Mercedes McCambridge on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
One of the saddest things to realize about Orson Welles late career was the lack of support he received not only from studios, but from the "bankable major stars." Part of the reason he couldn't launch a movie during the eighties was because most top actors, like Redford, Nicholson, Newman, Beatty, Eastwood, etc. were demanding and getting an incredible amount of money.
One only has to recall the story of Welles trying to cast any of the above actors for the leading role in The Big Brass Ring, to realize how lucky Welles was in the olden days of Hollywood to have friendship's with people like Marlene Dietrich, Charlton Heston, Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Jeanne Moreau and Mercedes McCambridge. When they got a call from Welles most of them would usually try their best to drop everything in order to appear in his film. But how times changed...
By 1980, top actors, many of whom stated they loved Orson dearly and would be do anything for him, (like Jack Nicholson and Burt Reynolds), found convient excuses not to appear in The Big Brass Ring--even though they would make at least $1 million. In retrospect, it makes all the actors who agreed to appear in The Other Side of the Wind for virtually nothing, real Wellesian heroes. But as Mercedes McCambridge points out in this wonderful chapter from her 1981 autobiography, The Quality of Mercy, Only a certain breed of actor should ever even try to work for Orson Welles. And to all those actors, who worked soley for ars gratis artis,rather than for profit, we should be erternally grateful.
Actors like McCambridge, Tamiroff, Dietrich, Moreau, Gielgud, Redgrave, Huston, Keith Baxter, and virtually everyone who ever appeared in a Welles film before the mid-seventies. Those actors usually worked for peanuts, just so they could be in a film by a great director.
I'm one of a host of people who were in a film of Orson's that has never been finished. I don't see how it can ever be finished. Those of us who began the film when it began are either dead or unrecognizably older. People change over a span of a decade or more.
It was a hot valley-Sunday morning, and weaving up and down peaceful little streets called Ethel and Dorothy and Eunice was a bus full of strange things to come across on a Mother's Day. People on their way to Sunday service watched us pass. Sitting next to the bus driver on a makeshift stool and facing the rear of the bus was a monster; naked, bearded, and smoking a large cigar! Orson was naked only to his waist, but the churchgoers had no way of knowing that. Gathered around him and over the head of the squeezed-in driver were several half-nude young hippie-type fellows holding camera equipment. We would travel up Dorothy Street and back down Ethel, then across Eunice to Agnes and then back down to Harriet Place. Orson was shooting every Blade of grass on every street. It was hot, and we were hungry and thirsty. We said so.
Orson ordered the poor rented bus driver to stop at a pizza palace. There were some customers seated at the outside tables under the garish sun parasols. It must have been unsettling for those people to see our group pile out of our conveyance, leaving behind, strapped into their seats, the sixteen dummies in the raincoats and blond wigs. Orson refused to alight from the bus. That was just as well.
After we'd been nourished, if that's what it was, we clambered aboard our prairie ship once more to continue the exciting trek up Dorothy and down Ethel. Orson had called out to the strangers at the tables, "Don't anybody leave
we will be back." We drove 'round that way fully two hours later. Some of them were still there.
After that episode in the never-ending filming, Orson disappeared again. Somebody said he was in Yugoslavia; somebody else said he was not, he was hiding in a rented house off Benedict Canyon. Nobody knew. Nobody ever knows. That's how Orson wants it.
Then, two years later, came the call. "Mr. Welles wants you to join him to continue the picture in Cave Creek, Arizona. Your ticket to Phoenix will be prepaid at Los Angeles Airport, and you will be met in Phoenix for the drive to Cave Creek. Bring your suit (same old costume)."
Cave Creek, Arizona! Halfway up a cliff, and fitted into the rocks like a finely made gold inlay between two teeth, were an enchanted house and swimming pool so beautifully designed that there was not the slightest disturbance of nature's intention in the vast desert. If a great boulder was in the way, the swimming pool went around it' nor did the house itself intrude on its surroundings. The place was heaven, and Orson was in command of it.
John Huston and his then current spouse arrived from Turkey. Hoary John and voluminous Orson embraced each other in front of the huge picture window against the backdrop of the russet, wasted monumental rocks. It was historic and geologic, and I was thrilled to be there.
John Huston kissed me and said, "My God, Mercy, you are the only one of my friends who doesn't shake."
