Susan Strasberg & John Huston on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
Here's a very nice piece on OSOTW featuring comments from John Huston, Susan Strasberg and Gary Graver, written for the March, 1976 issue of AFTER DARK, a New York based magazine that billed itself as "The National Magazine of Entertainment."
ORSON WELLES AND FIVE YEARS OF
"THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND"
By VIOLA HEGYI SWISHER - AFTER DARK - March, 1976
Orson Welles' upcoming new film. The Other Side of the Wind, is already five exciting years old. Parts of it, anyhow. It stars not only stars, but stellar directors, too. Nevertheless, all's Welles. He wrote it. Produced it. Directed it. Masterminded the lighting. The cinematography. He even worked the clapboard that snaps out the number of the scene about to be shot and chalks up whether it's Take Oneor Take Twenty. The only thing he didn't do in The Other Side of the Wind is act. And who knows? He may have done that too by now.
Welles assigned roles with prodigal unpredictability, in some cases casting to type, in others casting against type. John Huston was typecast. Susan Strasberg, definitely not. Huston slips naturally into the role of a big-time director because, of course, that's what he is. His own most recent distinguished directorial achievement is The Man Who Would Be King, which stars Christopher Plummer, Sean Connery, and Michael Caine. Director Huston bypassed actor Huston for King. However, it should be noted that in Wind he enacts with authority the role of director not because he is a director, but because he is an authoritative actor.
As to Welles' other manner of castingagainst typethere's diminutive Susan Strasberg. She combines a flair for feminine chic dramatically interwoven with the fiber of our unisex times and the delicate sensitivity of an instinctual psychic. With all these subtleties going. Susan plays a callous critic. And you know how they are! Citing their separate experiences with Welles, Huston and Strasberg, at different times and different places, arrived at parallel conclusions. The most restrained remark Huston made was a vibrant, "Orson's a rich and varied creative talent."
Her hands painting space-sketches as she described Welles' juxtaposing of 35mm color and blown-up 16mm black-and-white techniques, Susan put it this way: "His concept is brilliant." Clearly, this motion picture, with its film-within-a-film idea and image, can be a new experience for audiences as it was for the participants. "Only Orson could have done this picture."
John Huston, with an air of finality, puffed life into one of those huge, expense-be-damned cigars. Grizzled, gracious as he beamed his personal mid-morning salute to Welles, Huston greeted the California sunshine with matching warmth. All pale gold and green, the canyon outside was only minimally tamed to accommodate the spacious dwelling in an apparent wilderness not far from the Pacific Ocean. Inside the house, pre-Columbian art, modern paintings, booksclassic and contemporaryand the memorabilia of the illustrious gave special distinction to the living room of Huston's home away from home in Ireland.
"Several years ago," he recalled, "Orson told me he had an idea for a film and he'd like to have me do it. I automatically said yes. But I didn't get the script he said he would send me. Some time passed and I heard he was making the film." Huston shrugged massive shoulders. "I assumed the picture had taken another course and he had given someone else the role we'd talked about earlier. But not at all. "He had been doing the other half of dialogues with various peopleLilli Palmer, for onein Spain, in Turkey, in God-knows-where. Afterward, much later, I filled in my half of the dialogues. Some scenes I did with the company on location in Arizona. There was a big birthday party being given for Jake Hannaford, the director I play. It's assumed that he's on top of the world. Actually, the rug has been pulled out from under him. And he hasn't got the money to finish his film."
What happens is told through a number of camerassurrogates for eavesdroppers. Depending on which cameras were shooting, the film goes from one technique to another, from color photography to black-and-white and back again to color, as The Other Side of the Wind recounts both a story and the story of a story. "A very novel and excellent way of creating a film," Huston commented. His long cigar became a conductor's baton, marking the echo of remembered pleasures. "It was a marvelous experience. I had a wonderful time. Orson was just at his bestwhich is a hell of a big thing to say.
