RKO 281 (1999) – A Review


A review of the 1999 film RKO 281 starring Liev Schreiber, John Malkovich, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith & Roy Scheider, about the making of Citizen Kane and the battle that ensued between Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst

RKO 281 1999 movie Battle Over Citizen Kane

It’s 1940 and a young Orson Wells (Liev Schreiber) has been christened ‘the boy wonder’. Landing in Hollywood Welles signs a movie contract with RKO studio head George Schaefer (Roy Scheider). The boy genius is granted complete control of any film he wants to make. What a deal! The problem is he doesn’t know what story he wants to tell and make as his first feature film.

Welles finds inspiration from publishing powerhouse millionaire William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell) and his mistress Marion Davies (Melanie Griffith). He partners with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) to create a metaphorical story using every unflattering element from Hearst’s real life to make his cinematic story.

Liev Schreiber RKO 281 Orson Welles Citizen KaneWelles takes to the soundstages and enthusiastically begins filming what is referred to as RKO’s production numbered 281. However, he quickly learns the repercussions for his sly attack on Hearst will be severe.

Hearst begins to wield his power when he wants to kill the film and destroy Welles. With Hearst’s threats, blackmail and his far-reaching newspaper empire up against him and RKO, Welles’ film looks like it will remain in the can, potentially destroyed and never to be shown to any audience.

The battle for Citizen Kane has begun.

This HBO film was based on the documentary The Battle For Citizen Kane, which was an excellent account of this story. When this cable film debuted I recall being very excited to see it, and I was not disappointed.

Is what presented here all accurate? I’d say no. With these docudramas you have to expect some exaggeration and creative license for the sake of creating a story. I won’t bother going into what events I think really occurred and are complete fiction or if the character portrayals are fair, but it still amounts to a very compelling story.

Lief Schreiber John Malkovich James Cromwell RKO 281

The film follows Welles’ collaboration and up-and-down friendship with Mankiewicz. Their attempts at convincing Schafer this script is the one worth making. Welles trying to accomplish his ambitious view he sees for the film, which at times stuns and shocks those around him. Then the fallout when word leaks of what this ‘Citizen Kane’ film is really about and the anger Hearst unleashes towards Welles, the studio and all of Hollywood.

The cast are all first rate. Schreiber might have had the most difficult task of playing the distinctive figure of Welles, but he manages to make you forget about how familiar we are with the way the real Welles looked and sounded and gradually accept him in the role. He captures the arrogance and passion of the man which is good enough for this story.

Cromwell convincingly plays Hearst as a dignified and petty man, who also has some sadness within him. He’s a man who is determined to stop Welles’ Kane any way he can, despite that he should be spending his time focusing on other things.

What’s ironic is the more he’s driven by his anger and willing to go to such underhanded threats to put pressure on RKO and the other studios to prevent Kane from ever being released, his behavior reinforces Welles’ unflattering portrayal of the man as the character of Charles Foster Kane.

Malkovich is solid as the drunken Mankiewicz who is willing to trust Welles. It’s quite sad when he is betrayed by his friend. Mankiewicz was taking as much of a risk as Welles and the way he’s disregarded is pretty heartless. There is not a lot of likable characters in this. There really isn’t any ‘hero’ in this story.

Schneider is the put upon studio head who’s completely flustered with Welles’ erratic way of working. Yet, he’s a trooper and backs up his boy genius even when he probably would have been better off to reel him in.

Melanie Griffith RKO 281 1999 Marion DaviesGriffith comes off the most sympathetic character. She genuinely loves Hearst and has willingly allowed herself to adhere to ‘his terms’ in their relationship and accepts she will forever be his ‘young mistress’. I normally don’t care for Griffith’s performances, but this is one of the few films I think she does a nice job.

Brenda Blethyn is Hearst’s right hand woman, gossip columnist Louella Parsons. With one stinging column she could destroy careers and wasn’t above creating fictional scandals or using untrue rumors to do it.

