By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
HBO‘s RKO 281 re-creates the making of the movie Citizen Kane and its attempted scuttling by the man whose life inspired it, publisher William Randolph Hearst. Based in part on the 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, to which Ridley Scott acquired dramatic rights, it is a movie whose point I do not quite see. This ground has been covered, if not in precisely the same form, and covered better, more accurately and therefore more instructively.
Director Benjamin Ross (The Young Poisoner’s Handbook) calls the film a ”fantasia,“ which is a genteel way of saying that factual detail has been sacrificed to dramatic convenience, which is another way of saying they made stuff up -- though no more, and perhaps less, than is usually the case, and certainly nothing so outlandish to merit the word fantasia, which in any case would be preferable to the standard (though certainly well-executed) docudrama this is. Scriptwriter John Logan thinks it‘s ”a fable, a morality tale,“ though it is neither -- please, gentlemen, know your terms -- and believes it remains ”true . . . to the spirit of history,“ which is a funny concept. And executive producer Ridley Scott sees RKO 281 as ”an exploration into the issue of art versus commerce,“ which it isn’t exactly, Kane having been made with unprecedented freedom and Hearst‘s wrath having no appreciable negative effect on Welles’ career. (Welles was perfectly capable of handling that job himself.) Perhaps Scott was thinking of Blade Runner.
As Welles, Liev Schreiber is soft and strangely sentimental (he cries real tears), while John Malkovich‘s pale Herman J. Mankiewicz resembles hardly at all the bigger, louder screenwriter of record; you get all of his drinking, with none of the legendary wit. (”There but for the grace of God,“ he once said of Welles, ”goes God.“) Babe’s James Cromwell puts a little bit of Farmer Hoggett into his Hearst, echoing Welles‘ own stated sympathy for Kane; Melanie Griffith, the Shelley Winters of her generation (not a bad thing), is sympathetic as his maligned but stalwart gal pal Marion Davies. Brenda Blethyn is Louella Parsons, Roy Scheider interference-running producer George Schaefer, David Suchet an ahistorically low-key Louis B. Mayer.
Of course, it’s just asking for trouble to make a movie about a movie reflexively called the greatest film of all time; it begs at least a sidelong comparison. (Proceed to comparison:) Where Kane is all giddy energy and bold visual strokes applied to an essentially plotless, melodramatic art film about love and lovelessness and the vanity of things, RKO 281 is just a good-looking, well-played period masquerade, with some clever nods ‘n’ homages to the elder picture -- cinematographer Gregg Toland gets his dues. And the point is? Its heaviest conceit is to suggest a psychological resemblance between Welles, his character and his character‘s model -- they all like to get their way! -- but in the end, that’s as empty as the idea that, for all its prankish use of real-life details, Citizen Kane is a film about William Randolph Hearst.
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