"The Big Brass Ring," airing tonight on Showtime at 8 (and subsequently), may not be a lost Orson Welles film, but it sure is a found George Hickenlooper film.
Citizen Hickenlooper, a 35-year-old director with a Yale degree and a limited resume in features, has built his movie on a script written by Welles in his dotage in 1982. So possibly the question isn't how Wellesian is it, but how Hickenlooperian?
And the answer is: very Hickenlooperian.
Now, fellow cineastes, what is the essence of l'oeuvre Hickenlooper? Why, Chinese angles, commonplace paranoia, slow-mo, black-and-white interludes to suggest the past, an occasional glimpse of a boob, an assassin with a .357 Desert Eagle automatic. In other words, it sounds just like any other modern thriller.
Now the farting monkey? Yes, that probably came from Welles; it's not far removed from that squawking parrot who scares you out of your pants the first time you see "Citizen Kane." For as generic as "The Big Brass Ring" seems, and plays, its connection to the great American auteur, who died in 1985, is very real. In fact, without working terribly hard, nearly anyone can see the Wellesian elements in it.
So, is this a lost Welles masterpiece?
Er, no. Not quite.
Is this the movie Welles yearned to make but those dollar-crazed, artist-hating Hollywood monsters would never permit?
Gee, I hope not.
Is this movie at least special in that Wellesian way, possessed as even his worst films were with a sort of vivid, if damaged, magic that somehow sinks deep into your brain?
No. It's a credible thriller in the modern vernacular--overwrought conspiracies, showy production values, flashy photography--that works best as a showcase for its talented cast, William Hurt, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Hawthorne and Irene Jacob.
If you squint hard, and force yourself to pretend you're onto something big, you can indeed pick out themes that might have hatched from the giant brain under Welles's large, egg-shaped head. At least they had before.
Like "Citizen Kane," it's a kind of biography of a political figure, a man of greatness who has an element of the charlatan and serious moral flaws hidden under his slick exterior. Like "Citizen Kane," it's built around a reporter's attempt to find "the truth" about this figure. Like "Citizen Kane," all its Citizen Hero's pathologies may be traced back to the extraordinary way he was orphaned, then raised by a powerful man. Like "Citizen Kane," its style is one of its deepest pleasures. Like "Citizen Kane," it features a showcase role for a large older actor, whose performance is mesmerizing in sly, Falstaffian ways.
The original Welles script was written by the filmmaker and his longtime friend, roomie and associate Oja Kodar. Oja? Oh, yes. A beautiful woman (original name: Olga Palinkas) Welles met in Zagreb, Croatia, in March 1962 while he was shooting "The Trial"; she co-starred in his films "F Is for Fake" and "The Deep" and in his life as well; she lived with him for his last 20 years, off and on. (She's currently engaged in legal action with his daughter over ownership of several Welles entities.) She eventually published the screenplay with a small Santa Barbara, Calif., press in 1987.
Not all agree on its merits, however. In "Rosebud," a biography of Welles, David Thomson said it was "as bad as anything he ever did or attempted to do." He called it cockamamie and deficient in suspense and reported that six actors--including Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford--turned it down, a final rejection that reportedly broke the big guy's heart. But Thomson also said that if it were ever made, Welles will "turn in his grave."
From that front there has been no report. However, F.X. Feeney, who co-wrote the script with Hickenlooper, takes offense at Thomson's slur. "I've always disagreed with Thomson on that. I love the script for its poetic properties. Also, you have to remember that for Welles, the script wasn't the movie, it was more like a charcoal sketch of the movie. If he'd ever gotten to make it, he might have made it much differently."
Hickenlooper obtained the rights to the screenplay in 1992 and, after many a false start and seven different drafts, finally teamed up with L.A. screenwriter-critic Feeney, who was independently interested in the story. The resulting collaboration at least goosed several production groups into putting up the $6.6 million budget for the shoot, and attracted its almost (or used-to-be) A-list cast. Originally intended for theatrical release, it's getting its premiere on the pay channel and will get a later theater release by Sony Classics.
Showtime appears to have walked away from the immediately provocative aspects of the story: Nothing in the marketing plays with the theme of a scandal of a handsome presidential fellow. It also walks aways from the Welles connection. An unsent press release (which Showtime generously faxed on request) emphasized all that, but in the current package the only mention of Welles is in the credits. The movie, pretty much stripped of its context, is simply set to stand or fall on its deftness as a thriller.
