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Is RKO at Last Making Its Amends?

Orson Welles wasn't alone in thinking that the studio made a shambles of 'Magnificent Ambersons.' Now it will shoot his original script as a TV drama.

March 12, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

It has been called one of Hollywood's great tragedies, a testament to the studio system's disdain for true cinematic artistry.

Fresh on the heels of his 1941 masterpiece "Citizen Kane," young director Orson Welles set to work on his next project, "The Magnificent Ambersons," an RKO Pictures turn-of-the-century drama filmed in black-and-white about a prosperous Midwestern family whose fortunes decline with the arrival of the automobile and changing economic times.

Had it turned out differently, some believe, "The Magnificent Ambersons" might well have rivaled "Citizen Kane" in brilliance, but it was not to be.

While Welles was in South America working on another project, RKO's bosses, alarmed by the largely negative response from a rowdy preview audience, ordered the film re-cut, adding new scenes written and shot by others. Although the final version is, in many respects, visually striking, the alterations make the film seem disconnected and choppy and the ending oddly optimistic. The studio later destroyed the extracted footage.

Now Oscar-nominated director Herbert Ross ("The Turning Point"), veteran producer Gene Kirkwood, an Italian production company that wants to establish itself in American entertainment and a reborn RKO are about to answer the lingering question, "What if?"

They have dug into the RKO archives and pulled out Welles' original 165-page screenplay and will begin principal photography in Ireland this summer on a four-hour television drama of "The Magnificent Ambersons."

"It's a wonderful screenplay," Ross said. "Orson was a genius, [but] I don't think Orson ever got to make the movie he had in his mind--and we certainly never got to see the movie he had in his mind."

Ross said, however, that he has no plans to make a shot-by-shot remake, as Universal Pictures did in 1998 when it remade Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic, "Psycho."

"I think that's pretty defeating for a director," Ross said. "Since [Welles] did so well, why reproduce faces frame by frame? It doesn't make sense."

Ross said that in addition to the film's being a "sort of homage to Welles," he wants to "realize the material as I believe he would have wanted to."

Ross said he not only wants to restore some of the scenes cut from Welles' film, but he also wants to tap more fully into the book upon which the film was based, Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1918 novel. He hopes to expand, for example, on the Oedipal complex inherent in the relationship between mother and son in Welles' film. One other major difference: Ross' film will be shot in color.

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The project might never have gotten off the ground had it not been for Kirkwood, a colorful Bronx-born filmmaker who spent his early career as an actor, palling around with yet-to-be-discovered talents like Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel.

Kirkwood said he ran across "The Magnificent Ambersons" about 10 years ago when he was searching the RKO library.

"I was going through all their great writers, from Dalton Trumbo to [Clifford] Odets to [William] Faulkner. I remember reading it in the office and then, driving home, I had to pull over to the side of the road and finish the script. I really loved it. Maybe it was the magic of reading Orson, but when you read scripts today, you just don't read that type of dialogue."

The producer knew he needed a financier willing to put up sufficient cash for a script requiring nearly 50 speaking parts and a 12-week shooting schedule.

Kirkwood, who executive-produced Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" and co-produced such films as "Ironweed" and "Gorky Park," eventually found his financier in Guido DeAngelis, who, with his brother Maurizio, owns a Rome-based production company called the DeAngelis Group. The firm has been around for about 16 years, producing television programming in Europe.

"[Guido] said, 'What do you need to make it?' " Kirkwood recalled. "I said, 'About $12 million.' And they put it up." Kirkwood and his partner, Norman Stephens, will produce the miniseries; DeAngelis and Ted Hartley, chairman and CEO of RKO Pictures Inc., will be executive producers. Casting is underway.

Hartley said the project is being bankrolled by Europeans because it was deemed too risky by U.S. distributors.

"The American cable and television networks were afraid to tackle Orson Welles," Hartley said. "They said, 'I don't think we want to touch this. It's too controversial. We don't want to be criticized.'

"What we are doing is not taking Orson Welles the director and redoing him; we are taking Orson Welles the screenwriter and the great, wonderful [Tarkington] novel and bringing a great story of that period to modern sensibilities," Hartley said.

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