A colorful account of the combustible egos involved in what is arguably the best American film ever made, “RKO 281” takes great liberties in combining elements of truth and Hollywood hearsay to create a fantastical movie. Writer John Logan based the film in part on the documentary “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” and, with director Benjamin Ross, they have created a telepic not unlike “Citizen Kane” itself — a studied yet distorted truth.
The war waged between media mogul William Randolph Hearst, RKO Studios and, specifically, Orson Welles over the film “Citizen Kane” is a legendary clash of titans. Or, taken at its base level, one of the world’s most infamous pissing contests. The triumph of the movie, though, is its depiction of how art can be created when it is unfettered by humility.
The producers’ cost-conscious decision to film a Hollywood story in London gives the film a surreal, Grimm’s Fairy Tale quality. Movie devotees looking for a detailed account of the actual filming of “Kane” will be disappointed as Ross streamlines much of the overall story and steers clear of re-creating the set of “Kane,” except to depict Welles’ authoritarian, directorial style. We do see Welles mistreating friends and actors, digging up the floor at RKO studios in order to get the right angle, and obsessing over scenes from “Stagecoach.”
Liev Schreiber stars as Welles, the self-proclaimed genius who at a mere 24-years-old was given complete control over his first Hollywood film. After a few aborted movie ideas, Welles set his sights on media mogul William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell) and the backlog of incendiary stories surrounding the newspaper publisher. Logan doesn’t waste any time before he starts drawing comparisons of Welles and Hearst. Both men had massive egos and were handed the keys to their respective kingdoms. Welles was obsessed with what could be; Hearst, 76 at the time, fretted over what might have been.
By bringing Hearst’s life, however thinly veiled, to the bigscreen, Welles started a war that affected just about every major player in Hollywood. Ironically, the character of Charles Foster Kane was someone who attacked his enemies with a vengeance, yet Welles apparently believed he was beyond Hearst’s reproach.
In his efforts to stop the film, Hearst had Hollywood gossip columnists Louella Parsons (Brenda Blethyn) and Hedda Hopper (Fiona Shaw) at each other’s throats in an attempt to smear Welles, and basically blackmailed several studio heads as he tried to destroy the film.
In the end, Welles emerged the winner, appealing to RKO’s stockholders with his timely “Hearst is Hitler” speech. In reality, it was Hearst’s weakening financial power that saved the film from total obscurity.
Schreiber, as Welles, manages to capture the essence of a man of many passions, and creates a nice balance of hubris and self-loathing to give the part real depth. As Hearst, Cromwell is a study in greed and arrogance; at one point, he justifies his exorbitant art purchases with a simple and telling, “I wanted it.”
Cromwell does gives Hearst a believable voice with a motive to his madness — without a hint of sympathy in his portrayal.
The real protagonists of this story are Marion Davies, played by Melanie Griffith, and RKO Studio head George Schaefer (Roy Scheider), and both actors shine in their roles. There’s real empathy here for Marion, who was, in fact, the main victim of the war between Hearst and Welles.
Another powerful and touching performance is John Malkovich’s portrayal of Welles’ “ugly little monkey sidekick,” writing partner Herman Mankiewicz.
One argument purists may have with the film is the downplaying of Mank’s role in bringing the idea of a Hearst-based movie to life. According to “The Battle Over Citizen Kane,” it was Mankiewicz who persuaded Welles to do the Hearst story, not the other way around.
It should also be noted that Logan greatly toned down some of Mank’s trademark wit, possibly for fear that Malkovich would steal the show entirely. He comes close anyway.
Unfortunately, the film loses some credibility in smaller perfs, specifically the glitterati who orbited around these famous people. Anastasia Hille makes for an undynamic Carole Lombard, while the distracting and ineffective look-alikes who play other Hollywood stars and legendary studio honchos come off as outcasts from a wax museum.
Lensing by Mike Southon is rich and textured; his shots of San Simeon are downright ethereal. Director Ross skillfully evokes the feel of old Hollywood with re-creations of old newsreels that blend seamlessly into the main story.
John Altman’s music is era-appropriate, offering a nice and authentic backdrop to the action, which is expertly detailed by Maria Djurkovic’s production design.