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Coming to Hollywood as a celebrated boy genius featuring a spectacular career arc in New York including his "War of the Worlds" radio hoax, Orson Welles is stymied on the subject for his first film. After a dinner party at Hearst Castle, during which he has a verbal altercation with Hearst, Welles decides to do a movie about Hearst. It takes him some time to convince co-writer Herman Mankiewicz and the studio, but Welles eventually gets the script and the green light, keeping the subject very hush-hush with the press. When a rough cut is screened, Hearst gets wind of the movie's theme and begins a campaign to see that it is not only never publicly screened, but destroyed. Written by
Greg Bulmash <email@example.com>
The most remarkable thing about RKO 281 (subtitled "The Battle Over Citizen Kane") is that not only is it sympathetic to William Randolph Hearst and his paramour Marian Davies, but it also paints a less then flattering picture of film icon Orson Welles.
Every film buff worth his popcorn knows, or at least should know, the legend of CITIZEN KANE: Welles, the brilliant, but naive Boy Wonder, takes Hollywood by storm with his amazing and groundbreaking first picture, but falls victim to the tyranny of the cruel, thin-skinned billionaire Hearst, who tries to destroy the brilliant work of art. It is the David and Goliath saga of Tinseltown, with an art triumphs over commerce subtext. But the makers of this made-for-cable drama have opted to pull a switcheroo. Just as Welles bravely (or foolishly) challenged the legendary tycoon Hearst, RKO 281 rather courageously takes on the Welles legacy of the misunderstood genius. The results are gratifying, though the facts end up blurred all the more.
If there is, indeed, a villain in the whole CITIZEN KANE affair it would be screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played here by John Malkovich), who acted as Judas to W.R. and Marian, while serving as Iago to Welles's Othello. It was, according to historians, Mankiewicz who took a catalogue of firsthand observations and casual gossip gathered as a favored houseguest of the Hearst household and fashioned it into an unauthorized biography/screenplay. And it was Mankiewicz who goaded Welles to flirt with professional suicide by pursuing the project in the first place and by changing a film about a generic millionaire into a tale rife with details specific to Hearst.
But RKO 281 ventures a different theory, suggesting that Welles devised KANE as an elaborate weapon of revenge against Hearst for having been insulted at a dinner party. One suspects that Welles' crime was more one of clueless indifference than vengeance, but the latter does make the film more dramatically provocative. Whatever the case, Welles clearly bit off a much bigger bite than he anticipated when he deemed Hearst's personal life fair game.
Ironically, Welles' folly may not have been his audacity to attack Hearst, who surely faced greater critics, so much as the director's unintended assault on innocent bystander Davies. What RKO 281 highlights is that much of Hearst's ire against KANE was based to his desire to protect Davies from an unflattering portrayal and public scandal; not an unfounded fear, it would appear. In KANE, Hearst is presented in a mostly sympathetic light, and it is Davies who comes off the worst. Indeed, her alter ego, Susan Alexander is the film's least likable and empathetic character, an exceedingly dumb blonde who evolves into a shrieking, untalented alcoholic has-been diva. No other character in the film is as cruelly one-dimensional. Ironically, it may have been Mankiewicz's gallant, albeit foolish, attempt to protect his friend Davies, that caused all the problems. By making Susan so extremely different from the much beloved Davies, Mankiewicz may have thought people would see Alexander as a pure fiction. But such is the power and fame of KANE that then and future generations were destined to accept the legend over the reality and assume that Susan and Marian are one in the same. (Further irony: RKO 281 finds Marian played by a very Susan Alexander-like Melanie Griffith.)
Though the film notes the irony of the muckraker publisher suddenly finding himself the victim of the type of tabloid journalism that made him famous, RKO 281 is mostly sympathetic to Marian and W.R., who are seen as the ones under attack. As played by Liev Schreiber, Welles is the film's villain, who, filled with arrogance and ambition, sweeps into town with an itch to make a reputation for himself and a willingness to exploit others to do so. His petty, pseudo-socialist rantings about the evils of the very rich seem hollow in light of his ambitious desire to exploit others fame and reputation to make a name for himself. It is a different, unflattering side of Welles, who is usually seen as the perpetually embattled artist.
Yet, the plot takes another twist. Welles discovers that Hearst in particular and Hollywood in general weren't willing to just kowtow to his genius and like George Amberson Minafer in his THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, The Boy Wonder gets his comeuppance. Welles becomes just as much the victim of his arrogance as RKO, Hearst, Davies and Mankiewicz.
RKO 281 is a slick and entertaining effort, but it does miss a golden opportunity. The film would have been so much better had it invented its own "Rosebud" to search for and imitated CITIZEN KANE's ambitious visual style and confessional mock-documentary narrative drive. RKO 281 is a very conventional movie about a very unconventional film.
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