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Very interesting movie about the battle to get Citizen Kane made has
carved out a tricky niche for itself; the movie is going to be most
interesting to fans of Welles and Kane, and those people are going to
have such specific expectations about what the movie should be that
they can't be satisfied.
I see a number of reviews here complaining that this movie doesn't show why Kane was a great movie, but that's not the movie that was being made. It is a short movie about a specific struggle, with brief glimpses into the filming, and unless it had been titled, "RKO 281: The Making of Citizen Kane," you can't fault it for not spending an hour on Welles innovations.
The film is entertaining, Schreiber is a good Welles and Malkovitch is also quite good. I note people also complain that the movie isn't all that accurate. I do wish the film had done a better job with Marian Davies, as one hears her described as fantastically charming and loved by Hollywood (it has been said that Welles' flaying of Davies did more to bring out the knives of the Hollywood press than his portrayal of Hearst). But come on, how can one complain about liberties taking with reality in a movie made about Welles, who loved taking liberties with reality?
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.
The key to enjoying this film is in being able to divorce yourself from
idea that this is an accurate representation of the making of Citizen
RKO 281 as a stand-alone film is not bad, though the short running time
me feeling like I'd only seen the primary colors of what could've been a
rich piece of fiction.
And it does feel more like fiction than truth.
Watching RKO 281 as a Welles enthusiast was a struggle. Welles himself was such a unique *presence*, a magician in more ways than one, and Liev Schreiber just doesn't evoke the god-like charisma and fury that were manifestations of Welles' particular genius. I would've preferred Vincent D'Onofrio (who pulled off an excellent Welles in Ed Wood after only two weeks of preparation) or even Oliver Platt. It is important to get the "character" of Welles RIGHT in a movie about his masterpiece. If RKO 281 failed egregiously on any level, it's this one.
Though this film is about the MAKING of Citizen Kane, it doesn't address why Citizen Kane had such an impact later in its life. We know that Welles had to fight very hard to save his picture against a variety of political agendas. However, a hard-won battle does not a classic film make...on its own. The only clues we get from RKO character Welles are his passionate and other-worldly exclamations along the lines of, "I just KNOW this is the MOMENT for this story!--Everything I AM is in this film!", etc. It's too mystical for me, and I think it does an injustice to the efforts of Welles and his collaborators to suggest that it was simply the luck (and maliciousness towards Hearst) of a spoiled boy wonder that made what is widely considered to be the best movie of all time.
Welles was in a unique position during that era. He had carte blanche in the movie studios--a status unprecedented before or since--and had the means to create his vision fully to his specifications. Getting the picture *released* was nothing short of a miracle, however, and I think it would've been interesting to dive into yet another layer of what Citizen Kane represents: Art for Art's sake. It's heartbreaking to note that Welles' subsequent film The Magnificent Ambersons was butchered beyond recognition by the studio--those who were fortunate enough to view Welles original (and now lost) cut thought that Ambersons was his true masterpiece, that Citizen Kane was merely a warm-up (!!!). Can you just imagine what this man could've accomplished if only...?
Which brings me to William Randolph Hearst. RKO 281 barely scratches the surface of how powerful Hearst was at the time. The residual effects of his attempt to stop Citizen Kane's release were felt by the film industry (and by Welles in particular) for many years after, and I would've liked to see the nature of this confrontation more clearly.
I've often said that Citizen Kane was Orson Welles' bane and salvation, for we see in hindsight that he sacrificed himself (and ultimately his future)
to earn a beautiful and tragic place in cinematic history. Overall, I wanted an edgier, darker, and more complex account of RKO 281. If I remove all pre-conceived notions and expectations, I find that this docudrama is interesting and fun to watch, but ultimately, I cannot help being drawn back to what made this 1999 film possible: the tumultuous triumph of a long-shot movie as envisioned by a temperamental, inexperienced genius. There are many shadowy folds to the real story of Citizen Kane, and RKO 281 feels like a bowl of plastic fruit in comparison.
I didn't know the history of the making of Citizen Kane, and while I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, I still doubt that I know much about it. The movie is attractive, I imagine that it's more or less factually correct, and the cast is generally good, but it doesn't feel "real". Hardly anything is ever as black and white as most of the movie, and even more to the point, the character doesn't manage to capture any of the "zing" that Wells had even as an old man. It's fun, but don't expect too much...
Near perfect movie about the making of CITIZEN KANE does not succeed 100% on document accuracy but for a movie, this is really good! Liev Shreiber plays surprisingly good for Orson although it is hard to detach him from the SCREAM trilogy. If you loved the masterpiece of CITIZEN KANE than maybe the movie is not meant for you. A surprise that this movie would not make it to the larger screen, probably because the target audience is too narrow. Anyone under 18 and/or has not watched the classic may need some guidance as to what the characters are actually saying. If you want a further look into CITIZEN KANE, this is your best bet unless you like the library!
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..
i really liked this movie, even the bits with Melanie Griffith's which is something. I appreciate that people who are familiar with wells work might be a little bit more critical of the piece but i thought it was super. Liev Screiber was outstanding in the lead because he chose to play Wells as a man as opposed to simply doing an impression of an already famous face. He made Wells sympathetic and compelling even though lets face it, as the movie presents it hes not really that likable a man. Id definitely recommend it to any Liev Schreiber fans. Hearst is also presented as an unlikeable character, but Cromwell plays him with great dignity that you almost feel sorry for him.
If you are into vintage movies, vintage America and conspiracy
theories, then this is an entertainment for you.
