RKO 281 - Internet Movie Database RKO 281 - Nitrate Online Review
Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
RKO 281- Nitrate Online Store
Movie Credits Buy It!

RKO 281

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 19 November 1999


Directed by Benjamin Ross

Starring Liev Schreiber, 
James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith, 
John Malkovich, Brenda Blethyn, 
Roy Scheider, David Suchet, 
and Fiona Shaw

Written by John Logan, 
based in part by the documentary 
The Battle Over Citizen Kane
from the PBS series 
The American Experience.

In 1995 the high-profile documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, framed the drama behind the making of what has is now considered the greatest film ever made as a conflict of two powerful, bull-headed personalities: Orson Welles, the upstart firebrand artist from the East Coast whose first film took on a man that you simply do not take on, and William Randolph Hearst, the millionaire newspaper tycoon who took such a dim view of seeing his life, however veiled, dissected on the big screen for the entire country to see that he did all he could to have the film destroyed before it was ever seen. For a documentary that sought to explore the history of an American masterpiece of complex motivations and contradictory personalities, it reduced the drama to that battle. That’s not to say they ignored the factors and the facts surrounding the drama, but it strains the portraits of its protagonists to create parallel personal histories and reduces the complexity of the conflict to fit within a neat collision of larger than life personalities: irresistible force (art) meets immovable object (commerce). And if art wins the battle, suggests the filmmakers, then commerce wins the war. The documentary concludes that Hearst effectively destroyed Welles’ career and he again never reached the aesthetic heights of Citizen Kane.

RKO 281, the drama inspired by the documentary, bends a few facts, shuffles the historical timeline, and passes a few legends off as fact, but is actually a truer, more complex view of the tenor of the time and the factors in the filmmaking. It too turns on the conflict of personalities, but whereas the documentary, a work rooted in fact and teasing the meaning from the accumulation of detail, reduces the world of detail to a colorful war of egos, the fictional recreation, taking liberties with history to create a dramatically exciting work of art, radiates outward from that central war of wills to pull in the myriad of factors that orbited around the conflict to suggest the web of complicated factors in the production and release of Citizen Kane, and the eventual reverberations of the entire wrestling match. Director Benjamin Ross (The Young Poisonner’s Handbook) and screenwriter John Logan distort the facts (perhaps more than necessary) to paint an inclusive and complex portrait of the event and their conclusion challenges the standard line (Kane is the high point of a career in a downward spiral), insisting that Welles continued to challenge the system and make great films on his own terms both in and out of Hollywood.

The structure cleverly apes Citizen Kane, opening with a moment from Welles’ childhood. The young Orson is at his mother’s deathbed, a scene that evokes both Kane’s death scene and his childhood farewell to his mother (in Thatcher’s flashback), colored in a golden amber light in a darkened room that suggests both the warm glow of memory and the darkness of death. Cut to a newsreel of the “boy wonder” Orson Welles (Liev Schreiber) arriving in Hollywood, à  la “News on the March,” only without the aging, or for that matter without any attempt to give it the look of grainy, high contrast 1940 newsreel filmstock – a minor flaw. The reel finishes and the light comes up in the screening room of Louis B. Mayer (David Suchet), who’s already tired of the genius, and he hasn’t even shot a foot of film. Ross makes the quotes work by giving them their own dramatic use. Like Kane, these scenes quickly and succinctly give the viewer a quick sketch of our hero, his history, and his new world, and the quotations are a clever nod to the master.

From here on in the film goes it’s own way. For dramatic purposes, Logan has centered Welles’ social life on a friendship with Herman J. Mankiewicz (John Malkovich), Hollywood screenwriter, famous wit, and former scriptwriter for Welles’ radio shows. The real life Mank was a Hollywood character, a self-destructive alcoholic and gambler who by 1941 had a reputation for unreliability and a tart tongue: he enjoyed skewering Hollywood with scalding cracks and venomous quips. In the movie Mank is turned into a professional party-guest who bandies his barbs in private and puts on a public face, playing the stooge like he’s sold his soul to the Hollywood lifestyle. Malkovitch plays him with great charm and good wit, though the script never approaches the acidic sense of humor that earned the real life Mank his reputation. In perhaps the film’s greatest historical fiction Mank takes Welles to a dinner party thrown by Hearst, where Welles draws the ire of the bitter old man when he draws all eyes with his storytelling prowess and wanders  the mansion, drinking in the details that will manifest in Citizen Kane: the lavish works of art, the cavernous rooms that echo with quiet footsteps, the unfinished picture puzzles on the floor. “I’ve got it,” Welles blurts to Mank. “I know what we’re going to do… A modern feudal lord.” Mank’s shocked response: “Because he insulted you at a dinner party?” In point of fact Mank was persona non grata at the Hearst estate by the mid-1930s, Welles never visited San Simeon, and historians agree that it was Mank who brought the idea of Hearst to Welles. This bit of dramatic license doesn’t diminish the film as drama but does challenge its claim to history.

Welles sells the idea to a reluctant George Schaefer (Roy Scheider), the head of production at RKO. As much an artist as a businessman, Schaefer is an often-neglected hero in the Kane saga but is presented here with dignity and respect and invested with a courageous passion by Scheider. Ross launches into a shorthand sketch of the pre-production and production work on Kane, a streamlined version of events that only touches on the creative aspects of Kane but nonetheless suggests the famous preparations in a brief montage: repeated screenings of Stagecoach, Welles editing the script in slashes and condensing with furious swipes of his pen, his sneaky shooting under the guise of test shots, even digging a hole in the studio floor to get that camera resting on the ground for his famous distorted low angle shot. After an angry break with Mank precipitated by Welles grabbing complete screenwriting credit – another facet the film distorts by leaving the arbitration out and making Welles’ compromise a kind of peace offering to Mank – he’s brought back in to become Welles’ confidant and partner in crime and the two exchange conspiratorial glances on the set as they break the rules and thumb their noses at the man who, predicts Mank, “will destroy us.”