It’s funny to be reminded how Hollywood worked back then. Parsons and Hedda Hopper were two figures that no one wanted to cross. Hollywood had to play nice with them or else suffer their wrath. They would dictate how readers would view their Hollywood stars.

People often say, “Oh it’s good that such people like Parsons and Hopper don’t exist anymore. We’re not subjected to salacious gossip and untrue PR stories like that today”.

RKO 281 making of Citizen Kane Liev Schreiber as Orson WellesYet, I always thought those tactics have stayed in play today out of Hollywood, just in a different forms.

It’s no longer newspaper print, but websites, blogs, Twitter, Youtube channels that deliver the message. Publicity machines and news outlets still attempt to weave narratives or spin a viewpoint they want the public to buy, whether it’s true or not.

Just look at some of the more recent attacks and defenses from Hollywood around movies that have been greeted with negativity by moviegoers. Rather than accept any blame for their failures they’ve gone on the offensive, aggressively blaming fans for their films’ poor receptions. In some instances, big releases have become an ugly war between the studios, the filmmakers and its fans.

Parsons and Hopper would probably fit right in today. I imagine they would be just as dangerous to cross if they were able to tweet.

RKO 281 might not have had a lavish budget, but the production on screen is very well done for a television production. To Heart’s mansion, to the RKO soundstages, it all looks convincing and manages to successfully take us back to the 1940’s era.

As a fan of Kane, it’s fun to see all the little bits where Welles and Mankiewicz lifted from Hearst to use for Kane – or at least how the film presents them.

Citizen Kane Rosebud sled RKO 281The famed ‘Rosebud’ name is a biggie. Seeing it dawn on Hearst the name will be incorporated into Kane and what it means to him is actually pretty funny. When it hits Griffith with the shame and embarrassment she has is pretty heartbreaking. She never asked for this and comes off as the real victim in this battle.

The significance of the name ‘Rosebud’ is one I had always read about when it came to Hearst. For those who are unaware, it was Hearst’s pet name for Davies’ private parts, which Welles learned and made it the focal point in his film. I have no idea if that’s completely true or not, but I guess we never really will know.

There’s also some recreations of the filming of scenes of Kane, along with slight nods to certain famous shots from Kane incorporated into the film. Many scenes pattern themselves straight from Kane that fans will pick up on.

Film buffs should be all in for this movie.

By they way, I was always happy that cinematographer Gregg Toland who Welles collaborated with on Kane was featured in this. He’s just as much of an author of Kane as Welles and Mankiewicz were. Although brief, his appearance of working with Welles was nice to see and demonstrates what unique lengths Welles wanted to film his story.

Liev Schreiber James Cromwell RKO 281 Orson Welles William Randolph Hearst Citizen Kane BattleIs the film totally accurate? Nah. It’s a broad, loose overview. It covers the difficulties of filming Kane, Welles’ overzealous passion while filming it, Hearst being unhappy about it, the threats of halting its release. If you look deeper into some of the dramatizations you’ll learn there’s been a lot of artistic license and exaggeration going on, which I anticipate with a docudrama. So, don’t go thinking this is the Bible of the making of Citizen Kane, but heck it still makes for an entertaining story.

One particular scene I really wish was true, is one of the final ones. Hearst has failed at squashing the film, Kane is set to premiere and Welles and Hearst happen to meet each other in an elevator.

It’s a great final confrontation between the two. Welles seems to be the victor, but Hearst leaves him with an ominous line about what the future holds for him.

“It is not my life you’ve sabotaged with your film Mr. Welles. My battle with the world is almost over. Yours I’m afraid, has just begun.

This might have been fictionalized story exaggerated by Welles, but it’s a great confrontation between the two for an ending.

If your a fan of Welles or a film buff this is well worth watching. Leaving aside that, it’s an interesting journey into seeing the history of Kane, the controversy it ignited and just how radical and risky a film it was to make at the time.

A TV ad for RKO 281

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