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No. 8: “Citizen Kane” (1941)

“You can’t buy a bag of peanuts in this town without someone writing a song about you.”  ~~Charles Foster Kane

There’s a laundry list of reasons why Orson Welles’ sweeping character study “Citizen Kane” consistently ranks high — or at the tip top — on any Best Films Ever Made in the History of the World list. Cinematography, use of makeup, bold subject matter (biopic of a living, highly visible public figure), music, special effects, that punch-you-in-the-neck twist ending — all there, all faultless, all revolutionary. And though these qualities certainly contribute to the film’s greatness, what matters most, what makes “Citizen Kane” such a timeless stunner, is Orson Welles. He fills up every frame of the movie with his energy, his nerve, his presence and his passion. 

What Welles does so well, first and foremost, is create a vivid, flawed protagonist — the ultimate antihero — and populate his world with the people who believe they know him but, in the end, know even less about him than we do. That protagonist, of course, is Charles Foster Kane (Welles), an ultra-rich media mogul with a penchant for quotable observations and huge impulse buys, including the New York Inquirer (which he buys because he thinks “it would be fun to run a newspaper”). In fact, much of his Kane’s direction is determined by his whims and the way these wild fancies damage the people around him. He trades his first wife Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick) for a much-younger wannabe opera star Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingmore). His ability to consolidate power by manipulating people, the force of Charles Foster Kane, lays waste to his marriages and frays his friendships beyond repair. “You only want want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules,” his best friend Jedediah (Joseph Cotten) rages at him. How right he is.

This in itself would be a richly textured and fascinating film, but Welles, operating under the “more is more, and more is always better” philosophy, takes it a step further with the frame story: Kane, that larger-than-life figure, has died holed up a recluse in Xanadu, his sprawling, opulate and empty estate. The story becomes an international sensation, with reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) digging into Kane’s background and private life to discover his secrets, including the meaning of “rosebud,” his last word before dying. His interviews with Kane’s associates, including his business manager (Everett Sloane) and Jedediah Leland, reveal a man more interested in creating his own myth than using his wealth to become a spokesman for the common man. When he doles out his money or his affection, he expects to direct and control its flow, to rule unquestioned. What we learn in the final scene — Welles dubbed it “a gimmick”; that’s the understatement of the Aztec calendar — barely softens Kane’s razor edge.

It’s possible that this is precisely what Welles wants: to control us the way Charles Foster Kane attempts to control everyone around him. Yes, control defines “Citizen Kane,” makes the film a true work of art. Welles does, after all, make us wait and wonder about the tidbits we hear about Kane; he paints us a portrait of him as one way, then flips the canvas to show another side. There’s always a line we missed, something in the background that slipped right past while we sat, stunned, all wrapped up in Kane’s filibustering or awed by his swaggering presence. The control Welles exerts over his audience — which reveals itself oh so suddenly in the final scene — is mind-blowing. There’s just no other word for it.

Manipulation aside, the performances here cement the movie’s initial promise. There are no small parts, no throwaway characters. Cotten brilliantly shows the raw nerves exposed by years of badgering, the long, then sudden end of a dear friendship. Cotten in particular is a walking, oozing wound, so damaged by her husband’s bullying nature she’s a shell soaked in booze. But Welles … well, “Citizen Kane” revolves around his magnificent, destructive presence. He’s such a total force of nature that resistance is useless. But with a film this good? Surrendering to the storm is sweet, indeed.

10 great antiheroes

citizen_kane

Charles Foster Kane proves money and good intentions do not a hero make.

There’s nothing I love more than a really sneaky, unpredictable, hateful and delightfully ee-viyill* villain. Unless we’re talking about antiheroes. And if we are, well, that’s a horse — or should I say jackass? — of an entirely different color.

Few things are more intriguing than characters who do that wavering, drunken dance on the line between good and bad and seem to stumble onto both sides equally at random. Those are the people, the warts-and-all sorts, we root for because they are human in their imperfections. They are us, and us real-life dwellers can’t seem to resist seeing a bit of ourselves magnified and flung up on the silver screen.

Here’s a list of 10 antiheroes who’ve made me laugh, cry and feel guilty about liking them (just a tiny bit):

1. Charles Foster Kane, “Citizen Kane” — There are many who would argue that Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is most certainly a champion of the common man. Look again. Whatever good Kane achieves, there’s always an ulterior motive lurking in the corner: greed, the desire for control, arrogance. His ability to wrap these flaws in the cloak of good intentions makes him the quintessential, iconic antihero.