He and Orson sat facing each other in the late-afternoon light. They asked me to stay. They discussed John's role in the film. He would play the part Orson must have written for himself, but decided not to enact. I sat close to the two brilliant moviemakers and listened to them draw each other out about the character. They both wore elaborate King Lear-sized beards. John asked Orson if he thought his beard would be right for the part. They agreed and disagreed and finally decided that it might not be the correct impression to portray a great film director with a full beard. It wouldn't seem right somehow! And there sat the two great film directors with full beards giving two wrong impressions of what a real-life great filmmaker should look like.
Orson was on a diet of canned stewed tomatoes that season. The rest of us weren't. When you say things to Orson Welles such as "Listen, Orson, we all think it is just grand about you and all the canned tomatoes, but the rest of us are less than captivated by the cuisine around this place None of us wants to die in the desert of malnutrition," when you say things like that to Orson, his great face registers such incredulity the lips part, the jowls drip, and the eyes go all-over misty-like! You have injured him now, perhaps irreparably. He will attempt to pull himself together, but the wound was so sudden, and from YOU, of all people. The mighty jaw juts forward, the head tilts slightly, and the grand exit from the room takes place! The King of the Jungle has been struck with a slingshot! He will retire to his lair, where he can clean the ugly gash in his magnificent hide!
All you have said is: "we need better food than we are getting at the hands of the local Cave Creek cooking experts."
Orson was not visible until noon of the following day. He shuffled majestically into the great sitting room in his purple circus-tent robe. His smile was beatific. Before us was a man who hadn't been ruffled by anything since the fall of the Maginot Line in World War the Twoth! He was particularly pleased to see me. It was obvious that I was his favorite. He exhaled mightily, letting all the breath rasp out of his barrel chest, and then so softly, so caressingly he cooed at us, "I trust that you will be pleased to know that I, at great effort and considerable expense, have been able to secure for your delectation not one, but two, highly regarded chefs of the Cordon Bleu." And then he added, "The Cordon Blue of Fresno, California." I didn't dare look at anybody in the room. I couldn't afford it! One snicker in that room at that sacred moment would have cost me my head.
Hours later the dusty road leading to our desert castle was a thick cloud of billowing sand out of which emerged a pickup truck containing pots and pans and two long-haired, tattooed, barefoot, bead-adorned refugees from the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco via Fresno, courtesy Cordon Bleu.
Chicken Divan on paper plates in 100-plus-degree-heat placed in front of you by an arm which says, "Up yours," is an enrichment of sorts. One night we had some kind of rare sauce over beef, and Orson and John Huston washed down the beef, the sauce, and at least the top shreds of the paper plates with very good wine as they outdid each other recalling meals they had enjoyed in Hong Kong, in Kashmir, and on the island of Minos in that dear cave near the sea!
There is a special bond between Orson and John. Each has acted under the other's direction . They go back a long way together. Each has maintained his uniqueness, his mark of excellence, each has been large enough to fail, and neither has been successfully imitated.
One very late night John and I were doing a scene for Orson, or trying to. The crew was exhausted. All of us had been on continuous "call" for sixteen or seventeen hours. Dinner had been ages ago. The barefoot chefs had long since emptied their paper plates into the bulging garbage bags and had taken off for another night of wild revelry in Cave Creek, where the only sound after 10:00 p.m. was the rattle of a nervous snake.
Orson was medium-cranky, I was all-cranky, and John Huston was drinking 140 proof Polish vodka.
The scene, which we had shot ten zillion times, was still not what Orson wanted. He had three cameras working at oblique angles, in less that half-light, and the action was contained in a rise by John from a three-legged wicker bathroom stool to his full height. I was framed in the doorway, and as John rose, I was to turn back to him and say, "What other girl?" End of scene. Not your average DeMille extravaganza
man rises, woman turns, says three words, and good night, folks! Not with Orson. It might have been the parting of the Red Sea with a cast of thousands!
John Huston is tall, tall, tall. Orson wanted him to rise slowly, which is hard when you are that tall, especially if you are rising from a short stool. Lean, lanky John balanced himself beautifully over and over again. I timed my turn in the doorway to coincide with his movement so that we were both caught in frame precisely. We were right! Time after time after time! Orson said there was something wrong. "What, Orson?" He said he didn't know, but if we kept doing it, he'd find the problem. We were ready to die! We kept doing it, and he found the problem. I was it!
