I count myself as a lover of cinema. I get lost in the emotion of celluloid heroes and swept up in the high drama of practically any film. I enjoy both the good and the bad. Like some twisted version of the princess and the frog I can see the beauty in even the most heinous movie, while at the same time appreciate the finery in an elegant arrangement of dialogue, or a subtle shift in a scenes lighting or camera placement. I count among my favorite films, The Manchurian Candidate, Stalag 17, Dangerous Liaisons, Star Wars, True Grit, The Waterboy, Jeremiah Johnson, Conan the Barbarian... The list goes on, and it is filled with just as much iron pyrite as it is with real stuff.
And yet, I have never seen Citizen Kane.
Arguably one of the best examples of American filmmaking and I have never seen it. I have read about it. I know what Rosebud is, although I don't understand it. I know of the films relation to William Randolph Hearst. It's not like I have avoided watching the movie, it's just one of those things that I have never gotten around to. I regret my recalcitrance, especially when acquaintances appear horrified that I have not laid bare my very soul to this alleged masterpiece of twentieth century art.
And so, I go out of my way to learn about the film, but strangely I have never gone so far as to actually watch it. I am cemented between the desire to view the original and the fear of being disappointed. And so I came upon RKO 281.
RKO 281 is a relatively recent HBO film that documents the struggles that Orson Welles went through to make his masterpiece, and the equally tumultuous path that Hearst traveled to have the film destroyed. The film derives its name from the studio that produced Citizen Kane and the in house production number assigned to it while filming.
An unusually powerful cast for a cable movie makes this film a real winner. John Malkovich creates a subtle but endearing portrayal of Herman J. Mankiewicz, co-author of the script for Citizen Kane, and friend of Welles, who drew most of the film's story from his own experiences as a guest of Hearst. An alcoholic who loved his work, Mankiewicz received un-credited work on a number of Hollywood's golden era films, including the Wizard of Oz. He once remarked about Welles, "There but for the grace of God, goes God."
Melanie Griffith rattles in as the mistress of Hearst and movie starlet from twenties and thirties, Marion Davies. She does an excellent job of making us believe she is a no talent bimbo thrust into films on the power of another mans suggestion and desire.
The aging Roy Schieder appears with a level of commitment that I haven't seen from him since the eighties. His character, George Schaefer, is the studio big shot at RKO that gives Wells his shot at fame. He is a tragic and noble man, who places his faith in the young, inexperienced, and occasionally ungrateful Orson Welles. He ultimately loses his position due to his relationship with Welles and the film, but accepts his path with the dignity of a man willing to live with the choices he has made.
James Cromwell shines as the powerful, and alienated Hearst. A man whose money has bought him all that he desired and ultimately lost everything because he couldn't reconcile the difference between what he wanted and what he needed. A man, who would not face the ghost of his own errors to the very end of his life.
Liev Schreiber, whom I had never heard of before this film (Though I am told that he has in fact been in movies like Scream, and Sphere) does a magnificent job as Orson Welles. He balances Welles Icarus obsession with his art, off the mans own stumble into depression, and the verge of lunacy on witnessing his obsession torn apart by the very power he was attempting to expose and vilify.
When all was said and done this was a good film that made me feel true pity for practically every person involved. There was no real black hat in this film. Even Hearst, whose personal tale of ruthlessness was the catalyst for Citizen Kane, was shown as a man entrapped and tortured by his own power. Imprisoned in his lavishly adorned castle by his own contempt for everything outside his power, he retaliates by bringing those vexing things under his wing of control. Ultimately Hearst's ambition outpaces him and his money fails, leaving him broke without ever learning that his downfall was a creature of his own construction. Welles was ultimately the victor in this battle, but the cost was great. He never really transcended the work of Citizen Kane and was left to spend the rest of his life attempting to hurtle the bar he had placed at twenty-six years old.
In the middle of this film I was struck by a strange feeling. Although strange and ethereal, I had felt this way before. I had the same disconnected and odd feeling while watching Ed Wood and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. I was watching a movie about the making of a movie. It was drama, about drama, kind of like Noises Off without so much fiction, or side-splitting comedy to assure you that this sort of thing didn't really happen. It leaves you with the unpleasant feeling that maybe the people in Hollywood are running out of ideas, or even worse that the lessons of the Citizen Kane production aren't being learned and the line between dramatic reality and clichéd fiction get thinner as you get closer to the pacific ocean.