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RKO 281 (1999)

TV Movie  |  R  |   |  Biography, Drama  |  20 November 1999 (USA)
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Orson Welles produces his greatest film, Citizen Kane (1941), despite the opposition of the film's de facto subject, William Randolph Hearst.



, (documentary "The Battle Over Citizen Kane"), 1 more credit »
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Title: RKO 281 (TV Movie 1999)

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Won 1 Golden Globe. Another 13 wins & 27 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
George Schaefer
Anastasia Hille ...
Simeon Andrews ...
William Armstrong ...
Mr. Lewis
Jay Benedict ...


Coming to Hollywood as a celebrated boy genius featuring a spectacular career arc in New York including his radio hoax War of the Worlds, 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 William Randolph Hearst, Welles decides to do a movie about Hearst. It takes him some time to convince co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and the studio, but Welles eventually gets the script and the green light, keeping the subject very hush-hush with the press. The movie is about an aging newspaper publisher who controlled his enemies as ruthlessly as he controlled his friends; and whose mistress was destined for fame. 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 <>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Orson Welles used all his genius to create "Citizen Kane". William Randolph Hearst used all his power to try and destroy it. See more »


Biography | Drama

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for language and some graphic sexual images | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:






Release Date:

20 November 1999 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

RKO 281: The Battle Over Citizen Kane  »

Box Office


$12,000,000 (estimated)

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


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Did You Know?


The film shows RKO production chief George Schaefer announcing to Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz that he has lost his job on the very day of the opening of Citizen Kane (1941) in May 1941. In fact, Schaefer did not get fired until late in the following year, and this was less because he had promoted the film career of Orson Welles than because almost all the films RKO had made during his tenure had been flops. See more »


In the formal dinner in which Welles is a guest of Hearst, Welles reveals his purpose for filming a movie about a famous bullfighter. He says he was a child when he sat on the knee of Manolete, the most famous Spanish bullfighter at that time. Actually, Manolete began his career in 1931, when Orson was age sixteen. See more »


[last lines]
Herman Mankiewicz: Was it worth it?
Orson Welles: I don't know. I can't imagine doing it any other way. I suppose it's just my character.
Herman Mankiewicz: It won't be easy having made your masterpiece at 26.
Orson Welles: Is that what you think - that I'm just going to burn out at the ripe old age of 26?
Herman Mankiewicz: All stars burn out, Orson. It's the flame that counts.
Orson Welles: [toasting] To the flame.
Herman Mankiewicz: To the flame.
See more »


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User Reviews

Good.. could've been much better..
3 June 2002 | by (So. Calif.) – See all my reviews

You've probably read a lot of other comments, so I'll spare you the details of what "RKO 281" is about.. rather, my comments pertain to made-for-HBO films, particularly this one..

HBO's movies always strike me as a cut above the usual made for the small screen fare, but just a notch below being theatrical quality. There's a strange feeling of being manipulated, that I get from almost all their films, especially biopics like this one, "Truman", and their latest "Path To War" which they're running this month. HBO likes to take on monumental, historical characters, like Orson Welles, Harry S Truman, and LBJ, but seems to always surround them with characters who are portrayed as being slightly dumb, and made to look like fools, on purpose. It's as though HBO is telling us to look back into history and laugh at how naive and silly people were in decades past.. look at the dumb clothes they wore, the silly hairstyles, their mannerisms, while at the same time idealizing them..

In these kinds of films, cars are never dirty or dented. People never flub their words when speaking to each other. Homes and offices are always a paragon of cleanliness. Everything looks brand new. Staged. Too perfect.. Okay, perhaps realism is not what we want in our movies.. we live in homes that have dirty dishes in the sink and rumbled towels in the bathroom, and stacks of magazines on the tables.. but there ARE period films in which the "lived in" look IS quite well done.. witness Bob Raefelson's "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

While the set and art direction of "RKO 281" is stunning, everything is beautiful to look at: all the vast, wood-panelled offices of the Hollywood moguls, somehow, everything has an artificial look to it.

And then, there's Liev Schreiber's portrayal of a young Orson Wells.. Again, sometimes HBO can create a convincing lookalike - Gary Sinese as Harry S Truman was right on the money, Michael Gambon as LBJ comes sort of close, but doesn't quite ring true, but Schreiber simply doesn't look or sound anything like Orson Welles did. Welles had a booming baritone voice, an in-your-face style of projecting his words, and a simply riveting screen presence. Schreiber's lack of a jaw, and his delivery simply never convinced me that this man was Orson Welles.. This is not to take away from Schreiber's acting abilities at all.. he was simply the wrong actor for the part. And since he is the centerpiece of the film, the entire film suffers because of his weak Welles clone..

However, "RKO 281" _is_ worth watching, if just for the lush sets and atmospherics, and the far too few glimpses we get of the making of "Citizen Kane." But again, HBO made this film as a drama, not a documentary, and a drama relies on conflict.. and thus the film concentrates on the clash of personalities, not the creation of the best film ever made..

8 of 9 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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