Orson blamed it on the dancing lessons I had as a child. I thought he had lost his mind
he was right! While John Huston was straining his tendons to rise slowly into full figure, I was turning to him in the doorway, but I was pivoting! It was mechanical
like a clay figure on a turntable. There was no body movement, no shifting from one foot to the other, and it flawed the picture. It was a phony turn! I did it right just before daybreak. Orson was buoyant! The last thing he did before calling it a day, and a night, and almost another day, was to address the spare form of his fatigued friend Mr. Huston, who was folded like a fallen puppet on the ridiculous little bathroom stool. Orson boomed, "Very good, John," and from his crumpled position John boomed back, "Thank you, Orson." Two lifetimes of learning the art of filmmaking were summed up in six words spoken in significant mutual respect:
"Very good, John."
"Thank you, Orson."
I am, by nature, a brooder. At best I am what Freud said he was"a cheerful pessimist." I remember one night in Arizona Carefree, Arizona, which is ridiculous Orson Welles was very angry with me. There is so much of Orson, and when he gets angry, it is formidable.
He was wearing his purple-towelling, circus-tent-size bathrobe. He wore it from early morning until late at night, when he never went to bed. Orson has never understood why some of us need to sleep. He doesn't. Once for five days he didn't. I did, and he'll never forgive me.
There he was in that ghastly robe, which in itself was something I found difficult. He obviously was wearing nothing else, except for his gigantic alligator slippers. I'm certain that the inner flap of the robe was secured by a tie cord somewhere in the region of his equator, but the robe's great outer flap kept doing just thatflapping. Nothing indelicate ever loomed, but I had the uneasy feeling that it could happen any minute. Not a pretty sight, I thought.
Anyhow, Orson was striding and snorting because a scene in the film was not going well. I wasn't even in the scene. I was huddled in a chair, off camera, probably trying to sneak a little sleep. Suddenly Orson boomed, "Look at you, look at you sitting there now!" I turned to see who was behind me who was catching this hell, and he bellowed, "No, you, Mercy, I mean you." I asked him what the matter was now. With Orson something is always the matter. The terrible thing is, Orson is usually right. Even his mistakes are more right than they are wrong. So he was zeroed in on me, pouncing back and forth. I waited until the flapping robe stopped waving in front of me. Then he said, "You are three thing sitting there. You are gloomy, you are intense, and you are thoughtful. Now stop all three!" I felt almost benevolent as I said, "Orson, I am one hundred percent Irish. I was born to be gloomy, intense, and thoughtful. Where would Eugene O'Neill have been
He didn't let me finish. He said, "It comes to this, doesn't it? We have Damien the Leper, Jude the Obscure, and now Mercy the Morbid
three sorry saints." Then he turned and addressed the camera crew and John Huston and the other assembled actors as he prated, as only Orson can, "Teresa of Ávila has written that a sad saint is a sorry saint," and in full flap, a gargantuan purple tornado, he stormed out into the desert night. But once again, Orson was right. "Mercy the Morbid," that's me.
Much of our time in dear old Cave Creek, Arizona, was given over to staying awake while Orson developed his next move. We drank gallons of prefabricated iced tea and lolled on the rocks that jutted dramatically around the swimming pool. Some of us were beginning to look as scaly and leathery as the rest of the iguanas and gila monsters of the area. Each of us had long since exhausted the actor's store of tall tales of past triumphs. Like in the song from Oklahoma!, we lay on our blistered backs and watched the hawks doing their lazy loops in the sky except I think our birds were vultures. And some of them were flying low. Orson stayed in the house.
Conversation was out of the question. It was too hot to talk. All of our jokes had died! Once in a while one of us would attempt to jostle the rest of us with a simple declaration such as: "Did you know that there is a famous plastic surgeon in Rio de Janeiro who only lifts behinds? Everybody either knew or didn't give a damn because there was no reaction whatsoever. Then some persistent but foolhardy gold mine of useless information would add to his own ignominy by saying: "I heard that Jackie O. went down there and had it done and had to lie flat on her face for eight weeks!" Somebody else came to life long enough to say: "If you have to lie in one position for eight weeks, Rio is a hell of a place to have to do it."
Somebody else closed the subject forever by saying that Rio was the only place where you could go and have the Sugar Loaf lifted from your own mountain. Everybody in the pool!
