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Saturday, Oct. 21, 2000

'RKO281'

A flame that burned so brightly


"Rosebud" wasn't really his sled.

This is one of the things you'll find out in "RKO281" (released in Japan as "The Director"), the story of 25-year-old Orson Welles deciding one fine night in 1939 to make a motion picture. As we know, "Citizen Kane" went on to become oneof the most influential and controversial works of the 20th century, and confirmed Welles' rep as a Boy Wonder genius. And like all geniuses, he had a huge ego and problems to match. He and Hollywood were made for each other.

Such is the tone of "RKO281," a work produced by Ridley Scott and starring John Malkovich, Liev Schreiber, James Cromwell, Roy Scheider and Melanie Griffith. A small-scale vehicle with big-time names, "RKO281" is not just a tribute to Welles but to prewar Hollywood and filmmakers as well. This is not to say that "RKO281" is a those-were-the-days nostalgia piece. No, director Benjamin Ross and screenwriter John Logan tell the tale with a stress on this fact: Nothing much has changed. Nothing much will ever change.

The year is 1939. Young Orson Welles (Liev Schreiber) is the toast of Hollywood, a young hitmaker who has just signed a big contract with RKO president George Schaffer (Scheider). Welles pals around with talented (but alcoholic) screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Malkovich), goes to a different party every night and generally behaves like a prince. The problem is, he has yet to deliver and RKO is getting impatient.

One night, "Mank" and Orson attend a gala function at the castle -- and I mean castle -- of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Cromwell). Orson is at once fascinated and repelled by Hearst's lifestyle, his longtime mistress Marion (Griffith), and his colossal and seemingly bottomless wealth. Convinced that all this will make his movie, Orson ropes in the frightened Mank ("Are you kidding? Hearst will rub us out with his index finger!") to start work on what will later be known as "Citizen Kane."

"Citizen Kane" was to be a thinly veiled biography of Hearst with a mystery thrown in. This, of course, was the identity of "Rosebud," which appears at the beginning of the movie as Kane's last words. Orson included salacious details of Hearst's and Marion's life together, their castle, Hearst's unquenchable thirst for power and terrible loneliness. Originally titled "The American," the movie was to reveal an American-bred giant, excessively large-scale in everything he did.

When Hearst hears of the project, he takes swift action and seeks to destroy the film. He turns the screws on Schaffer and all the other studio heads and forbids any of his papers to even mention the film. But Orson is a match for the old tycoon -- he wants the movie out on the screens, no matter what. He is deaf to the entreaties of Schaffer and turns a blind eye to the possibility that his movie may financially ruin the studios and spell unemployment for thousands. He refuses to budge an inch. He and Hearst circle each other like boxers in a ring, determined to go for the full 15 rounds or die.

RKO281 was the code name for Welles' picture -- fearing Hearst's anger and to stimulate publicity, RKO kept it under wraps until the last minute. At the first screening, however, the secret was out and Schaffer had to bear the brunt of Hearst's clandestine smear campaign. Just watching him suffer in his office will give you an ulcer. Orson, on the other hand, smoked his Coronas, swilled his bourbon and kept saying "no": "No, I want my movie out. No, my movie must come out!" It becomes hard to sympathize with such an unbending egoist; then you realize that "Citizen Kane" is just as much about Welles as it is about Hearst.

"RKO281's" strength is that it sticks to one year and a single movie out of the long career of Orson Welles. No love interest, little personal data, just the portrait of a young dictator running a small nation called Filmmaking. On the other hand, the film seems a little rough around the edges -- the relationship between Marion and Hearst is sketchy at most, Malkovich is sadly underdeployed and the whole thing starts to resemble a board meeting that goes on and on.

"RKO281" has none of the scale and volume of "Cradle Will Rock," another Orson Welles story, directed by Tim Robbins, now playing at a theater near you. Put both pictures side by side and the difference is all too clear: say, the homecoming queen and a cheerleader understudy. It's not all the film's fault though -- "RKO281" was made for HBO and between cable TV and real box office lies a broad and turbulent river.

Still, the cheerleader understudy has her points. "RKO281" boasts some great lines, including this one uttered by Malkovich and which I intend to make my own when the timing is right: "Everyone burns out sooner or later. It's the flame that counts."

Beautiful. For this moment at least, and for the lowdown on Rosebud, "RKO281" is worth viewing, if only on the screen at home.

"RKO281" opens Oct. 28 at Ginza Theater Cinema.


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