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The Story Behind 'Citizen Kane'
HBO Film Traces Struggle Between Welles, Hearst

By Michael E. Hill
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 1999; Page Y06

Around the movie lot, RKO 281 was code for the 281st film on the RKO production slate.

But by the time it was completed and released in 1941 under the title "Citizen Kane," the film would enjoy anything but the anonymity of a number.

Even before it was released, the movie was at the center of a test of wills, influence and power between its creator, Orson Welles, and the man whose life was exposed in the film's storyline, publisher William Randolph Hearst.

The conflict and controversy that surrounded the film is examined in an HBO Pictures docudrama, "RKO 281," Saturday at 8 p.m. on the pay cable channel. The film in question, "Citizen Kane," which the American Film Institute voted the top American film of all time, airs Friday at 8 on Turner Classic Movies.

As "RKO" tells the story, a lot of smaller animals get trampled and a lot of dust is raised as the two elephants fight it out in the Hollywood jungle.

Before getting to the details, a docudrama disclaimer is in order, and "RKO's" comes from the man who wrote it, John Logan. He was quick to point out at a news conference that he is a dramatist, not a historian.

"We made allowances," he said. "Orson Welles was never at San Simeon. That's how we begin our movie. . . . We telescope events. We move things around. It was necessary for us to do this to tell the larger truth we thought implicit in the story."

The "truth" Logan tells in this film, executive produced by Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Blade Runner"), is that neither Welles nor Hearst were angels, and that in fighting each other they hurt others in the process.

The film opens by sketching in the personal history of Welles, the young, pampered prodigy who grew to be a rising actor and director of "War of the Worlds," the 1938 radio play that panicked much of the country.

In the never-happened scene Logan described, Liev Schreiber as Welles, accompanied by John Malkovich as screenwriter and Welles cohort Herman Mankiewicz, find themselves dining at San Simeon, Hearst's lavish California estate.

Thrusts and parries are exchanged between Welles and Hearst, played with compassion by James Cromwell.

Co-hosting is Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, played by Melanie Griffith.

Welles's interest in the publishing baron is stirred and Mank, as his friends call the screenwriter, confides to Welles that he's been keeping notes on the man.

Hey, how about making a movie?

When Hearst hears that a film based on his life story is in the works, he musters his considerable leverage in an effort to quash it. Soon, the two driven, manipulative men are locked in a war of wills, if not of the world.

Welles, just 26 when "Kane" was released, presses the RKO studio chief, played by Roy Scheider, to resist the pressure to stifle the film.

Soon the controversy is colored by blackmail and anti-Semitism.

It is a story with more victims than heroes. Even the charming aura of Rosebud, the mystery word of "Citizen Kane," takes a beating. Before Welles incorporated it into his film, we're told, it was Hearst's term for his mistress's clitoris.

Among those most injured in the fray are those closest to the protagonists, the alcoholic Mankiewicz and the devoted Davies.

"They're all quite interesting and moving, in a way," said Malkovich in an interview, considering the real people involved in the drama. "I'm sure Welles must have been a fantastic raconteur and a fantastic storyteller and a lot of fun and obviously very bright and with a decent culture -- a lot of connections and roots in Ireland, Europe and America. On the down side, I don't know if he was obsessed with fame, but he had a need to prove himself."

And any viewers who've come to think of Hearst as a puffed-up tycoon, justifiably deflated by Welles, might find a more sympathetic chord sounding in this film.

Cromwell noted during the news conference that he too came to "RKO" unsympathetic to Hearst but found the man's heart in the script.

"My interpretation was that Orson Welles decided not only to make a great film, but to flip the bird to Mr. Hearst and somebody [Hearst] cared deeply about," said Cromwell. "And if he had one good quality, it certainly was his faithfulness and his love and his concern and his care for the woman who was in his life, and he refused to let any twerp get away with it."

The two men, some 50 years apart in age, were sharing the same journey, said Cromwell. "At the end of the film Hearst recognizes in Welles his own story and says, 'I wish you better luck than I had, because you can't win that game.' "

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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