12 July 2003 | tostinati
Better than Cradle Will Rock. --But What's That Saying?
Hate to say this, though I do, I think audiences have at last become too sophisticated for docudramas and film biographies of people who lived since the very late 19th and early 20th century, which we might term The Recorded Age. This is so very largely because a plethora of documentaries that are rich feasts of real visual source material and oral history appear every single day on cable TV. It is hard to watch anyone impersonating a figure who has been extensively recorded. I could buy Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur or Emile Zola. But I didn't buy Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman or Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. The technical aspects of impersonation are too much in the fore front of my mind as I watch, because I know too intimately, almost second nature, what the subject's style and physical presence are like. This will more often than not prove to be the case. Who can impersonate Lucille Ball or Clark Gable or Orson Welles once you have been media-saturated by the real thing? Or put another way, in this age, when we learn every facial tic and pattern of breath of really big personalities, how could an impersonator HOPE to make the original subject of a docudrama or film bio come fully to life? Because of the omnipresence of modern media, I think they are doomed to fail.
Where RKO 281 succeeds --dramatically, at least, if not in terms of history-- is in giving us portraits of people who, famous though they are, have not been over-recorded, and exist more as legend or enigmas, as part of an oral tradition, than as flesh and blood people. John Malkovich's Herman Mankiewicz works beautifully because we have seen a couple of photos of the man, and have heard a lot ABOUT him, without actually having heard the man himself. Malkovich gets behind this character to a rare degree. Perhaps he identified with this three times burned out alcoholic ghost in the Hollywood machine who can walk the razor's edge because he has nothing to look forward to, and nothing to lose. And James Cromwell's playing of Hearst feels like a revelation. His Hearst is not a voluble man. In fact, he is reticent, almost withdrawn. He takes care of business, but his personality is dry and interiorized in the extreme, and he is slow to rise to comment about anything. Whether these people were really this way is another question. But while the drama is on the screen, you buy it. These roles work. (Melanie Griffith's Marion Davies is a woman child/simpleton. I still don't know what to make of that interpretation.) Liev Schreiber is serviceable, as they used to say, as Orson Welles. But truthfully, his portrayal is more than 'okay' only if you are in an especially easy frame of mind coming to the film.
Early in RKO 281 there is a mock newsreel of Welles' arrival in Hollywood of the sort that opened Citizen Kane. The contrast between the care used in recreating a newsreel in the original film, and the amateurish sloppiness of this one is telling. We are good at using computers to create fantasy worlds of mythic cartoon figures. You'd think we would be able to do unprecedented things --like dead-on copying the style of a 60 year old newsreel-- if we gave it even half a try. For whatever reason (budget?) this just doesn't seem to be the case. I have seen as convincing mock-ups of old broadcasts or news film in a throw-away sketch on Saturday Night Live. I overlooked Schreiber's bizarre failed period hair that screamed out FAKE! in this mock newsreel. But, as I say, only because I wanted to watch the film. I had to start cutting it some slack in the first couple of minutes. Bad sign.