Liev Schreiber’s Welles comes into his own in these scenes, the charmer and the monster, the face of modesty over the soul of the megalomaniac, the creative artist plunged into his project and the egotistical star who takes Mank’s name off the screenplay. Welles is no angel – he’s often a tyrant on the set given to adolescent temper tantrums and has the nasty habit of turning on his friends and allies as if they’ve betrayed him when things don’t go his way – but neither is he the devil. Ross and Logan paint him as an ambitious artist given to a temper and an ego, and a man who grabs onto his art with both hands like it’s a living thing. Schreiber, who makes no pretense of aping Welles’ booming voice or theatrical flourish, creates his own character rather than a funhouse distortion of an icon. If he doesn’t quite capture the intensity and charm of Welles, he effectively suggests the richness and the contradictions of the character.

Enter Hearst, played with haughty pride and the spoiled appetite of a man who has always gotten his way by James Cromwell (who delivers a fine if one-dimensional performance). Hearst is the hypocrite that Welles (appropriately enough given to dissemblance himself) describes him in a rant. He keeps a mistress while railing against immorality, fumes at seeing his life paraded on the screen while doing just that to the public figures he dislikes in the Hearst newspaper chain, and resorts to the blackest kind of blackmail to force Hollywood to keep Kane off screens. But he’s in a position of weakness that even he won’t acknowledge: he’s on the verge of bankruptcy. The mistress in question, former silent movie star Marion Davies, is played with remarkable sweetness and self-awareness by Melanie Griffith, perhaps her best performance in a decade. When Hearst finally sees Kane he’s incensed that anyone would have the gall, the effrontery to pass judgment on him, while Marion tears up and says “They really pegged us, didn’t they Pop? At least Kane married her.” If there is a real victim in the whole drama, it’s Davies, unfairly tarred in Kane as an untalented kewpie doll foisted on the public by a glory-hound husband, in reality a talented comedienne whose career was mismanaged by Hearst (who saw comedies as too vulgar for the mistress of a great man). One of the film’s most touching moments is an illustration of her selfless sacrifice for Hearst as she sticks by him through his financial woes.

Ross and Logan continue to play fast and loose with history, moving up the timelines of Heart’s bankruptcy and George Schaeffer’s removal from RKO for dramatic effect, and playing two apocryphal stories as history: the rumored original of “Rosebud” as Hearst’s secret nickname for Marion Davies’ clitoris, and the infamous elevator ride between Welles and Hearst days before the premiere of Kane, where Welles offers an opening night ticket to the old man. While it’s bad history, they do make for good drama, something Welles would have enjoyed. After all, his own life was given over to dramatic license.

But for all the historical inaccuracies, they get much of the story right. Even better, they sketch the complex convergence of forces surrounding Citizen Kane, including the pressure from RKO’s New York offices, from other studio heads and from Hearst, with just enough detail to put the history in perspective. Louella Parsons (Brenda Blethyn) and Hedda Hopper (Fiona Shaw) are given over to brief but uncanny portraits of ego and competitive catty nastiness, and for a brief moment Kane and the career of Welles becomes a pawn in their own personal game of one-upmanship.

Unfortunately lost in details is anything more than a cursory look at the production, which hits all the highlights without really delving into the creative process or Welles’ collaborations with his talented crew. Gregg Toland (Liam Cunningham) buzzes through the film as a Welles confidante, but Bernard Herrmann (Kerry Shale) and John Houseman (Simeon Andrews) get but one scene apiece. (The film misses a brilliant opportunity by overlooking the volatile love/hate creative partnership of Welles and Houseman, whose working relationship resembled a bickering old couple, and Houseman was a silent but important behind-the-scenes collaborator on the Kane script). The weakest parts of the film, not surprisingly, are the dramatic recreations of the scenes themselves being shot on the Kane set. Angus Wright, through no fault of his own, is no Joseph Cotton, but his efforts at mimicry made me cringe.

For the average film fan and the curious viewer, RKO 281 makes history into a fascinating story of the Hollywood Studio system, the forces that actually run it, the rebel that thumbed his nose in the face of authority. For the historians and Welles buffs it peppers the drama with images and scenes that resonate with greater meanings (one marvelous scene on a staircase suggests The Magnificent Ambersons without actually quoting it), even if it distorts facts to fit the filmmakers’ dramatic structure. Okay, the conflict becomes more personal if Welles created Citizen Kane out of schoolboy pique for getting insulted at a dinner party by one of the most powerful men in America, even if it didn’t happen. But given the constraints of budget, running time, and shooting schedule, I’d say they did a better-than-fair job of it. (Ridley Scott originally developed the project as a $40M film with Edward Norton as Welles, Dustin Hoffman as Man, and Marlon Brando as Hearst, before the studio shot it down as too expensive for a boutique picture.)

But factual details aside, Ross and Logan make the history live. RKO 281 is no Citizen Kane, nor is there any reason to expect it to live up to “the greatest American film ever made,” but in its own way it pays homage to Welles and his film by making its creation one of the most exciting Hollywood stories put on screen.

Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
Copyright © 1999 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.



www.nitrateonline.com  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.