For a mere $1,200,000 you could own an Academy Award from 1941. On Tuesday 11th December 2007 Sotheby’s New York will be auctioning none other than Orson Welles’s Best Screenplay statuette for Citizen Kane, the only Oscar he ever received. One of the most iconic pieces of memorabilia ever to come to auction, it is now conversely famous for not being a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar, often regarded as a tragic ‘mistake’ by the Academy and as one of many injustices in Welles’ career.
Of course it is not a mistake at all for the Academy to make such decisions. The Oscars are often criticised for choosing a ‘lesser’ film over a ‘greater’ one – Ordinary People (1980) instead of Raging Bull (1980) is often rolled out as an example – but any movie fan would be supremely naive to believe that they are judging the Best Picture category using the same criteria as the Academy. Movie fans are often solely referring to aesthetics: form, performance, narrative, style, whereas Academy decisions are often determined by political or financial factors, leading to the Academy’s voting to reveal a set of brand values. Films that appear to push boundaries, such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) or Crash (2004), are ultimately bound by a set of aesthetics that constrain the scope of the writing and visual style, which in turn constrains the social comment.
Best Picture awards for expensive epics that appear to be rewarding aesthetics are more likely recognising financial gain (Gone With the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), Titanic (1997), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)). Off-screen Citizen Kane had already caused highly publicised difficulties with the powerful William Randolph Hearst, and on-screen it was an audacious, young movie with a fresh visual style that revealed a rebellious spirit. The Academy values are not always easily visible, leading filmgoers to resent the lack of Best Picture Oscars for films such as Citizen Kane or Raging Bull.
The Best Screenplay statuette has also become an icon of a long-standing authorship debate. Many have questioned Welles’ contribution to the screenplay of Citizen Kane, which was also written by veteran screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Debate has raged over exactly what each writer brought to the screenplay, some believing that Welles, being the auteur that he is, of course co-wrote the screenplay. American critic Pauline Kael famously criticised Welles in her essay ‘Raising Kane’ (1971) for his lack of involvement, championing Mankiewicz as the neglected author (indeed he penned the entire first draft).
If you want to get your hands on clues as to Welles’ contribution to the script, his copy too is going under the hammer at the very same auction. Fully annotated and scribbled on, it’s another absolutely unique piece of memorabilia. Both items can be snapped up for a mere couple of million dollars. Go for it.