The Best Laid Plans

I had what I thought was an absolutely fantastic idea. I would write a screenplay version of one of the greatest dramas ever played out on the real-world stage: The rise and fall of Orson Welles. Naturally, I was inspired to do so after a viewing (all right, several viewings) of Citizen Kane, as well as the WGBH/American Experience documentary production The Battle Over Citizen Kane. A quick (though, as it turned out, incomplete) search of the Internet Movie Databse didn’t turn up any instances of “Orson Welles” as a character; I was shocked to find out that no one had yet tackled the subject. Here was one of the greatest tragic stories of the twentieth century — at least in the artistic world — and nobody had made a movie about it.

To be sure, my screenplay-writing skills are best described as embryonic — years later, I am still revising even my earliest work. I’ve routinely had difficulty distilling the essence of the stories I’ve tried to recount, but this time, my mind started effortlessly wrapping itself around the tale. The piece seemed destined to write itself. I’d start with the younger Welles in school beginning to realize his theatrical talents, follow his groundbreaking production of Hamlet for the Harlem stage, trace the development of the Mercury Theatre, and continue through the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, finishing with his undisputed masterpiece, and the very object of his downfall, Kane. (I would studiously avoid Kane’s signature flashback structure, a glaringly obvious hack device given the subject.) Welles’s growing megalomania — the protagonist’s tragic flaw — would be reflected in the systematic alienation of his contemporaries. To provide a sounding board, I’d work to find at least one somewhat constant companion — I initially thought of William Alland fulfilling that role, though I’d have to do substantial research (I don’t think Alland joined Welles’s circle until the Mercury Theatre days). I had no illusions about my completing the project anytime soon — but then again, it wasn’t exactly like the story was the subject of current headlines.

And then I was browsing Amazon, and I noticed something called The Citizen Kane “Gold Edition Box Set.” As I already owned the DVD, I wasn’t interested in purchasing anything new (particularly since the set consisted largely of filler), but one item caught my eye. at first, I thought they’d simply packaged the Battle Over Citizen Kane documentary as a separate DVD — a nonsensical idea, since the second disc on the standard movie set already contained the documentary. A closer look revealed the truth: The disc was another movie: RKO 281: The Battle Over “Citizen Kane.” The picture’s subtitle had initially thrown me, but here was a “docudrama” covering substantially the same territory I had planned.

Apparently, back in 1999, HBO had produced a television movie based on the documentary. As a rule, TV movies are good for a couple hours’ mindless diversion, but little else. Still, it had been made for HBO, and the credits list boasted a few notables: Executive Producers Ridley and Tony Scott, writer John Logan of Gladiator fame (though Star Trek: Nemesis notoriety), James Cromwell, Roy Scheider, Melanie Griffith, and John Malkovich. I was less familiar with the work of director Benjamin Ross (not at all) or star Liev Schreiber (I saw Scream, but that was about it). Still, particularly given that it had garnered a Golden Globe for Best Mini-Series Or Television Movie, I figured it’d be worth a look.

The picture was superb. To be sure, there are television-movie concessions: There are no grand attempts to recreate large-scale period exteriors, for example (though the San Simeon interiors are notably lavish). But all in all, the movie has been treated as a theatrical feature. The writing is tight, the casting spot-on, the performances compelling, the direction at least competent. On the other hand, its scope was more limited than what I’d had in mind — focusing exclusively on the production of Citizen Kane. Both Welles and nemesis William Randolph Hearst seem watered down at times, so that we sense neither Hearst’s real-life villainy nor the true devastation the backlash visited upon Welles (no doubt both characterizations were mellowed to gain cooperation from their estates).

Is it perfect? No. But is it good enough to obviate the need for another treatment of the subject? Yes. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly, and not just for Citizen Kane buffs.

Maybe someday it’ll be worth revisiting this subject matter; after all, the film world is full of remakes. But not today, and probably not by me. Oh, well — on to the next idea.


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