At the time, in November 1970, it must have seemed like an ideal match, a meeting of renegade titans: Orson Welles, the long-ago boy genius of theater and films who never got a job directing in Hollywood after 1958, and Dennis Hopper, whose out-of-nowhere smash with Easy Rider in 1969 made him the boy wonder of the hippie age and ostensible leader of a new wave of counterculture movies.
Just as Welles had cratered from a Hollywood-career perspective, Hopper hit the rocks with his second film — the hopelessly pretentious, financially ruinous The Last Movie, which the younger man was editing when he sat down with Welles one night to film five hours of chatty material that ended up as mere snippets in Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, which was only finished and released in 2018 courtesy of Netflix.
The rather important distinction to be made is that Welles’ second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was a bowdlerized masterpiece, whereas The Last Movie was an unsalvageable mess. At the time of this interview, however, Hopper was regarded as something resembling the second coming, an artist worthy of occupying the same platform as Welles. Let’s just say that, politely put, history has shown otherwise.
Certainly this bonus document, which runs a rather generous 130 minutes and officially is credited as having been “directed by Orson Welles,” painfully reveals that Hopper — in the role of boy genius, cinematic wunderkind and voice of a generation — was a pretender; stoned or not, he hardly was a coherent spokesman for anything. Unlike the ultra-articulate older man, Hopper held very uninformed opinions, his sentences often just trailing off into a void, substance-addled or not. It now seems a wonder that there was something people found alluring in Dennis Hopper’s incoherence.
The interview, in which Welles never physically appears, was shot mostly in grainy black-and-white from ever-shifting-perspectives by Wind’s resourceful cinematographer Gary Graver; the visuals precisely match the rough, off-the-cuff style of The Other Side of the Wind, in which Hopper ultimately appeared very fleetingly.
At the outset, Welles is upbeat and congenial, very much playing the role of friendly interrogator. They get their feet wet discussing European art movies, with Hopper rattling on about Visconti’s The Damned, Bunuel and Antonioni, claiming that he went to see the latter’s L’Avventura seven times and always fell asleep. Without asking why his cohort submitted to it so many times, Welles gleefully proclaims that he didn’t like it either, saying of the filmmaker that, “It’s his soul that must be bored.”
The Last Movie, which was shot under trying circumstances in Peru, is giving Hopper mountainous trouble in the editing room; he’s got 40 hours of footage to cut down, and he’s sensing that “my symbolism is too sophisticated for most people.” Given that Welles, always a great interview subject himself, is officially the interviewer, he’s put in an uncustomary position here — that of an admiring, or at least professionally interested, fan.
And so it goes for quite a while, with Welles half the time delivering a good imitation of a thoroughly professional interviewer, exhibiting an interest in his subject and seldom disputing or challenging his subject. Still, it doesn’t take long for Hopper’s lack of real insights, or even a dexterous vocabulary, to reveal the subject’s status as something of a quack when it comes to politics; increasingly, Hopper stumbles looking for the right word or even anything at all to say, his proclamations barely making any sense, much less carrying any intellectual weight. “I’m not a reader,” he apologizes at one point.
The only shortcoming Welles admits to here is that he’s never heard of Bob Dylan.
Well into the night, the two men — Welles was 55 at the time, Hopper 34 — shift into mostly good-natured arguments, with the younger man often saying things that his elder chooses to refute. When Hopper announces that being a film director is the closest thing to being God, Welles responds that “a director ought to be a poet and a magician rather than a god.” When the younger man says he’d like to play Hamlet, the older one counters that he’d rather see him play Jesus. And when Hopper predicts that the United States will be “back to nature” within 20 years, what can you do but roll your eyes (and imagine Welles doing the same)?
It’s not that the older man is out to ridicule the younger one, not at all; it’s just that, due to Easy Rider, Hopper suddenly has been put in the position of being a (or the) voice of a generation. As a result, answers and solutions are sought from him and, since he clearly is not a coherent political (or any other kind of) thinker, he ends up spouting half-baked ideas and clichés that he can’t articulate any further than a catchphrase. More than once he fails to finish whatever thought or even sentence he’s begun to utter.
In the end, the film holds a certain interest, not just for Welles completists but for students of celebrity. In the mid-‘50s, Hopper was tight with James Dean and acted in what was arguably the Easy Rider of its decade, Rebel Without a Cause; both were anti-establishment tracts that had profound influences on teenagers of their times. Through the 1960s, Hopper appeared as often as not in Westerns, and one of them, True Grit — starring Vietnam War cheerleader John Wayne, no less — opened just one month prior to Easy Rider in the summer of 1969; both were among the biggest hits of the year. Woodstock happened just a month later.
Welles doesn’t prod Hopper to explore this succession of events, but it does suggest that Hopper, after years in Hollywood, had greatness (if that’s what it was) thrust upon him, rather than having earned it or sought it out. At one point in the discussion where he loses his way, Hopper says, “I just need a scriptwriter,” a point this curio makes all by itself.
The supremely dedicated Filip Jan Rymsza, who succeeded where others had failed to resurrect The Other Side of the Wind from permanent obscurity, is to be saluted for bringing this film to light. And Wind editor Bob Murawski similarly has stepped up to bring coherence to this hitherto unknown visual document, which, for a little over two hours, strongly brings the natures of these two men back to light.
Hopper/Welles was presented at the Venice, New York and Athens film festivals and is set to show October 19 at the virtual AFI Fest.