ONE OF THE REAL CURIOSITIES in Hollywood at the moment is the profusion of projects concerning Orson Welles. Welles himself, who was never able to raise backing here for a film in the 27 years that he lived after making “Touch of Evil” for Universal in 1958, accurately predicted that he would become a hotter commodity at some point after his death than he was during his lifetime, and it seems that the moment has now arrived.
Two of his most intriguing screenplays, “The Big Brass Ring” and “The Dreamers,” are being set up as independent productions, while Welles is poised to be a central character in two other films.
But the project that has received the most attention is “RKO 281.” Written by Chicago playwright John Logan, this account of the making of “Citizen Kane,” often described as the greatest American film of all time, is owned by Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free Prods. and was originally slated to be directed by the former. Currently in search of a director and a financial backer, the project has already achieved a certain notoriety due to all the prominent names mentioned to play earlier eminent personalities, including Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman as William Randolph Hearst, Madonna as Marion Davies, Dustin Hoffman as screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, Bette Midler as columnist Louella Parsons and Edward Norton as Welles.
Implicit in such an undertaking is that it would have to be a considerable film itself, the type of serious-minded picture that would aim for Oscars and do so with the initial help of favorable reviews from important critics. The real risk in this particular case lies not just in the challenge of making an absorbing and convincing film, but that Welles remains a hero to most critics, many of whom fancy themselves specialists when it comes to anything Wellesian. Offend them by misrepresenting the auteur in any way and they will pounce just as viciously as Hearst’s Hollywood rep Parsons ripped into “Kane.”
Having read “RKO 281” (the project number assigned to “Kane” by the studio), I can safely say that there are several elements that are sure to be seized upon by film historians and Welles fanatics. The first is a long stage-setting scene in which Welles and Mankiewicz get the idea for “Kane” while being entertained by Hearst at a star-studded gathering at San Simeon.
IN TRUTH, WELLES WAS NEVER INVITED to the publishing tycoon’s coastal mansion, which became Xanadu in “Kane,” while Mankiewicz had long since been crossed off the guest list by teetotaler Hearst due to his excessive tippling. As written by Logan, the sequence is pure invention and smacks of the “By George, I’ve got it!” school of Hollywood biographical cinema.
Second, and the element surest to offend Welles partisans, is the extensive dramatization of the director trying to screw Mankiewicz out of any screen credit for his contributions to the screenplay. This reading of history stems from Pauline Kael’s now extensively discredited “Raising Kane” essay, and while there is evidence that Welles probably tried, at a certain moment, to take sole scriptwriting credit, the truth is much more complex.
In fact, Welles’ dream contract with RKO stipulated that he receive sole credit for producing, directing and writing his films; the studio counted on this as further promotion of their Boy Wonder’s genius. When Mankiewicz came aboard, it was at an advanced salary in compensation for the fact that he wouldn’t be able to receive screen credit. When he saw how the film was turning out, the veteran writer naturally wanted his name on it after all and turned for a ruling to the Screen Writers Guild, which replied that the matter was a contractual one that it could not adjudicate.
AFTER SOME TO-ING AND FRO-ING, Welles not only fully agreed that Mankiewicz deserved screen credit, but personally positioned his collaborator’s name above his own on the credit card, just as he generously placed cinematographer Gregg Toland’s name on the same card with his. That Welles possessed a gargantuan ego is indisputable, but the deviousness, even maliciousness attributed to him in Logan’s screenplay almost seems meant to parallel the meanness the script shows Hearst displaying in reaction to a labor strike.
It is well known that various studio heads, led by Louis B. Mayer, offered to purchase the negative of “Citizen Kane” from RKO and then destroy it. But a scene depicting a gathering of Mayer, Zanuck, Disney, Warner, Cohn, Goldwyn and Selznick to this end becomes laughable when Selznick stands up to the others, declares the film a masterpiece, tells the rest of them off and stomps out of the meeting. Although Selznick did see “Kane” at an early screening, there is no evidence that he ever took on his compatriots over its qualities.
Finally, there is the climactic scene, the New York world premiere of “Kane,” in which the script completely implausibly has the likes of Mayer and Parsons, in addition to many famous actors, in attendance. Prior to this, Logan has taken understandable poetic license to create a scene in which adversaries Welles and Hearst speak at length in an elevator (Welles always claimed that, when they found themselves alone in the lift, Hearst wouldn’t speak to him).
But afterward comes a scene in which Welles and Mankiewicz stroll off laughing into the night, giving “RKO 281” a happy ending and implying that all went well with “Kane” once it was released. In fact its distribution was severely hampered thanks to Hearst’s pressure on newspapers not to mention or advertise it, and on theater chains not to book it.
Obviously, any historical or biographical drama must telescope events, combine characters and selectively alter facts in order to express its perspective. But in these instances and others, “RKO 281” strays too far from well-known history for Welles fans to swallow it. If the film ever does go ahead, Logan and the producers might be well advised to make a few strategic changes if they expect the critics to consider their interpretation of events with an open mind.