On such a desultory day did Orson choose to order Rich Little and me to stand by to position ourselves on the roof of the house at sunset. The great man explained that he wanted to capture the magic moment immediately before the desert sun slices like a giant egg yolk down the other side of the world. There IS a light in that instant that is the color of a new lemon. The light is blinding just as it disappears. That's what Orson was after. It meant an entire afternoon of elaborate planning. He wanted to shoot it with his three-camera technique which meant that the clumsy equipment had to be carried or hoisted onto precarious perches. One huge light fell onto the stone patio
great hunks of broken glass in the pool, in the iced tea, in the folds of the lounge chairs and, worse luck, we had one less piece of expensive equipmentway out in the middle of nowhere.
If I have to climb into heaven on a ladder, I shall have to decline the invitation. I cannot go anywhere on a ladder. Never could. Going up is sheer agony and going down is impossible. I cannot do it. I did it, of course, for Orson. Orson couldn't do for me, or for heaven or for anything. His girth is not ladder material. So he stayed down there on level ground in his billowing balloon of a bathrobe, shouting at me to keep going... I was almost there.
The view was terrific. I could see all the way to Milwaukee. Rich Little fairly leaped up the ladder. He's a Canadian, and Canadians are inclined to leap a lot, particularly if anyone is watching. I was married to one of them. When you've seen one leaping Canadian, you've seen then all. Rich Little wasn't about to get any "bravos" from me. I was anything but happy up on that roof because I knew the descent on the ladder would be my last mortal endeavor.
Orson directed us, inch by inch, to a spot where we would be etched against the magic lemon-green brilliance of the sky when the exact moment came. He threatened to kill us if we ruined the shot because it meant that a retake would have to wait until tomorrow at sunset, when the sky might well be overcast and the light would be all wrong.
It gave me a funny feeling. I was playing a scene with the incomprehensible universe, for heaven's sake. I had no chance to rehearse with the sun; I had no idea what its timing might be; how could I retain any spontaneity, any fresh discovery in a scene where I was at the whim of a big yellow blob of fire that would surely be upstaging me anyhow?
The three cameras and their crews were at the ready. Rich Little had smoothed his hair for the ninety-sixth time. All we needed now was the sun which, we hoped, had read the script and knew its cue to do its thing!
Orson had made it painfully clear that Rich Little and I were to stand with our backs to the sun, our shoulders barely touching. Orson growled that the shot was absolutely critical in its focus for all three cameras, and therefore, even the slightest movement from us might knock us out of frame. I gathered that what he wanted was two statues on a roof. But that wasn't what he wanted. Every time you figure you know what Orson wants, it turns out to be anything but what Orson wants. This time he wanted us not to move, but, he yelled as the magic moment came nearer, "I want you both up there to be still as stone. I want you to give me the feeling that you are being jostled; I need that feeling from both of you."
Rich Little mumbled, "Oh, my God."
I mumbled back, "It's simple. Think jostle, but don't move."
Rich Little hadn't worked for Orson before and was therefore not to be blamed for asking a question like, "How do we do that, Orson?" When Orson feels that a question is so stupid that it doesn't deserve an answer, he stares at the inquirer with what can only be called gentle horror! He wants so much to believe that the questioner is above the sort of thing that has just escaped his lips.
"Sweetheart," he called to Rich Little, "listen to me, my friend. I want you to keep your bodies rigid from the waist up, but I want your lower extremities to be jostled. Is that clear to you up there, my children?"
In a million years I will never know why Rich Little felt he had to pursue this meaningless quest. He asked Orson why our lower extremities were being jostled.
That did it! Orson threw his great bearded head back and confronted the heavens. I think he was addressing God directly. He shouted, "Why must I be challenged in such things? Why? Why? Why?
Rich Little stammered something civil about merely wanting to do it right. Orson sighed to the ocean depths with him and said, "I need your shoulders to be still, your hips to sway ever so slightly, a rocking on your heels that is barely noticeable
all of this will give me the effect I need with the midgets that will be milling around your feet and between your legs."
Why did Rich Little have to ask, "What midgets, Orson?" Orson was beginning to look the way Christ must have looked when he found the moneychangers in the temple. He refused to communicate further. He beckoned his assistant cameraman and relayed the message through him. It wafted up to us: "Mr. Welles says he's going to be filming them in Spain next month."
Only a certain breed of actor should ever even try to work for Orson Welles. I'm glad I'm one of that breed. Orson was one of the highest peaks in my life.