Many other reviews here have outlined the strengths and weaknesses of the film re the truth about the making of Kane, and the relative attributions of credit, blame and opprobrium. I'd like to inject a good word for Roy Scheider's portrayal of RKO boss George Schaefer: His character's struggle to find the right balance between keeping his east coast money men happy, his obvious liking for Welles and the desire to make good movies is very well portrayed.
Something I really enjoyed was the portrayal of Welles' and Mank's visit to the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, California. That is a fascinating place, which saw so many famous and talented people visit during Hearst's time there. There's a movie about the lifetime of that place to be made by someone, though I don't think anyone has ever attempted it? Apparently they didn't use the real location for RKO281 - a lot of it seems to have been done in London. Was that cost, or did the Hearst Castle trustees refuse....? Anyway, if you're up for a good tale woven around some known facts, but not sticking to them too tightly, take the RKO281 ride, you'll have fun. Just don't let it become your true picture of Mr Welles, Mr Hearst or (most of all) Mr Mankiewicz.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'm absolutely sure that this film would be of more interest to film
buffs and Welles fans than to the average viewer, although the buffs
and fans might find it infuriating at times. The search for purity and
perfection is bound to end in failure because, after all, who is pure?
And what is perfect? The buffs and fans will probably gnash their teeth
over historical inaccuracies and events and conversations that
obviously must have been invented. They can join William Randolph
Hearst and Orson Welles, because Hearst discovered that he didn't
exercise pure power and Welles found out that his career was destined
to be less than perfect. But the buffs and fans can still rejoice in
knowing that they understand a little more than the rest of us about
what the hell was going on in Hollywood and the rest of the world in
1940 and 1941.
Taken as just another movie, without reference to historical events, "RKO 281" isn't bad. It's not the best made-for TV movie that HBO has come up with, but it's interesting to get a glimpse into the contrast -- and the similarities -- between Welles, a self-proclaimed genius and novice film maker, and Hearst, the old fuddy duddy who lived with his younger mistress in a castle on a hill on an estate half the size of Rhode Island. One was rich with the ideas and daring of youth. The other was rich, period.
Good performances all around, as far as the principles go. Maybe Melanie Griffith isn't the vivacious and mischievous hostess that Marian Davies was said to have been, but she gets the job done. Liev Schreiber is a passable Welles, though not as handsome to the heterosexual eye as was the 25-year-old prodigy himself. John Cromwell probably gives the best performance as Hearst, the man who owned too much. It's a complex character role, not easy to play. Hearst isn't the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with, but Cromwell manages to make him rather sympathetic at times. John Malkovich is Herman Mankowitz, co-writer of "Citizen Kane," and he's reliable, as always. Too bad they left out the incident at which Mankowitz, drunk, vomited at the dinner table and apologized by saying, "It's alright, Mister Hearst. The white wine came up with the fish." If there's a weak thread running through the story of this battle, it's the script. Sometimes it positively flows, as in Welles' speech to the RKO board in New York. At other times, it seems as if the writer had one eye on a textbook for Screen Writing 101. Why would an American, even a stuffy one, substitute the British "shall" for the red-white-and-blue "will"? Entire conversations sound stilted and aimed at immediate comprehension by the viewer, attempts to spare him the torture of thought.
No, it's not a TV masterpiece, but it's a good job of commercial film making, the kind that HBO can sometimes be very good at. I think most people would find it engaging enough to hold their attention. Especially, as I say, the buffs and fans. I'm not sure about those who might have to stretch in order to grasp the concept of "Hitler" -- never mind "RKO 281".
The battle between William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles over the
latter's classic film Citizen Kane is the stuff that film history
legends are made of. And after the amazing PBS documentary on it, it
doesn't seem surprising that a film version would follow it. Though
this film isn't a documentary and plays many things differently then
they really happened, RKO 281 is an excellent film.
The cast is first rate from Liev Schreiber's Orson Welles onwards. Schreiber might not do Welles distinct voice, but he captures the arrogance and genies of the young man. James Cromwell brings both menace and sympathy to William Randolph Hearst and for the two scenes in the film when these two are together you can feel the tension.
The rest of the cast is just as superb. Of special mention is Melanie Griffith's performance as Marion Davies, the unfortunate victim of Citizen Kane and who becomes the reason for the battle over the film. John Malkovich, Brenda Blethyn, and the late Roy Scheider bring flesh and blood to these long dead members of the battle (writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, columnist Louella Parsons, and RKO executive George Schaefer).
The production is a lavish one. The filmmakers take you to San Simon (aka Hearst Castle), the RKO sets for the film, the boardrooms of Hollwood and New York, and the homes of those involved. The effect is giving the viewer a sense of being there as film history happens. It's not of course but one gets that feeling.
And now for the writing. The film is not, and does not claim to be, a documentary though it is based on the excellent PBS documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane. The events seen in the film are a mix of fact and fiction. The opening dinner party scene is questionable and the apparent motive for Welles to do the film is likely fictional. But many of the details and even chunks of dialog are real or based on real events. Indeed the final third of the film (apparently) happened almost exactly as it is seen in the film. While some might argue over this, it works in the context of the film.
In short RKO 281 is fiction based on fact. From the strong performances to the lavish production values, the fiction gives the viewer a new light on the legendary battle over a classic film and how it almost never made it to the public. If you're a fan of Welles or Citizen Kane, this is a must see. If not, prepare for a journey into the battle over Citizen Kane and how it almost brought down the film industry.
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