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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.
This film is the story of how Citizen Kane was made. There was much controversy over the production of the movie and its release in 1941. Citizen Kane is based on the life of William Hearst, publishing mogul. The intimate details of his life were showcased by Orson Welles, the director. RKO 281 follows Welles (Liev Schreiber) and his writing partner Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) as they struggle to make their movie. It also follows Hearst (James Cromwell) and his lady friend Marion (Melanie Griffith) as their financial situation dwindles and the release of the film approaches. Orson Welles has some nerve making Citizen Kane as some will say, and others would suggest that it is a masterpiece. The controversy over the film is well presented. The viewer sees both Welles's side and Hearst's objections. The audience is able to see just how personal the film is to Hearst's life. I know I would object if someone threw my life on the screen for everyone to see, especially the comprimising stuff. Welle's justification for this was that Hearst has a monopoly over the newspaper business, and uses those newspapers to promote his own political beliefs. It was well know during this time that Hearst was not just a business man, but a politician, and a corupt one at that. Welles wanted the world to see Hearst for who he was, and what he was actually doing behind closed doors. RKO 281 gets to the root of this, and to the emotions felt by both Hearst and Marion with the making of the movie. An interesting film that goes along with both RKO 281 and Citizen Kane is The Cats Meow (director, Peter Bogdanovich, 2001). This film tells the semi-true story of a murder that took place at a gathering on William Hearsts Yacht in 1924. This film shows how powerful Hearst was, for the murder was covered up and never to be spoken of again, on Hearst's orders. These two movies give us some insight into the life of a very powerful publisher, and they do compliment each other. However, in RKO 281 we do not see the realtionship between Hearst and Welles, and what history drives Weles to make Citizen Kane. Of course he does give some reasons, like to give Hearst what he deserves, but why there is animosity between the two goes largely untouched. I also found it interesting that Welles's friend, Mankiewicz, who actually colected the information on Hearst's life and wrote much of the script for Citizen Kane, was never really given any credit. The boy wonder Welles was given all accolades for his film. RKO 281 shows the viewer the tensions between these two men, which contributed to the making fo the film. Overall, I found this film to be interesting. It was by no means the best I have ever seen, but if one is interested in Welles or Citizen Kane it is a must see.
Contrary to the impression given in other comments, this TV movie was made by the BBC (as a co-production) and, in spite of it's subject and setting, was shot entirely in the U.K. It never went near San Simeon! I found it rather unsatisfying myself, but well produced.
Hats off again to HBO for making another great docu-drama about the making of Citizen Kane. I suppose its difficult to dramatize the mundane qualities of making movies but everything from the how the scripting, cinematography, music scoring, and Welles perfection at directing sequences are dramatized with great effect here. Even legendary music composer Bernard Herrmann is portrayed in this as a professional who kicks Welles out of the scoring studio. I found the best perfomance to come from James Cromwell as William Randolph Hearst, a declining power-hungry publisher who uses all his remaining resources to destroy Welles and the picture. I found Liev Schreiber's performance less convincing though because Welles is a much more difficult character to portray and in real-life is still misunderstood. The most interesting sequence that was probably dramatized was when the heads of all the studios conferred to buy the prints of Kane. The expressions on the faces of the studio bosses said it all because they were all in the film business and must have hated caving into pressure from Hearst to quash someone else's film. Biggest fictional scene - Welles and Hearst in the elevator when Hearst foretold the rest of Welles life - that Welles made a film ahead of time and would never again be given the autonomy to make a film like Kane for the rest of his life because he didnt play by the rules.
This was a great film. It really seemed to be realistic and told of the history behind the AFI's "greatest film of all time". This shows why "Citizen Kane" is considered the "Greatest American Film Ever Made". For any fan of "Citizen Kane", you have to see "RKO 281". If this ever comes out on DVD... it will go right next to my DVD copy of "Citizen Kane".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I was impressed, after having seen this film, as I could not imagine
any actor that could carry out the role of Orson Welles. Liev Schreiber
does a masterful job of the undeniable legendary filmmaker. Indeed I
was well pleased with almost all of the performances except the actor
who played Joseph Cotton, who seemed too shallow to me. None the less
this film laid bare the dirty underside of the era of the great Studio
Bosses and the implacable viciousness of William Randolph Hearst a Jew
hating, bigoted Nazi sympathizing Meglomaniac who once said, "give me a
picture and I'll give you a war" as his yellow journalism empire more
or less caused the Spanish-American war of 1898.
While the studio bosses were no better, those two vindictive harpies Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons ruined many people's lives at the behest of Hearst. It was little wonder that with his fall from power theirs followed. It took the idealism of young Orson Welles, who almost became a Hearst himself, before reining in his lust for power to make what is the greatest picture of all time. Until now the complete back story of what it cost to accomplish the making of that film has never really been known. And here, for the first time we learn the true answer to the famous question of Citizen Kane, what was rosebud?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Liev Schreiber gives a great performance as Orson Welles but I am
always a fan of Liev Schreiber.
The story is great and based on the real story of Orson Welles directing/producing his masterpiece "Citizen Kane", innovating new ways to make the film to give it exactly the look and feel he wants. For example in one scene he keeps insisting on getting a lower angle for a camera shot until he eventually grabs an axe and chops through the floor to get the camera even lower - apparently that is a true story.
