The Battle over the extra discs on the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Orson Welles’s CITIZEN KANE
When Welles didn't work, he drank, bragged, ran through women, ate like a beast and hated himself. He'd eat supper at his dressing table--two steaks, each with a baked potato; an entire pineapple; triple pistachio ice cream; and a bottle of Scotch. Appetite drove him. Applause wasn't enough. He wanted amazement, the gasp of a common crowd.
---From the narration of The Battle Over Citizen Kane
The Battle Over Citizen Kane is factually misleading... A mean-spirited and profoundly distorted view of who Welles was and what he did.
---Ronald Gottesman, editor of Focus on Citizen Kane
This whole attempt to connect his life with William Randolph Hearst and imply they're similar is nonsense.
---Henry Jaglom, film director
What's wrong with the film is that, in its zeal to show a parallel between Hearst and Welles, it overlooks (the fact) that there are enormous differences between the two and it makes certain statements about Hearst and Welles that seem to be dubious.
---James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles
With the arrival of the 70th Anniversary edition of Citizen Kane, I watched The Battle Over Citizen Kane for the first time since it's 1996 debut on PBS and I once again found it to be a "profoundly distorted documentary" on both Orson Welles, and probably William Randolph Hearst, as well. Welles may have "ate like a beast" but to suggest he "hated himself" has got to be one of the stupidest things I've ever heard about the man. Here is another choice bit of misleading narration from this supposed "documentary":
"Welles was a young man who courted danger. That was always an element of his success. In the theater, he demanded magic. Characters had to appear from nowhere, or levitate into the sky. Actors were at risk. There were broken bones, fistfights. He liked the reflection of light on a real dagger, but one night he ran a fellow actor through, severed an artery and almost killed him. It was a risky way to live even when it did work and audiences cheered. When they didn't love Welles or his shows, that was worse."
Welles may indeed have asked a lot from his actors, but to imply that they were at risk, is at best, a highly debatable contention. The implied suggestion that Welles as Brutus, deliberately stabbed Joseph Holland as Julius Caesar, rather than accidentally, is quite preposterous and more akin to the kind of yellow journalism Mr. Hearst liked to report about in his newspapers.
Though what is truly objectionable about the inclusion of The Battle Over Citizen Kane and the even more ridiculous RKO 281 as the two extra discs in the Citizen Kane "Ultimate Collector's Edition" is their tone. Given the kind of puff-piece promotional material studios normally include as extras on their DVD's it boggles the mind that such misguided extras would appear alongside Citizen Kane, long regarded as "the greatest film ever made." It is almost a replay of having the screenplay for Citizen Kane published alongside the now completely discredited essay by Pauline Kael in The Citizen Kane Book in 1971. In contrast, when Criterion released Citizen Kane as a 3 laserdisc set it included interviews with over 30 prominent directors and other people influenced or associated with Citizen Kane, who were all full of praise for Welles and his work. Just imagine if Warner Bros. decided to release such a questionable documentary as The Battle for Citizen Kane and a dubious fictional film in their recent box set devoted to Stanley Kubrick! I'm sure the Kubrick Estate would never have allowed such gross misrepresentations to occur.
Of course, Orson Welles was no saint and he did have a very large ego, but as the Welles scholars quoted above duly note, both extra discs hardly present us with a fair or balanced portrait of the man, since The Battle Over Citizen Kane is clearly determined to somehow make Welles life fit into a mirror image of the career of William Randolph Hearst. One can easily see why Robert Carringer, who wrote The Making of Citizen Kane and served as a consultant on the film, asked that his name be removed from the credits, as they clearly paid no attention to any of his advice!