2. Alex, “A Clockwork Orange” — C.F. Kane may be an antihero for the ages, but Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the focus of Stanley Kubrick’s highly disturbing “A Clockwork Orange,” is nipping right at his heels. Or pointing a gun to the back of his head, more like. A rakehell who swigs drugged milk and patrols the streets of futuristic Britain raping women and revelling in mayhem — what’s to like about a guy like this? Alex has a few redeeming qualities that nudge him away from “villain,” but not so many that they make him good. He’s an antihero for the annals.

opposofsex2

There are nicer people than Dee Dee -- we call them "losers."

3. Dee Dee Truitt, “The Opposite of Sex” — When a narrator describes her mother as “a loser bitch” and seduces her gay brother’s boy toy, you know you’re not in for a heart-warming tale. Savage wit, anything-but-good intentions and snarky condescension are all we get from the unflappable Dee Dee Truitt (Christina Ricci), one of the pluckiest, snidest and most irresistible characters ever created.

4. Rob Gordon, “High Fidelity” — What can you say about a bitter, broke leading man (John Cusack) so self-absorbed he’d rather stew about failed relationships than pay attention to the woman who loves him? It wouldn’t be incorrect to use words like “conceited jerk” or even “rampaging jackass” to describe Rob, a record store owner who elevates wallowing in self pity into an art. He’s not a nice guy, or even a halfway decent one, but that’s exactly why he’s such a compelling character.

5. Lester Burnham, “American Beauty” — Kevin Spacey has made a great and acclaimed career out of playing himself playing people who, uh, seem a whole lot like Kevin Spacey. Lester Burnham, a lumpish, discontent and disengaged spectator in his own life, is no exception, but he is one of the sharpest characters Spacey’s put his sarcastic stamp on. When Lester finally jolts out of his coma, we’re cheering his efforts to embrace life. Or least buy a dime bag.

5. Danny Balint, “The Believer” — “Conflicted” hardly begins to describe Danny (Ryan Gosling, fearless in his quest to take difficult parts), a violent young man who turns on his Jewish upbringing to become a fiercely antisemitic KKK member. And herein lies the contradiction: Brutish as he is, Danny’s also an educated man capable of kindness and intelligent, rational thought. It’s hard to like a character like this, but it’s equally as hard not to find him truly fascinating. 

Good and bad do battle in Gerd Wiesler.

Good and bad do battle in Gerd Wiesler.

6. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, “The Lives of Others” — Nations that call themselves “Democratic Republics” tend to be anything but, so it seems that a man (Ulrich Mühe) who rises through the ranks of the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s secret police, would qualify as a villain. But the rigid, grim Gerd Wiesler finds humanity in the couple he’s ordered to survail, and soon his own humanity emerges.

7. Ray Elwood, “Buffalo Soldiers” — It’s no secret I’m mad for Joaquin Phoenix in most anything, but resistance is futile when he plays men like the manipulative, shrewd and morally flexible Ray Elwood, who tolerates other people only as long as he can use them for something. He’s a real cad, to be sure, though there are moments where flashes of real feeling peek through, and those keep us coming back for more.

8. Sherry, “SherryBaby” — As a rule Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t sign on for parts that have less than 37 layers of complexity, but she outdoes herself here as Sherry, a fresh-out-of-prison ex-heroin addict working to get custody of the daughter she hasn’t seen in years. She’s rude, immature, brash, selfish and confrontational, and her love for her daughter is tainted by a sense of entitlement — Sherry’s hardly her child’s beacon of hope. Yet we cannot write her off because she sees herself clearly and tries, in her small way, to change. That’s my kind of woman: a real one.

The only thing Bernie's good at? Losing. Hard.

The only thing Bernie's good at? Losing. Hard.

9. Bernie Lootz, “The Cooler” — Look up synonyms for “pathetic” in Merriam-Webster and you’ll likely find photos of Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) beside every single word. He’s unlucky to a fault, and what’s worse is that his bad luck is contagious — so much so that casino bosses use him to “cool off” gamblers on a hot streak. Yikes. There are many moments where you wonder what there is to like about this wimpy, hapless sadsack, but it all boils down to Macy, who plays Bernie as a man who accepts his faults and means well. Sometimes, that’s enough. 

10. Dawn Weiner, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” — Todd Solondz doesn’t really people his movies with “happy,” or even marginally cheery, characters, but Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) may be a new low even for the guy who made “Happiness.” Dawn’s a clueless nerd, the target of frequent and vicious bullying, which might endear her to us if she weren’t so dismally dull, whiny and downright cruel. She’s the girl you feel sorry for, No. 3 on this list might say, “but in real life you wouldn’t be sitting next to her either.”

 
*Hedley Lamar-approved pronunciation
Honorable mentions: Luke (“Cool Hand Luke”); Miles (“Sideways”); Jim McAllister (“Election”); Ruth (“Citizen Ruth”)