadin, barking into a telephone receiver, “I must see you immediately!” The energy with which Neville pieces all this footage together is intoxicating. You get a sense of just how much this man transformed over the years, both intentionally and unintentionally.

I hope I’m not making this documentary sound like work, because it is in fact thoroughly entertaining. Welles always had great stories swirling around him — some by him, some about him — and Neville has a field day following the crazier tales around Other Side’s creation. Peter Bogdanovich was a film critic when he first met Welles, and their relationship partly inspired Other Side. In 1970, just as he’s preparing to fly to Texas to shoot The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich is summoned by Welles to put in a few hours shooting Other Side before his flight. He plays a nerdy critic interviewing the film’s protagonist, who hasn’t yet been cast. (Welles would cast John Huston in that part — four years later!) Then, several years later, with the production going on and on, Welles cast Rich Little to play a young filmmaker acolyte of Huston’s, but after the schedule ran wildly over, Little left his scenes unfinished. So Welles replaced him with Bogdanovich, who had since become an acclaimed, Oscar-nominated director. (“In case you haven’t noticed,” Cumming observes. “Peter Bogdanovich went from playing exactly who he was in 1970, a young writer, to exactly who he was in 1974, a celebrated movie director.”)

But wait, it goes on! Then, the ever-broke Welles moved into the massive Hollywood home Bogdanovich shared at the time with his then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd, and overstayed his welcome, eating all their Fudgsicles and almost setting the place on fire. But in 1978, after his younger protégé had had a couple of flops to his name, Welles went on The Tonight Show and yukked it up with Burt Reynolds over how annoying they both found Bogdanovich. The two eventually made up — Bogdanovich helped complete Other Side — but the story of their relationship constitutes one of the most powerful threads in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. It also offers a poignant example of how Welles could be both a victim of Hollywood’s savagery and an enabler of it.

That’s one reason why Neville packs so many stories and myths and ping-ponging points of view into this film. He has to. Because with Welles, as with many of Welles’s own protagonists, there’s no one overarching truth, no central narrative. There are multiple ones, each unreliable in its own way. Was Welles a classic flameout — the guy who changed cinema forever with Citizen Kane and then went on a long, steady slide into irrelevance? Was he a maverick who was kneecapped repeatedly by craven studio bosses and financiers? Was he a profligate self-annihilator who kept squandering the chances he was given? Was he a visionary who kept producing works of genius against some of history’s craziest odds? A user who repeatedly took advantage of others’ adoration for him? Or was he the one who was used, the living legend who was idolized by the most famous and powerful filmmakers in the world, none of whom would pony up the meager cash he needed to finish his pictures?

There’s a bit of truth to all of the above, and also a whole lot of baloney, and each Welles watcher will have their own take. (Example: I happen to think The Trial and F Is for Fake are as good as, if not better than, Citizen Kane; as much as I wish Welles had been treated better by the studio system, it’s also clear that these movies, made in creative exile, couldn’t have happened in Hollywood.)

But amid all this discussion of Orson Welles, let’s also not lose sight of Neville himself, who is himself one of our great filmmakers. He released the hit Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? earlier this year. He also made one of my favorite documentaries of the past few years, The Best of Enemies, about the rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley and the duo’s influential and dramatic series of television debates in 1968. Seen together, Enemies and Neighbor make for a powerful portrait of how American media, and by extension American culture, became coarser, shallower, and more unforgiving over the course of the late 20th century. But these films are also moving stories of individuals, caught amid currents they’re desperate to master, currents they may even have helped to create, wrestling with idealism and betrayal and opportunism and failure. Sound familiar? These were the forces that fascinated Welles; they’re also the forces that described him. With this documentary, Morgan Neville has made a movie about Orson Welles that would have transfixed the great master himself.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead Is Intoxicating