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Television : Struggles of an Epic Nature : Making 'Citizen Kane' brought on a legendary battle between Hearst and Welles. Revisiting that fight for 'RKO 281' was no easy matter either.

September 05, 1999|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a London-based writer and frequent contributor to Calendar

LONDON — It's not often that the Victoria & Albert Museum, a magnificent 19th century building housing the world's greatest collection of decorative art, gets to stand in for 20th century California. But on this occasion it's the site for a replay of a crucial moment in Hollywood history.

The museum's imposing, high-ceilinged Gamble Room has been dressed and transformed for a film, and at first sight looks mighty imposing. Period furniture, wall-hangings, works of art and objets d'art are carefully placed to suggest a very grand residence indeed.

It's only when you look carefully that the illusion falls apart. All the artifacts in the room are in different styles, from various places and stages of history, and they sit awkwardly together under the same roof.

If this sounds faintly familiar, it should, especially if you've ever driven north from Los Angeles on Highway 1 and stopped at San Simeon to see Hearst Castle. The opulent home of publisher William Randolph Hearst combines walls, ceilings and floors from European churches with Moorish tiles and Gothic fireplaces. Medieval tapestries and Greek vases adorn many of its rooms.

Now the whole mishmash has been re-created here--not just at the V&A (to give the museum its familiar title) but at St. Pancras railway station, a city center hotel, and the historic 15th century Guildhall, still the seat of London's local government. "San Simeon is rather eclectic," says production designer Maria Djurkovic diplomatically, "so for our purposes it's a composite of real places." Given the wildly contrasting styles to be found in Hearst Castle, it's an appropriate decision.

Why is San Simeon being re-created? Because of Hearst's opposition to "Citizen Kane," the astonishing 1941 film debut by Orson Welles that was a thinly veiled biography of the newspaper magnate. He was particularly displeased when he learned of the film's unflattering depiction of his real-life mistress, actress Marion Davies.

Hearst threatened the studio, RKO, with a massive lawsuit if it released "Citizen Kane" and reportedly discussed with other studio bosses the possibility of buying the film in order to suppress it--using as leverage the threat of exposing the private lives of Hollywood top brass in his newspapers if Welles' film was ever released.

This unsavory episode in Hollywood history is the story of HBO's "RKO 281," which will premiere Nov. 20. (The title refers to the studio's code name for "Citizen Kane.") It was crucial to re-create Hearst Castle for "RKO 281;" in Welles' masterpiece it was represented as the almost mythical Xanadu.

Liev Schreiber plays the flamboyant genius Welles, who was only 24 at the time of these events. John Malkovich plays Herman Mankiewicz, who with Welles wrote the "Citizen Kane" screenplay. Roy Scheider plays George Schaefer, who ran RKO studios at the time. James Cromwell plays the despotic Hearst, and Melanie Griffith is Marion Davies.

Why is it happening now? Partly because of a documentary, "The Battle Over Citizen Kane," which was nominated for an Oscar three years ago. When director Ridley Scott saw it--according to Diane Minter Lewis, president of his production company, Scott Free, and also an executive producer of the film--"he said this is a feature film."

Scott immediately began looking around for a writer and fixed upon John Logan, a Chicago-based playwright. He then shopped "RKO 281" around studios, hoping for a feature deal. But the project looked expensive, and Scott could not get a studio to commit.

Finally he decided not to try.

"I could do the film with a studio for in the high 30s [millions of dollars]," he said. "But honestly, it would have involved too much negotiation. HBO was interested. I thought, it's better to do this with another director at a lower budget. Because I do like a big canvas."

"[An HBO executive] had been tracking the script, and when it became apparent that no studio was going to do it, his persistence paid off," said John Matoian, former president of HBO Pictures, during whose tenure the project began. "It was a handshake deal, but we said: This is a film we want to make.

"Ridley, to his credit, then got some serious [studio] interest, but said, 'You guys stepped up, and we're going to make it with you.' "

At one point Scott was also set to direct "RKO 281," but he is now executive producer. (As the HBO film went into production, Scott was directing "Gladiator" for DreamWorks and Universal on the Mediterranean island of Malta.) He chose Englishman Ben Ross, who in 1995 made a well-regarded art-house movie, "The Young Poisoner's Handbook," to direct "RKO 281."

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