What does the title The Other Side of the Wind mean? Huston pondered a moment, finally shook his head. "I'm not at all sure what it means." Nor was Susan Strasberg. The dark-eyed actress had just returned to her San Fernando Valley home after sitting in on a session with Barbra Streisand, with Susan's father, the head of the famed actors studio, Lee Strasberg. ("Terrific," reported Susan). Wearing bright yellow, sharply tailored pants and a sweater of soft, cloudy blue, Susan curled up on a sofa in her rose-laden living room. Every blossom had been cut from her own gardens, which are at the end of a little lane lined with orange trees. Nibbling a late luncheon salad, she gently separated the petals of dozens of overblown blossomsred, white, yellow, pinkto be dried and used in fragrant pomander balls. "I haven't the vaguest idea what The Other Side of the Wind means." Susan ventured a speculative "Maybe it just amused Orson to think that people might try to figure out some esoteric meaning for his title. He's a deep, serious person, but he also has a wicked sense of humor. One day while we were shooting at Cave Creek, Arizona, he spotted some kind of a road sign with a cross on it. He immediately wanted it put in the middle of the shot. One of the men on the set complained, 'But Orson, it has nothing to do with the scene. What does the sign mean?' Orson answered, 'Oh, absolutely nothing. But Pauline Kael will spend six paragraphs describing what it's supposed to represent."
As a director-actoror actor-directorwho has himself directed actor-directoror director-actorOrson Welles, John Huston is singularly equipped to understand and deal with the dualities involved. To a degree, the director hosts within himself the qualities and character of the philosopher. The actor, on the other hand, is best fulfilled as activist. For him, doing is living. "When you direct," Huston settled confidently into a solid position of objectivity, "you stand back, of course. You detach yourself from the scene. Look at everything critically. That detachment is required. "But when you're being an actor, why, you're right in there." He laughed. "You are thinking primarily of yourself. Acting is a very selfish profession. The more one thinks about himself, the better the acting is likely to be. Actors are exhibitionists anyway."
Exhibitionists? What about all our shy actors? The ones who say they don't like to expose themselves, so they hide in the characters they play. They really are shy, aren't they? "Oh, yes." Huston's eyes twinkled and crinkled. "I've known many shy actors. They've learned to be shy!" A schizophrenic thing? "Well, that's true, too. There are two sides to everything. But I don't think an actor has to submerge himself into another character so much as he has to be able to construct another character. "Strutting one's stuff." His hearty laugh rang out and he raised an admonitory hand. "That's a generality."
Once or twice actor Huston has performed for director Huston, as in his own The Bible, for one. "But it's hard to do he said. "Right now somebody wants me to do the double thing, directing and acting in my own film. I said I'd do one or the other but not both. It's too much."
Shy or exhibitionist, both or neither, actress Strasberg laid out a typical actor's problem solved on the set of Welles movie. "I had to reel off a list of difficult, rather absurd names of fictional movie stars," she said. Branch Sutter, Glen Garvey, Courtney Saxon Well, I refused to use cue cards and Orson said to me 'Use the cards. Marlon Brando uses them. I use them. What's wrong with you? Use the damn cards. Then I won't see frantic feeling around for your lines. That's when I remembered what someone once asked Spencer Tracy. 'What are those wonderful pauses when you took down during a speech?' And he answered very simply, Im looking for my mark.' So I said, if Spencer Tracy could look down for his mark, I can look down for cue cards. So we put the names under my feet and as I walked by I'd reel them off. I did the scene that way and after a long silence Orson asked, 'Where's Susan?' I said. 'I'm right here ' He repeated, where's Susan?' And I repeated, 'Orson, Im standing right here.' 'Oh, no,' he objected. That couldn't possibly be Susan. She would have never read the lines that way!
"That ended my attempt to use cue cards. It wasn't very successful. Orson was right about my not having been there at all. If, as an actor, I had been there, I might not have given the right reading, but I certainly would have dealt with what was happeningdealt with the fact that I was having difficulty. A good actor may not always do exactly what the scene calls for, but usually he's dealing with an immediacy of experience.
"Let's say I'm doing Romeo and Juliet. If I'm nervous and I deal with it, I don't knownobody knowsif I'm nervous or Juliet's nervous. It might be both of us. Or my nervousness could become Juliet's nervousness. But if I refuse to deal with it and pretend it's not there, then I just look like an actress who is nervous playing Juliet. Often, if you acknowledge difficulties and explore them as you face them, you can work your way through them."
As the daughter of Lee Strasberg, Susan can appreciate Welles' unorthodoxy in casting her as a bitchy critic, modeled after The New Yorkers film sage for six months of the year, Ms. Pauline Kael. "No one else would have done it," she said. "When I first came back to working, maybe seven years ago, I was no longer the young girl who had done The Diary of Anne Frank or the little girl who grows up to be a concentration camp guard in Kapo. I didn't quite know how to use what I had become, as opposed to what I had been then Now, Orson's picture has reoriented my sense of direction.