The final narration of the film recounts the same old sad and tired Welles story we've all heard many times before. It was all downhill for the boy genius after Citizen Kane, although anyone who knows even the slightest about Welles's later career and such big-budget cinema classics as Falstaff, The Trial or Touch of Evil, could never possibly write such an error-filled passage as this one:
"In latter years, Welles was a vagabond, trying to patch together his low-budget films. He begged or borrowed from everyone he knew, including $250,000. from an old pal, Charlie Lederer, Marion Davies' nephew. The money came from her estate. Welles never paid it back. He'd do bit parts for money--ads for airlines or Paul Masson wine--between fits of temper at the journeymen filmmakers or junior execs who were now directing him. Sometimes he was so overweight he had to be ferried about in a wheelchair. He hated the fat man jokes. He hated it worse when people asked him what had he done with himself after Kane."
As for that even more awful "fictional" portrait of Welles, RKO 281, I will let Peter Bodanovich's comments about its many flaws tell the story:
LAWRENCE FRENCH: RKO 281 lost me right at the start, because in the very first scene they show Orson Welles at San Simeon and everybody knows that Welles was never at Hearst Castle.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Actually, most people don't know that. Most people haven't even seen Citizen Kane! But for anybody who knows anything about Orson Welles, it's quite clear that he was never at San Simeon and he didn't know Hearst. To be candid, I thought that movie bore very little relationship to the Orson Welles that I knew, or to any of the facts that I knew. It was so filled with errors, that it was painful to observe!
All of that was clearly spelled out in my book, This is Orson Welles. Also, Orson didn't base Citizen Kane on Hearst alone, but there was another press lord from Chicago, Colonel Robert McCormick, who had an opera house built for his girlfriend, who was a singer. So that whole aspect of Citizen Kane comes from McCormick, but people incorrectly assumed that it was Hearst, because they were spun to believe that by Louella Parsons.
Louella was pissed off because she had been on the set of Citizen Kane and wrote a lot in her column about Orson and the wonderful movie he was making, and then ironically, Hedda Hopper found out that part of the movie was based on Hearst—the part about the Spanish-American War—but not Rosebud, and not Susan Alexander Kane or the political scandal. So Orson always said he though it was Louella and the people around Hearst who made such an issue out of Citizen Kane. Particularly Louella, because she had been scooped by her arch-rival, Hedda Hopper. It was Hedda who blew the whistle and said that Citizen Kane was based on William Randolph Hearst, after Louella had been on the set and been friendly to Orson.
As Peter Bogdanovich pointed out to me, most people apparently really don't know much about Welles career, including Citizen Kane. Looking at some of the internet reviews on the new Citizen Kane set, I was astonished to see one site rate the film at 8 (out of 10) and the extras at 9.5!
After the break is the complete article by Cathy Dunkley from the 1996 Hollywood Reporter that first reported on the distortions contained in The Battle Over Citizen Kane:
RAISING 'KANE' OVER PBS DOCUMENTARY: SCHOLARS BLAST FILM AS "MEAN-SPIRITED AND PROFOUNDLY DISTORTED"
By Cathy Dunkley
The Hollywood Reporter - March 29, 1996
Just as the rights to the PBS documentary "The Battle Over Citizen Kane," have been optioned by Ridley Scott's production company Scott Free which will form the basis for a new feature (HR 3/22), a controversy has broken out among Orson Welles scholars over the veracity of the Oscar-nominated documentary--including some of those who were interviewed during the making of the film.
In a recent letter to the Los Angeles Times, Ronald Gottesman, a UCLA Welles scholar who edited "Perspectives on Citizen Kane," lambasted the documentary for what he called "a mean-spirited and profoundly distorted view of who Welles was and what he did."
While Gottesman praised the footage in the documentary and singled out its "sometimes illuminating interviews," he said it was "factually misleading" and left him "sadder but not wiser."
That view was echoed by Welles' friend and admirer, director Henry Jaglom. "Orson predicted that this was going to happen," he said of the reinterpretation of Welles' life and work. "This whole attempt to connect his life with (publishing tycoon William Randolph) Hearst and imply they're similar is nonsense."