The film deals with his relationships at the time, etc, and all of the actors give very good performances, but again Liev Schreiber stands out with a great turn as Orson Welles.
POSSIBLE SPOILER: The film is not-so-subtly based on William Randolph Hearst, an eccentric and too-powerful newspaper magnate at the time, and Welles has to convince the board not to sell him the film (Hearst wants to buy it so he can destroy all the copies), which they agree to, apparently because they don't like Hearst and his power is starting to decline. Welles even meets Hearst and the two obviously dislike each other.
In the end the film is released despite Hearst's attempts to keep it out of theatres.
It's just a good film. I give it 8/10.
OK, so we all know that "Citizen Kane" was probably the all-time #1
masterpiece. Not as many people know that William Randolph Hearst tried
to have the movie destroyed. "RKO 281" does a really good job telling
that story. I will admit that Liev Schreiber seems to be overacting a
little bit as Orson Welles, but he still does a good job in the role.
Hearst (James Cromwell) is actually the most intriguing character in
the movie: we see how this hypocrite did business with Hitler, sought
to discredit FDR (believing the 33rd president to be a Bolshevik), and
had a half-his-age mistress in Marion Davies (Melanie Griffith). In my
opinion, Hearst had no good qualities.
All in all, the movie's quite interesting, and I don't just mean as a part of cinematic history. What it portrays is part of Americana. Also starring John Malkovich, Brenda Blethyn and Roy Scheider.
The story of RKO 281 would be even more incredible to me, as one who
considers Citizen Kane (the film that this film is mostly about), if
not for seeing the documentary "The Battle over Citizen Kane". That
documentary not only covers the 'battle' that ensued over William
Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles over the film and if it would even see
the light of day, but also their histories, which makes for a lot of
interesting viewing. So, the dramatization does leave some things out
on that end, however the filmmakers make up for it with a compelling
re-telling of events (if some of them are loosely based on or made up
from the original facts, that's forgivable), and a really good cast at
The most crucial things on the outset with a film like this, therefore, are making sure the actors who fit into Welles, Hearst, and also others in the story like co-screenwriter of 'Kane', Herman Manciewicz, and Heart's lover, are portrayed with enough believability. Here we get Liev Schrieber in Welles, James Cromwell as Hearst, John Malkovich as 'Mank', and Melanie Griffith, and they're all terrific in the roles, all disappearing into their characters. Schieber especially was convincing in the legendary Mercury theater man, able to express his strengths, his weaknesses, his outbursts, and his passions just right. On the flip-side, Cromwell knew every step of how to play Hearst, this cold, ridiculously wealthy giant who ruled over his lover and anything his reach could touch. Malkovich, as well, is great as always.
The style of the film is fairly basic, but it is intriguing how the director Benjamin Ross and screenwriter John (The Aviator) Logan work out the story logistics. The first half is all about the making of 'Kane', the struggles of the collaboration of the screenwriters, the obsessiveness to perfection that Welles had in production. Then it moves to the second half, which brings the greater conflict- how did this film, which was "loosely based" on the bits and pieces of life in Hearst's life, get to the screen in 1941? The details behind it won't be of any surprise to those who know the story, but to those who don't it becomes a fascinating tale of conflict, loss, and pride over an art form. In fact, as a TV movie (not to downgrade television) it works very well, far deserving of the awards it received. As pure cinema, it is a little pale at times, and reaches for the drama as much as Welles did. Overall, it is definitely worth a look if you're a fan of the film, or if you're not.
RKO 281 is based on the making of Orson Welles's masterpiece, Citizen Kane,
but unlike the movie it portrays, RKO 281 lacks Welles's fiery signature of
creativity. The movie itself is well-filmed, with elaborate backdrops and a
captivating depth of the 30's period in which it was shot. However, the
outside this remarkable backdrop, is sadly quite shallow.
Outside of the obvious battle between Welles (played by Liev Schrieber) and media magnate William Randolph Hearst (played by James Cromwell), we have no sense of any underlying motivation for the story. This is pretty sad considering the film they wished to portray was none other than one of the greatest films of alltime, setting many of the technical standards used today. Indeed, the viewer is given little more than a fleeting glimpse of Citizen Kane's production, and only a few of the most blindingly obvious innovations in the film (such as slanted camera angles). The disturbing part of these remarkably few revelations is that they come after 50 minutes of a historically unrelenting plot outlining everything from the land-lease law to Hollywood gossip rags of the 30's. I also found it odd that they never mentioned that Citizen Kane was booed at the 1941 Oscars, of which most he was snubbed.
The black-and-white confrontation of the movie is little more than grey-and-grey. Welles apparently doesn't want to make the movie because Kane represents the hollowness of greed, but because he feels that Hearst is a hypocrite. Hearst is not so much egnimatic and soulless as Kane, but more of a helpless withered shadow of a man. This attack of Hearst's character is never truly resolved, because the story never makes it clear that Citizen Kane was based on Hearst, but isn't about Hearst.
Sadly, there is one more note I wish to add. The actors in this movie seemed like 8th graders forced into a Shakespearian play, they either misunderstood the meaning of this picture, or failed to connect emotionally. As Shakespeare in Love taught us, even the Bard's works can be made interesting with the right mindset. This could have been a great movie, but fell far short.
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