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RKO 281 (1999)

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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.


Benjamin Ross


John Logan, Richard Ben Cramer (documentary "The Battle Over Citizen Kane") | 1 more credit »
Won 1 Golden Globe. Another 13 wins & 28 nominations. See more awards »





Cast overview, first billed only:
Liev Schreiber ... Orson Welles
James Cromwell ... William Randolph Hearst
Melanie Griffith ... Marion Davies
John Malkovich ... Herman Mankiewicz
Brenda Blethyn ... Louella Parsons
Roy Scheider ... George Schaefer
Liam Cunningham ... Gregg Toland
David Suchet ... Louis B. Mayer
Fiona Shaw ... Hedda Hopper
Anastasia Hille ... Carole Lombard
Roger Allam ... Walt Disney
Simeon Andrews Simeon Andrews ... John Houseman
Bill Armstrong Bill Armstrong ... Mr. Lewis (as William Armstrong)
Jay Benedict ... Darryl Zanuck
Ron Berglas ... David O. Selznick


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 <greg@imdb.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


What went on the screen was nothing compared to what went on behind the scenes. See more »


Biography | Drama

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

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

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »






Release Date:

20 November 1999 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

RKO 281: The Battle Over Citizen Kane See more »


Box Office


$12,000,000 (estimated)
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Dolby Digital

Aspect Ratio:

See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


The size of the principal actors had to be modified for their roles. Liev Schreiber, who stands 6'3", had to bulk up to portray Orson Welles, while John Malkovich, who stands about 6'1" (a full head taller than the real Herman J. Mankiewicz), had to be made to look much slighter and smaller than usual. James Cromwell, who stands a towering 6'7", was surrounded by actors in lifts, as the real William Randolph Hearst was about 6'3" or 6'4". 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 »


Herman Mankiewicz: What about Marion?
Orson Welles: She's just another piece in his collection. Another animal in his zoo.
Herman Mankiewicz: Well to Hearst, that is love. "I love you, I built you a beautiful cage."
See more »


Featured in The 57th Annual Golden Globe Awards (2000) See more »


Chattanooga Choo Choo
Written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon
See more »

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User Reviews

Better than Cradle Will Rock. --But What's That Saying?
12 July 2003 | by tostinatiSee all my reviews

Hate to say this, though I do, I think audiences have at last become too sophisticated for docudramas and film biographies of people who lived since the very late 19th and early 20th century, which we might term The Recorded Age. This is so very largely because a plethora of documentaries that are rich feasts of real visual source material and oral history appear every single day on cable TV. It is hard to watch anyone impersonating a figure who has been extensively recorded. I could buy Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur or Emile Zola. But I didn't buy Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman or Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. The technical aspects of impersonation are too much in the fore front of my mind as I watch, because I know too intimately, almost second nature, what the subject's style and physical presence are like. This will more often than not prove to be the case. Who can impersonate Lucille Ball or Clark Gable or Orson Welles once you have been media-saturated by the real thing? Or put another way, in this age, when we learn every facial tic and pattern of breath of really big personalities, how could an impersonator HOPE to make the original subject of a docudrama or film bio come fully to life? Because of the omnipresence of modern media, I think they are doomed to fail.

Where RKO 281 succeeds --dramatically, at least, if not in terms of history-- is in giving us portraits of people who, famous though they are, have not been over-recorded, and exist more as legend or enigmas, as part of an oral tradition, than as flesh and blood people. John Malkovich's Herman Mankiewicz works beautifully because we have seen a couple of photos of the man, and have heard a lot ABOUT him, without actually having heard the man himself. Malkovich gets behind this character to a rare degree. Perhaps he identified with this three times burned out alcoholic ghost in the Hollywood machine who can walk the razor's edge because he has nothing to look forward to, and nothing to lose. And James Cromwell's playing of Hearst feels like a revelation. His Hearst is not a voluble man. In fact, he is reticent, almost withdrawn. He takes care of business, but his personality is dry and interiorized in the extreme, and he is slow to rise to comment about anything. Whether these people were really this way is another question. But while the drama is on the screen, you buy it. These roles work. (Melanie Griffith's Marion Davies is a woman child/simpleton. I still don't know what to make of that interpretation.) Liev Schreiber is serviceable, as they used to say, as Orson Welles. But truthfully, his portrayal is more than 'okay' only if you are in an especially easy frame of mind coming to the film.

Early in RKO 281 there is a mock newsreel of Welles' arrival in Hollywood of the sort that opened Citizen Kane. The contrast between the care used in recreating a newsreel in the original film, and the amateurish sloppiness of this one is telling. We are good at using computers to create fantasy worlds of mythic cartoon figures. You'd think we would be able to do unprecedented things --like dead-on copying the style of a 60 year old newsreel-- if we gave it even half a try. For whatever reason (budget?) this just doesn't seem to be the case. I have seen as convincing mock-ups of old broadcasts or news film in a throw-away sketch on Saturday Night Live. I overlooked Schreiber's bizarre failed period hair that screamed out FAKE! in this mock newsreel. But, as I say, only because I wanted to watch the film. I had to start cutting it some slack in the first couple of minutes. Bad sign.

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