Citizen Kane is one of those movies you're always hearing about--it's so great, it's genius, the greatest American film ever, etc., etc. So if you're a movie geek you figure at some point you're going to have to watch it. I tried to avoid it when I was growing up--hearing how serious and important something is doesn't usually inspire your average 14 year old but when I did sit down to watch it sometime in high school, expecting to be bored, I was pleasantly surprised. It was more than watchable--in fact, I remember thinking that I found it entertaining, which was not something you usually expect from work labeled Serious and Important.
So in that respect, it's actually a movie that more than delivers on its reviews. The one thing it did do wrong, though, was unjustly malign the reputation of Marion Davies. As was widely known at the time of its release, the movie is a thinly veiled portrait of William Randolph Hearst. The character of Susan Alexander, Kane's second wife, is a spectacularly untalented singer who Kane tries unsuccessfully to build into an opera star by sinking piles of money into horrible productions featuring her. Everyone assumed that the character was based on Hearst's longtime mistress, actress Marion Davies, for whom Hearst had created a film production company. So since the release of Citizen Kane, Davies has acquired the reputation of the classic pretty girl with no talent who coasts on the money of a rich, besotted old man. If you read about the era, though, people often say that she had a knack for comedy and just suffered from Heast's desire to put her into heavy costume dramas. And you know, I saw one of her movies on Turner Classic earlier this year--Floradora Girl (1930)--and she was absolutely charming. It wasn't quite a comedy, more like a light romance, but I could definitely see that if she had been put into the right kind of movie, she would have done quite well. So count me in as one of those determined to salvage Marion Davies career (fwiw, Welles actually did write the foreward to her autobiography and while he again insisted that the character of Susan wasn't based on Davies, he did acknowledge the damage it did to her reputation).
I bring all this up because I just saw RKO 281, the 1999 HBO film about the making of Citizen Kane. Liev Schreiber stars as Welles, John Malkovich is Welles' co-writer and friend Herman Mankiewicz, James Cromwell plays Hearts and Melanie Griffith is Davies. I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did, and to some degree, my criticism lies in nitpicking about details that probably only I care about and really shouldn't. I was admittedly just pointlessly distracted by the use of Carole Lombard in a small role as Davies' friend. The actress playing Lombard looked, quite bluntly, too old for the part, and worse, seemed to speak with a New York accent that made no sense considering she was born in Indiana and grew up in California. Other little things, like having Davies and others complain about how boring the big parties Hearst threw were made no sense; Davies was known for giving the best parties in Hollywood, including themed ones and costumed ones (and yes, Hearst dressed up too).
I was put off by a lot of performances, but I tend to think that the script might have been the problem. Many of the incidents shown in the movie were true (this film is actually based on a very good PBS doc about the attempt by Hollywood to suppress Kane), but the material surrounding those moments often rang hollow. Things like, "I know The American isn't a great title, but we don't have anything better." "How about...Citizen...yes! Citizen Kane!" Eureka! There are a number of awkward feeling, "and that's how we did this" parts. Did you ever see Santa Claus is Coming to Town? It's one of those old claymation Christmas specials that purports to tell the story of how Kris Kringle became Santa Claus, and along the way it explains lots of other little Christmas details, leading to stops where children ask the narrator (an incredibly cute claymation Fred Astaire) things like, "And that's why Santa Claus comes down the chimney?" "Yes it is." This movie has "And that's why the sled is named Rosebud?" "Yes, indeed, children." Maybe there's no way to really show the creative process in a way that's both entertaining and realistic, but whatever, this didn't quite work for me.
But back to the performances. Malkovich seemed to be doing one of his excessively mannered bits in some scenes, then is back to being believable in others. Again, I don't know if this was a problem with the script or direction. Cromwell, who we know can play a baddie with the best of them, perhaps makes a more sympathetic Hearst than was intended...or was it? I found it hard to tell. Griffith tries hard, but she's always such a low-energy performer that she doesn't seem a good fit for the vivacious fun Davies that contemporaries described. I didn't like David Suchet as LB Mayer--yes, he's a fine actor, but again, I don't know if the part was just poorly written or if I can say he was miscast. I actually loved Liam Cunningham in the small part of cinematographer Gregg Toland. Yes, I wouldn't be able to pick the real Toland out of a lineup and have never read much about his personal life, but somehow Cunningham just seemed to have that kind of matter-of-fact, quiet competence that you see in the best tech people. Without knowing anything about him, I'd hire him to shoot my film.
I love Schreiber and would watch him read the tax code. He's good enough here and certainly has the presence you would expect from Welles. But he's got some clunky lines to deal with and while, as I said, he seems to have what it takes to play Welles, I often felt like he was playing an imaginary character based on Welles, rather than actually playing Welles. Does that make sense? That means that in scenes where they show Kane being filmed, it seems like he's playing someone playing someone like Welles playing someone like Hearst.Confused yet? I don't know. I just didn't really buy the whole enterprise.
But it's a good try, I guess, and has its moments (I liked the part where Welles asks gossip queen Louella Parsons what her favorite movie is and she dryly replies, "Golddiggers of 1933."). Overall, it's not historically inaccurate, maybe just a little low in the details department. It's only 85 minutes so you won't do yourself any damage watching it. Given a choice, though, I'd still recommend the PBS doc The Battle Over Citizen Kane, or a good bio of Welles. There's a two volume one written by actor Simon Callow that I've been meaning to read for years, and maybe it's time I got to that. And if you haven't seen The Third Man, go out and see it as soon as possible. Just a tip because I care.