February 25, 2001 -- The making of "Citizen Kane," considered to be the greatest film of all time, and the battle to save the film from destruction, is the subject of "RKO 281." Originally made for HBO, this movie is available on DVD, which is how I happened to see it.
Exactly how much of this dramatization is true and how much is fiction, I'm not sure, but it makes a pretty good yarn. Orson Welles (played by Liev Schreiber of "The Hurricane") had just come to Hollywood from New York where he caused a panic with his historic "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. Hailed as a genius, the movie studios were all anxious to sign him. He signed with RKO, the studio that had made "King Kong" less than a decade before.
Studio executive George Schaefer (played by Roy Scheider of "The Rainmaker") wanted Welles to make "War of the Worlds," but, incredibly, Welles didn't really know what story he wanted to film, or even how to make a film. After meeting powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst at a party, and being insulted by him, Welles decided to make a film about Hearst's life. The film's central character, Charles Foster Kane, was a thinly-disguised representation of Hearst. Problems with the production began immediately, as alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich of "The Man in the Iron Mask"), churned out a long, rambling screenplay.
Welles had to learn how to make movies and rewrite the screenplay at the same time. He continued his on-the-job training as he directed the film. His real problems really began when the picture was nearly finished. That's when Hearst (played by James Cromwell of "The Green Mile") found out what the film was really about. He was determined to stop the film at any cost, and he did not mind using dirty tactics. Welles and Schaefer found themselves in the fight of their lives. The battle extended to all the studios in Hollywood.
The story goes beyond the battle over making a movie. The interesting thing is that it points to certain parallels between Welles and Hearst, how they both used other people to get what they wanted. The film suggests that maybe the reason that Welles hated Hearst so much was that Hearst reminded Welles of his own arrogance, his own heartlessness. The story also touches upon the anti-semitism and homophobia in America at the time. This was a time when Hollywood tried to project a clean image using an alliance with the press to cover up numerous scandals. Hearst threatened that alliance. There is also a certain irony in Hearst trying so hard to protect his own privacy when he has built an empire on prying into other peoples' privacy. The film also makes the suggestion that Welles may have made the movie to "get even" with Hearst, who insulted him. Welles says he made the movie to expose Hearst's hypocrisy. The movie suggests Welles' own hypocrisy does not bear close examination. Yet another irony in the story is that RKO was eventually taken over by yet another enigmatic billionaire who was not unlike Hearst. His name: Howard Hughes. The movie also reveals the true meaning of the cryptic code word "Rosebud."
Liev Schreiber, perhaps best known for his role as the indestructible Cotton Weary in the "Scream" series of films, does a fine job as the enigmatic Welles. Malkovich does his usual excellent work. Melanie Griffith of "Crazy in Alabama" is good as Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies. Cromwell does a nice portrayal of the complicated publisher, Hearst. The Hearst in the film is somewhat different than the Charles Foster Kane character in "Citizen Kane." The relationship between Hearst and Davies is a complex one in the film, again, different than in "Citizen Kane." Scheider also does a good job as the studio executive caught in the middle of the huge power struggle over the film. This movie rates a B.
The DVD has the following special features, cast and crew biographies, scene selections and original theatrical trailer. Language tracks:
English (dolby surround 5.1), English (dolby surround), Spanish (mono). Subtitle Tracks, English, Spanish and French. Running time, 87 minutes. MPAA rating, R. Aspect Ratio, 4:3.
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