Thursday » January 10 » 2002
Like Orson Welles original, controversy dogs Magnificent Ambersons TV remake
Wednesday, January 09, 2002
TORONTO (CP) - It's the stuff of Hollywood legend. In 1942, film boy genius Orson Welles tried to bounce back from the controversy surrounding his unrecognized debut masterpiece Citizen Kane with a screen version of The Magnificent Ambersons.
Like Kane, Booth Tarkington's 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel told of how the 20th century brought about the downfall of a self-made American aristocrat, in this case the head of a wealthy midwestern family called the Ambersons.
Although as stylish and innovative as Kane, Ambersons has languished in second place in Welles' belatedly honoured oeuvre, largely because the project was taken away from him by RKO, cut from 131 to 88 minutes, and had a different upbeat ending tacked on.
It was the seminal moment in Welles' own creative downfall.
Now A&E has embarked on a lavish, three-hour TV remake to air next week, and it, too, has become mired in controversy.
It began with Mexican director Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate, A Walk in the Clouds), accused by his leading lady Madeleine Stowe of botching it. Stowe was quoted by the Calgary Sun's Louis B. Hobson as saying Arau created a "disaster" with his determination to focus blatantly on the incest that is only hinted at in the original book and the Welles screenplay.
"It breaks my heart that we didn't do the material justice," she told Hobson.
The remarks have stunned veteran TV producer Norman Stephens, who says he had no idea Stowe was so disillusioned by the filmed-in-Ireland project.
"I don't think anybody can say that the film is a disaster," Stephens said in a telephone interview from New York. "I've been in the television movie business for 20 years. I can tell you what a disaster looks like. This is not in that category at all. I'm certainly sorry to hear that she felt that way. It was not evident to those of us who were there."
But if Stephens expected Stowe's co-star, Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days), to rally to the project's defence, he would be equally disappointed.
Reached by phone in Vancouver, Greenwood offered nothing but silence when asked about Stowe's criticism.
"Next question," is all he would say when pressed.
Asked for his own opinion of the film's outcome, his only reply was a terse: "Haven't seen it."
Persistent attempts to get him to open up were greeted with more lengthy bouts of dead air on the line.
But was it an intimidating experience, trying to remake what is now regarded as a Welles classic, albeit a flawed one?
"Yes, of course," Greenwood said guardedly. "You try and remake Welles, you better hope you're going to do something as innovative as he was when he did it. Because if you don't, there's not much point."
In the story, spoiled heir Georgie Amberson Minafer is furious over the growing romance between his widowed and ailing mother Isabel and Eugene Morgan, her one-time childhood sweetheart and now a nouveau-riche automobile pioneer.
He scuttles their rekindled love in an Oedipal-fuelled fit that is, admittedly, more obvious in Arau's reworked vision. Greenwood concedes, though, that the complex four-way relationship (Georgie is also fond of Morgan's pretty daughter Lucy) was beautifully depicted by Tarkington himself, an author he says he was raised on.
"On some levels, it's almost a shame to have ever made a movie out of it. Because the book is so good."
Greenwood had never seen the Welles screen version, but took a look prior to assuming the Eugene Morgan role first played by Joseph Cotten.
"I looked at it much more for Welles' visual style," he said. "But it's also difficult to ignore Cotten because he was so great."
Then, the actor says, he tried to put Cotten out of his mind because he realized he would have to do something else with the Eugene character.
Although much of the new version painstakingly mirrors the source material, neither Greenwood nor Stephens can point to which of the fresh scenes - the TV movie runs about 140 minutes - are replications of the 40 minutes or so of excised Welles footage that is presumably lost forever.
Stephens insists it's a new vision of a classic, not just a remake, but admits friends in Hollywood told him he was out of his mind to attempt it.
"In private moments, we sort of hope that Orson Welles is smiling at us. He might be a little pissed off at us, but that's OK, too."
Some quotes from those involved in the upcoming A&E TV remake of The Magnificent Ambersons, the Orson Welles classic based on the Booth Tarkington novel:
"We certainly haven't done a terrible job. . .you can't look at that movie and say that this is a creative television-movie disaster on any level." - producer Norman Stephens on criticisms by actress Madeleine Stowe that it was a botched production.
"It's a remake. You can't help but it be a remake. I mean it almost doesn't matter how original your vision is. If you're working with a script that's the same script, it's going to be a remake." - star, Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood.
"It's certainly a lamentation over the way progress inhales things of beauty and belches out ugliness in its wake, while at the same time goes towards something higher." - Greenwood on the fin-de-siecle backdrop of the Amberson family's downfall.
"I was just really happy to get a part that didn't require me wearing a Spandex dress or a little tiny bikini." - actress Jennifer Tilly, cast against type as fussy, homely spinster Aunt Fanny.
"I just updated the real problem with the Ambersons, which is totally an Oedipus and Electra complex. It's almost Freudian." - director Alfonso Arau on the story's love affair gone wrong.
"A gift from God. . .such a talented person." - Stephens on Bruce Greenwood.
"They destroyed Ambersons. . .and it destroyed me." - Orson Welles on disowning the film after RKO took control of the final version away from him.
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