You’d Be Great as Jesus: Orson Welles’ “Hopper/Welles”
It was 1970, and Orson Welles was filming The Other Side of the Wind, which gestated for years like an elephant, only emerging three decades after his death. He wanted to collect as many personalities for this film as possible, not simply to paint a portrait of the version of Hollywood that had swallowed his, but because it stood to reason that by putting guys like Dennis Hopper in the film, even if only for a second, you bought yourself a more expensive marquee. Hopper was a director who was about to become too popular to recover. He’d been a baby-faced bit player in classic films like Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), George Stevens’ Giant (1956), and Henry Hathaway’s True Grit (1969), but it was directing and starring in Easy Rider (1969) that made him a legend overnight. It all happened too fast. His follow-up film, 1971’s The Last Movie, was panned by critics and bombed after two years of the media building Hopper into the most important artist in America. The ride was over. By 1976, his career needed desperate saving when Coppola put him in Apocalypse Now (1979). Welles must have laughed at that. The same thing had happened to him.
Hopper/Welles was the result of the night Welles convinced Hopper to swing by whatever California estate he was staying in at the time. He was going to cut in the footage of Hopper answering questions with footage of John Huston to be shot later. We’ll never know exactly what that would have looked like because only about 15 seconds of this wound up in the version of The Other Side of the Wind that was eventually restored. The same production team stumbled across the footage of Welles interrogating Hopper over a night of gin and tonics and about a hundred cigarettes and saw a movie’s worth of material. Welles asks Hopper about philosophy, film, and law and order, hoping to discover whether this kid, who might be the next Orson Welles, is the real deal or not. Welles was wary of trends and didn’t tend to like movies made after 1960, but he seems genuinely taken with Hopper, if only because at least in the quick-witted hellraiser he’d found a worthy conversation partner. Hopper doesn’t have much in the way of a coherent ideology (and he’d never get one, disavowing his late-in-life turn towards conservatism on his death bed), and you’ll have heard a lot of his answers before, whether in his rambling Apocalypse Now monologues or in the documentary The American Dreamer (1971) about Hopper making The Last Movie. Tellingly in that movie, Hopper goes on a rant about the studio system failing real artists. “I could be Orson Welles… poor bastard.”
130 minutes was the wrong runtime for Hopper/Welles, but the only real length for a project like this is forever, endless, on a continuous loop. This “film,” after all, is a conversation that keeps leaping up and then eating itself like the molten guts of an active volcano — two drunken blowhards with no politics trying to get the other to back up their ideas or back down from an attack. I say “movie” because this was no such thing for a long time. Orson Welles saw in Dennis Hopper what everyone else saw: promise. Big blue veins filled with deep red blood ready for sucking. Welles was nothing if not the gentleman vampire of the cinema, as drawn to young people and their buzzing potential energy, and he’d tried the experiment here a few times before and would keep trying it. Latch onto a younger talent and still be eye teeth deep in their arm when the spotlight found them so he could pick up some of the residual glow. Welles, maybe the only actual genius who made movies, was a terrible businessman, and so he kept losing opportunities to chase something shiny. He didn’t die a failure, like David Thomson liked to argue, but he died perceived as one by people like David Thomson, but you know Citizen Kane (1941), don’t you? You should get to know the rest of his work, if you haven’t. Even a movie like this, that wasn’t ever supposed to be a movie at all, is excellent.
Gary Graver, Welles’ longest technician friend, who put his whole life into trying to help the director stay active, shoots this in the same gorgeously deep-set monochrome as he did a good deal of The Other Side of the Wind. The late-night brick barroom vibe is seductive and cool; you never want to leave. The cameras are constantly reloading when the 10-minute magazines run out, to keep up with Welles’ dogged interrogation, as if they’re refilling one of Hopper’s drinks. Welles never appears on screen, but his booming laugh conjures his image just fine. Hopper knows very well he doesn’t have any business as a prophet or iconoclast beyond a general intelligence about cinematic symbols. The best parts of this find him fessing up to the emptiness of rebellion in an art keelhauled by sincerity. He talks about watching David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) and finding himself repulsed by its overly romantic storytelling and how he vowed to never make anything like that. He then laughs at himself describing Easy Rider as one of the more romantic movies of the era without any shame or sarcasm. The Last Movie would show him fully at war with his romantic side, believing so much in movies even as he sees them as a destructive force in need of dismantling. Welles, on the other hand, simply did it. His movies are their own destruction, churning expressionist refusals of American film grammar, defiant for even existing when the American studio system tried so hard to kill their least favorite son. Something like Hopper/Welles was, in hindsight, the closest he’d get to Hollywood again, when he wasn’t narrating their movies or playing diplomats in glorified cameos. He grabbed their next victim and tried to tell him that the ride was almost over. Hopper didn’t listen. However, there is something beautiful about seeing them locked in a mostly friendly rhetorical skirmish. That night, Welles cursed Hopper with his career but neither of them realized it. They thought they were just talking, but cinema takes prisoners, and the price of its romance is your freedom. You’ll be making movies 40 years after you die, but for once everyone will be happy to have them. We know what we’ve got now, but more than that, we know what we’ve lost and won’t ever get back.
Hopper/Welles premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and screens at the 58th New York Film Festival.