In the early 1980s, Orson Welles found himself in a career quandary. He was celebrated around the world as being one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived – but no one wanted to put any money into the various proposed projects he hoped to produce and direct. Meetings with Hollywood power brokers and European financiers inevitably steered into gushy praise for “Citizen Kane” but stopped abruptly whenever Welles tried to raise interest or cash for a new work. The reason for this reluctance was genuine: for better or worse, Welles had a reputation of creating productions which either remained unfinished or were tied up in legal limbo. And the relatively few films he made during the 1960s and 1970s that managed to be completed and released turned out to be commercial failures.
Desperate to get momentum going, Welles set up shop in his Los Angeles home to create test footage for a feature based on the writing of Isak Dinesen, the Danish author whose work Welles brought to the screen in the 1968 feature “The Immortal Story.” Between 1980 and 1982, Welles self-financed and shot 20 minutes of film designed to be seen by potential backers.
Whether any would-be moneybags ever saw the 20 minutes of “The Dreamers” is unknown. What is known is that very few people have ever seen the extant footage in its entirety. To this day, it remains a mysterious and elusive coda to Welles’ turbulent career.
I recently had the uncommon good fortune to receive a video copy of the extant footage from “The Dreamers.” Viewing it places me in the rare company of Welles scholars such as Joseph McBride, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Peter Tonguette and Jaime N. Christley. But while these esteemed writers expressed praise for “The Dreamers,” I have to be the odd man out and detail why this ambitious project was doomed to failure from the beginning.
“The Dreamers” is based on two stories by Dinesen (who is best known for her memoirs “Out of Africa”). The focus belongs to the late-19th century opera diva Pellegrina Leoni, who loses her singing voice in fire. Unable to accept a life without music, she fakes her death and disappears on a lengthy adventure where she transforms herself into different personalities as her surroundings change; encounters with aristocrats, peasants, the down-on-their-luck and children were part of her travels. Welles, who was to play the supporting role of the diva’s Dutch-Jewish confidante and guardian angel, projected the film would cost about $6 million, which was quite a sum for that period (remember that “Heaven’s Gate,” which sank United Artists in 1980, cost $40 million).
Welles collaborated on the screenplay of “The Dreamers” with Oja Kodar, a Croatian actress who starred in his “F for Fake.” During his latter years, Kodar (born Olga Palinkas and renamed by Welles) was the great filmmaker’s companion, muse and artistic partner. The plan for “The Dreamers” was to cast Kodar as Pellegrina Leoni, and perhaps this is where the project sank.
There were two key problems in having Kodar entrenched as the star of “The Dreamers.” First, she had no box office value or name recognition, and it was highly unlikely anyone would finance a somewhat pricey movie with a total unknown in the leading role. Second (and this is where I depart company with those who admire “The Dreamers”), Kodar was miserably miscast. Welles instructed her to speak her lines in a seductive whisper, yet her sing-song line readings were totally without emotion. That she had a fairly thick Croatian accent rather than the Italian accent required of the role was another matter – she sounded like Bela Lugosi’s Yugoslavian cousin and offered as much vibrancy as a Romero zombie. Kodar’s beauty cannot be denied, but her glaring dramatic limitations were so pronounced that it is impossible to wonder what Welles was thinking by banking on her.
“The Dreamers” consists of two sections lasting about 10 minutes each. The first is in black-and-white and is supposed to take place in a monastery where Welles’ character recounts the circumstances that put the story in motion (just how the Jewish character wound up in a monastery is not clear). The camerawork is tight, filling the screen with Welles’ bulk while the heavily shadowed background masks the actual location of filming (probably Welles’ living room). Welles is made up in a long white beard, a prominent nose, oversized eyeglasses, a large black hat and a billowing black coat with a severe white costume. He also speaks in an on-again/off-again accent that places improper emphasis in his pronounciation (the city Venice becomes “Veniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice” via his lips). Sad to say, it is thoroughly ludicrous to behold – and anyone who groaned over Welles’ excesses as an actor have more than ample ammunition here to justify their grousing.
The ten minutes of Kodar’s footage, however, is in color. Though some of it is in tight close-up of her illuminated eyes while shadow encases the rest of her face and the scene (again, Welles used darkness to hide the poverty of the test footage location). A few minutes were shot outside in a garden. Peter Tonguette, in his invaluable essay on “The Dreamers” published in Senses of Cinema, quotes Welles scholar and respected film journalist Bill Krohn, as saying: “I am moved as I am by very few things in cinema every time I see the garden fragment. It’s like that great Bob Dylan song or that great Beatles song that you can’t get enough of.”
It is? Not for me, unfortunately. All I see is the costumed Kodar sleepwalking her leisurely way across the grounds, whispering lines with a hushed and unsteady voice which sounds as if she is saying the words phonetically and is nervous of mispronouncing them. There is a nice tracking shot of Kodar, but so what? It is nothing remarkable, and the poor sound recording (one can easily hear the whirr of street traffic in the distance) is more than distracting.
Kodar and Welles wrote nine drafts of the screenplay, but their efforts were in vain. “The Dreamers,” as with several other Welles projects, was unproduced by the time of his 1985. Kodar bravely announced she would make the film in honor of Welles, but nothing came of that. She eventually directed two movies, “Jaded” (1989, in which she starred) and “A Time for…” (1993, in which she was not on screen). She is also credited in co-writing the screenplay of “The Big Brass Ring,” a 1999 movie based on another unrealized Welles effort. According to the Internet Movie Database, Kodar has not been involved in post-Welles filmmaking beyond these few works.
In 1994, Peter Bogdanovich reportedly planned to make “The Dreamers.” That never happened. In 1996, the rights to the Dinesen source material was purchased from Kodar by Andy Howard, who was Welles’ business manager during the final years of his life. To date, Howard has not brought “The Dreamers” to full fruition.
The 20 minutes of fragmentary footage currently resides in the Munich Filmmuseum. It has been screened in a few festivals and Welles retrospectives, and bits of it were included in the documentary “Orson Welles: The One-Man Band.” To date, the entire surviving footage has never been released on DVD, although the segment included in “Orson Welles: The One-Man Band” was part of the recent Criterion DVD of “F for Fake.” Copies of the footage have been circulating quietly among Welles completists, unknown to even the most rabid of bootleg fanatics.
In a way, there is good fortune that “The Dreamers” is so obscure. Welles’ talent was without peer and it is best for those who love his work to celebrate his many deserved triumphs and not be bothered by this small, shabby post-script to his career.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on September 16, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
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