"Kane," Welles' masterpiece, was a thinly veiled biography of Hearst that satirized his relationship with actress Marion Davies. The documentary, produced by Tom Lennon and Michael Epstein, and written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer and co-written by Tom Lennon, focuses on the titanic battle between art and commerce that erupted during the making of "Kane" and takes the view that, not only was Kane a portrait of Hearst, but also of Welles himself at that time in his career.
Bob Carringer (author of "The Making of Citizen Kane"), who served as a consultant on the project but felt the final result was not balanced, subsequently withdrew his name from the credits.
And Prof. James Naremore (author of "The Magic World of Orson Welles"), another adviser on the documentary, said, "What's wrong with the film is that, in its zeal to show a parallel between Hearst and Welles, it overlooks (the fact) that there are enormous differences between the two and it makes certain statements about Hearst and Welles that seem to be dubious."
Adds Naremore: "The film emphasizes Welles' eccentricity at the price of his importance as an artist. It gives the feeling Welles made 'Citizen Kane' and after that nothing else was of any importance."
"Battle" producer Michael Epstein however defended his work. "I don't think it is a mean-spirited portrait of Welles," he said. "Part of the tragedy of Welles' life was that he had a darker side. We did not want to create a Pollyanna portrait of who he was. Our film was about his life and work up to 1942. It was not to cast a judgment on what came later. Both men sought to bestride the world in enormous ways, but in the end Hearst had his publishing empire behind him and Welles had only Welles."
He added, "I think in some ways (the criticisms) are an unfortunate misreading of our film. It's difficult to hear, but it's expected. I would be more upset if someone were attacking the veracity of our research."
Epstein continues to be supported by several other Welles cognoscenti who worked on the documentary, including Richard France, a historical advisor on the project; Bill Alland, who played the reporter Thompson in "Citizen Kane" and was also an intimate of Welles' from the time Welles worked with his theater group, the Mercury Theater; Time magazine's Richard Corliss and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.
France, author of the "The Theater of Orson Welles" published in 1977 by Bucknell University Press, considered the standard book on Welles' career up to the time he leaves for Hollywood - said in the program's defense, "I think his career as a Hollywood filmmaker was essentially over after "Citizen Kane," it was the last time he had complete freedom. Orson Welles based upon the work I've done was not somebody designed to work in a commercial venue - if you examine the context of his incredible work in the 1930s when he was working for the federal theater project - he had enormous amounts of time to bring his ideas to full fruition - which is a luxury in a commercial venue - he lost the financial freedom and time he needed to develop a project. But as an independent filmmaker he flourished and he is probably still the role model for every maverick filmmaker that followed him."
France also dismissed other advisors criticisms of the project as "just academic cocking" adding: "If Jim Naremore has a problem with the documentary he should've taken his name off of it."
France also criticized the Welles' estate and the payment of $200,000 which it demanded from the documentary's producers for access to footage and research material for the program.
In addition to France, Judy Crichton, executive producer of "The American Experience," which commissioned the documentary for PBS said: 'The American Experience' is not an encyclopedia, we do not try to cover everything about an event or a human being when we make a program. This was the story of the battle between two extraordinary Americans, Hearst and Welles, over the making of one of the most remarkable films that has ever been produced. That's what we commissioned the producers to do, and that's what they did extraordinarily well."
Crichton also defended the premise of the film. "There is nothing in the documentary that diminishes Welles' genius," she said. "The whole point of the film is how extraordinary this man was from the time that he was a child, and, like in all good dramas, you develop the protagonist. Welles at this time in his life was William Randolph Hearst."
But Jaglom and others remain emphatic. "The biggest crime of the film is to imply that this was the high point of his career," he said. "(But) Orson went on to have an extraordinarily prolific career -- which ranges from 'The Magnificent Ambersons' to 'Lady from Shanghai,' 'The Trial,' 'Othello,' 'Touch of Evil,' 'Chimes at Midnight,' 'F For Fake' and 'It's All True.' The film is libelous to his career because it makes it seem Welles was merely a one-shot filmmaker.