"For a while, I had one face personally and another face professionally. There was an extroverted, going to parties side of me that I've seen horribly overdeveloped in older people. After thirty years, they can't go to a party without taking a couple of drinks to get them through the door. And then there are the women who sit in front of their mirror, making up for three hoursor who keep changing their clothes because they don't like the way they look. I hadn't reached that point in the syndrome, but I think it might have happened to me. Now I'm remembering my ideals. The dreams I had. The things I wanted to do. I had so much enormous success so early and was always kind of afraid I really didn't deserve it or that it was a mistake." There's anguish in that.
It gives added meaning to Susan's next words "My father says. 'One's career grows in public; one's talent grows in private. '"Of course, I've done some films both here and in Europe, and some television I'm proud of, but I'd like to go back to my origins in the theaterand the kind of commitment you have to give. Right then, there, that moment. I made a speech recently and found myself shaking, not with nerves but with a kind of energy that exists only in the immediate. In the theater there are two energy fields, yours and the audience's. Like thumbprints, they are unique. They will never be repeated. I want this that makes me feel so strongly I shake."
John Huston expressed a comparable thought when he talked about his preferences as applied to filmmaking. "A new truth enters when you're doing something on the spot," he said. "I'm not so keen about working in studios I like working on location For artistic reasons the locations are kind of an inspiration in themselves."
To the reminder that the stage actor has no recourse to locations but must always work on a set, Huston replied, "I look on a location as a set If you can get the ideal setfine. But, "he added, "the material I like usually can't be confined to a sound stage."
It is part of the genius of an Orson Welles or a John Huston that they can use any facts, anywhere, to create truth. Huston found itagainin Welles' F For Fake. "A wonderful film." he said. "Only Orson could have done this picture. It's playful, has a spontaneity, has an idea. It's profound, It's funny."
Is Orson then the Renaissance man of film? "I should designate him such." Huston's accolade had the simplicity, power, and grace of one master's recognition of another. It was the perfect harbinger of what is to come from The Other Side of the Wind.
The Other Side of the Wind's course has blown hot and cold since Welles first started working on the film (some of its off-camera candid shots are dated 1971). He'd shoot whenever and wherever the actors he wanted were available. It's been said that there were times when he would line up a handful of personalities against a wall, ask some random questions, and record the random answers, later to be stripped into the film as snatches of party talk. Inter-cuts of talk, overlapping fragments of conversation, non sequiturs, quick quips. All were grist to Other Winds mill.
Confidence in the extraordinary end result has never wavered. Working day and night, cinematographer Gary Graver is an important part of the master's entourage. "Before The Other Side of the Wind." Gary said, "I worked on Welles' F For Fake. It's been playing in Paris for months, and the last I heard, it's still drawing block-long lines to the theater. Joseph Cotten's in it and Elmyr De Hory, the contemporary artist who paints 'Old Masters' and who's caused such an uproar. There's footage on Howard Hughes and Clifford Irving and a Yugoslavian actress Oja Kodar is in it, too. As to what F For Fake is about, I guess you could say it's about con men. We ought to be getting a U.S. release for it before too long."
Welles' unconventional, unorthodox production methods make for extra procedures and extra excitement, even among those whose contacts with them are so ephemeral as to be virtually nonexistent. Take the matter of the photos on these pages. Welles had no still photographer on his sets. No publicist. Certainly none of the usual peripheral personnel that cushion life on the Hollywood beat. You want pictures? See Gary Graver. But he's still working a day-and-night shift with Welles, who's now busy cutting Other Wind. You want information? Call Peter Bogdanovich. He's not only in the film, he's "sort of a coordinator for it." But after your third call, his secretary declares in a firm secretarial monosyllable, Mr. B. says. "No." You call Norman Foster and he's his warm, charming self. But he has worked only briefly on Wind and has no pertinent information.
Meanwhile. Gary Graver continues laboring day and night with Welles, who goes on with his editing while cramming in some pre-production work on another upcoming film. Nevertheless, with Gary's cooperation, and through the kind offices of a Hollywood producer, George Edwards, you get some revealing pictures taken by a miscellany of anonymous Welles followers who know how to shoot a giant when they see one. Or two. Or more. The Other Side of the Wind features the skills of many giants, and it may just be another work of genius from that giant of American film, who unfortunately, works far too infrequently in his own native country.