So-so story of a great film

Review: HBO takes a shallow and less-than-factual approach to how `Citizen Kane' was made.

November 20, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Was Orson Welles the real victim of "Citizen Kane?"

He was according to "RKO 281," a freely fictionalized HBO account of the story behind what would come to be regarded as the greatest U.S. film ever -- a film that, at the time, looked like a clash between a Hollywood Wunderkind and an egotistical media magnate perhaps past his prime, but with enough fight left in him to terrify the boardrooms of every studio in Hollywood.

Unfortunately for "RKO 281," that story has already been masterfully told, in an Oscar-nominated documentary from 1996, "The Battle Over Citizen Kane." What's left for the HBO film is to play around with the facts, put stars in the major roles (Liev Schreiber, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith and John Malkovich) and come up with an entertaining, but shallow, look at a power struggle between old and new unlike anything Hollywood has seen since.

The magnate was William Randolph Hearst (Cromwell), perhaps the most powerful newspaper publisher the nation has ever known. It was his life that Welles (Schreiber) and co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Malkovich) used as the basis for "Kane."

Their story chronicled a spoiled rich kid who, on a whim, becomes a newspaper publisher. Through will, money and chutzpah (not to mention what could charitably be called a lax attitude toward the truth), he builds himself a newspaper empire. But his absolute power corrupts him absolutely, and he's soon shaping world events more than he's chronicling them.

But as fascinating as the story told by "Citizen Kane" is, the story behind it is even more riveting. Welles, only 24 at the time, had come to Hollywood with an unmatched reputation for artistry, and was given a free ride by his studio (RKO), who gave him almost total autonomy when it came to making films -- a level of authority greater than any director had ever been given before.

Out of that freedom came "Citizen Kane" -- RKO 281 was the production number assigned it by the studio -- and Welles almost found his career ruined even before it had really started.

An enraged Hearst slammed him and the film in his papers, and threatened retribution on Hollywood; rival studio heads were so cowed that they offered to pay RKO to destroy the film.

Fortunately, RKO stood firm, the film was released to near-universal critical praise (although it never did much commercially; small wonder, since Hearst newspapers never ran ads for it) and movies were never the same again. So unique was Welles' vision, so startling the images he put on the screen, that the language of film was changed forever. And Welles was doomed to spend the rest of his life trying to top himself.

"RKO 281" was clearly made by people who love both "Kane" and the story behind it. They have great fun duplicating some of the camera work that made Welles' film so distinctive.

They even begin the film with a newsreel, just as in "Kane," although this newsreel tells of Welles' rise to fame.

But the facts are played with too loosely to make "RKO 281" valuable as history; Mankiewicz, for instance, was the one who reportedly had a grudge against Hearst, not Welles.

And the film even wastes the chance to right a wrong Welles readily admitted: Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies, was nowhere near the drunken no-talent of her "Kane" counterpart, Susan Alexander.

The idea that Welles himself was doomed by the artistic success of "Kane" is also open to debate, as even the film has to admit in a postscript: his later films included "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Touch of Evil," "The Lady From Shanghai" and "Chimes at Midnight," none of them slouches.

All of which makes "RKO 281" a pointless, if entertaining, diversion -- something that could never be said of its source material.

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