Most people who see it will never have heard of, and care little about, the great Orsoni, movie magician, fat-guy genius, champion quitter, mediocre wine hustler and maker at age 24 of probably the world's best movie.
From various secondary sources, it's clear that the original script was indeed a kind of a poetic mess. At one point it's a parody of "Heart of Darkness" with a defeated presidential nominee named Blake Pellarin going up a river in Africa to encounter his old mentor, an ex-senator named Kimball Mennaker, disgraced as a homosexual (the part Welles was to have played). Evidently, there's a great deal of bombastic dialogue between these two. Then, without much dramatic logic, there's a long section in Madrid, where Blake runs into an ex-mistress and makes love to her again, while the old man secretly watches, masturbating.
There's also a blackmail subplot which, in description at least, doesn't seem to fit with the other two, as Blake steals his wife's diamond necklace to make a payoff to keep his secret (the mistress) from being spilled. Meanwhile reporter Cela Brandini is trying to get to the bottom of all this while Blake's demented bodyguard, off on a psycho mission himself, is now trying to kill Mennaker.
This time around, of course, mistresses are hardly the stuff of scandal; indeed, the public may be tired of mistresses.
So of the changes that Hickenlooper and Feeney have made, the most ambitious is to rewire the secret scandal beneath it all. Instead of a long-lost abandoned mistress, the candidate fears exposure of his long-lost brother, presumably killed in Vietnam.
Their point, well reasoned, is that although Welles never made a movie about a specific brother-brother relationship, versions of it can be seen in his films, many of which turned on the disillusion of a younger man (like Joseph Cotton in both "Citizen Kane" and also in the non-Welles directed "Third Man") with a dynamic older man, which the two new screenwriters take as an outgrowth of Welles's tortured relationship with his own older brother, Richard, who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, spent 10 years in a mental institution and was reduced in their prosperous father's will to a one-seventh inheritance. Welles, his biographers report, always seemed like a single child. He never seemed to have a brother. "We tried to move closer to the core issues of Welles's life, to the issues he was afraid to confront directly," says Feeney.
I like that: It means they've thought rigorously about the psychological dimensions of the Welles mind.
Hickenlooper also changes the locale of the story, from Madrid (a city that Welles loved) to St. Louis (a city that Hickenlooper loves). An under-used movie location, that beautiful city, particularly with its cinematically spectacular Gateway Arch, makes a fine backdrop.
You see threads of themes from the original. The journey up the river in Africa has become a journey up the Mississippi, as Blake looks for Kim aboard a floating gay casino. Yes, I did write "floating gay casino," and indeed in the movie there is a floating gay casino, complete with boys in drag doing Carol Channing imitations. I do not think this idea originated with Welles.
Political circumstances are also altered. In the Hickenlooper version, Blake is running for governor of Missouri; he's an independent (Welles's Blake was a liberal) running against a bigot. And though the hero is a kind of bland threat to the establishment, he has been so neutered and so much of Welles's fiery liberalism shorn away that he really represents nothing except good looks.
A couple of the film's real weaknesses clearly date from Welles. One is the reporter, played by Irene Jacob. She appears to be a version of CNN's Christiane Amanpour. She somehow represents the vanished mistress of the original Welles version, and she and Blake finally have a steamy sexual encounter that seems a version of the original. But she also ends up the custodian of the truth, and her decision is sentimentalized in an unbelievable way.
The killer device is the movie's biggest absurdity. Lacking a stalking shooter, the movie has no suspense engine; it's just about people talking too much in dialogue too orotund. But it sets up a frankly ridiculous ending--a big shooting and stabbing frenzy in the last few seconds, done without a two-thousandth of the wit that Welles brought to his most famous sequence, the shootout in the fun house in "The Lady From Shanghai."
Its best thing is the performance of Nigel Hawthorne in the Wellesian role of Mennaker. It's not an imitation, but nevertheless in Hawthorne's rolling cadences and wit and slyness, the twinkle in his eye, you get a true sense of Welles's on-screen charisma. Only a great actor could accomplish that, and Hawthorne doesn't make you want to see the original; he makes you want to see more of Nigel Hawthorne. (Suggestion: Rent "The Madness of King George.")
So what does this prove? That Orson Welles is a better film director than George Hickenlooper? Well, duh. The truth is, taken on its own, "The Big Brass Ring" is quite an engrossing two hours in front of the tube. If you love Welles or not, the movie stands on its own.