Written PostFrom the DVD Shelf: RKO 281 (1999)

From the DVD Shelf: RKO 281 (1999)

Included in the spectacular 70th Anniversary blu-ray set of Citizen Kane (click here for my review, in case you missed it!) is HBO’s 1999 mini-series chronicling the troubled production of Citizen Kane, called RKO 281.  (RKO 281 was the film’s production code — RKO being the name of the studio.)  I think it’s very cool that this film was included in the Kane set, and I was particularly excited because I’ve been wanting to re-watch this HBO film for years.

The film boasts a strong cast.  Liev Schreiber stars as Orson Welles.  I was surprised that Mr. Schreiber eschewed any of the grand Wellesian mannerisms that I’ve seen so many actors playing Welles use (such as Angus Macfadyen in Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rockclick here for my review — or Christian McKay in Me and Orson Wellesclick here for my review).  Liev plays the role very straight — his Orson seems like a normal human being (albeit one who is at times brilliant and at times intensely frustrating, and often both).  As the film progressed, I found myself quite taken with this interpretation.  Mr. Schreiber focuses our attention on Mr. Welles’ struggles to live up to his wunderkind reputation, and he shows us Welles’ incredible stubbornness and his extraordinary command of his skills as an actor.  He also doesn’t hesitate to show the ease with which his interpretation of Welles will use manipulation of all sorts to get what he wants.

John Malkovich plays Orson’s on-and-off buddy Herman Mankiewicz, who worked with Welles on creating the story for Kane and who wrote several drafts of the screenplay (and who would latter struggle with Mr. Welles over who should get the credit for that screenplay).  Mr. Malkovich is great fun in the role, and he has terrific chemistry with Liev Schreiber’s Welles.  The two men are like oil and water, which is what makes their scenes together so much fun.  (It feels to me like there’s been a lot of playing with reality to cast Welles and Mankiewicz as such close friends, but their relationship works in the film so I can’t really complain.)  James Cromwell plays William Randolph Hearst — this was perfect casting.  For the first half of the film Mr. Cromwell doesn’t have much to do other than glower and say nasty things about Welles, but when the focus shifts towards Hearst in the film’s second half, he really gets to dig his teeth into the material.  There are some great scenes in which Hearst results to some ferociously nasty tactics in order to block the release of of Citizen Kane, and Mr. Cromwell is terrific in those scenes in particular.  Roy Scheider plays RKO studio head George Schaefer.  It’s always great seeing Mr. Scheider on screen, and he’s quite convincing as this old-style studio head whose day was fading.  At first I thought Melanie Griffith was a little old to be playing Marion Davies, but after doing some checking I see that Ms. Davies was 44 at the time of Kane’s release in 1941, whereas Ms. Griffith was just 42 when RKO 281 was released.  In my head I think of Ms. Davies as a young ingenue, as she was when played by Kirsten Dunst in Peter Bogdanovich’s 2001 film The Cat’s Meowclick here for my review.  But that story of a death aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht — a real-life event that was actually referenced in RKO 281, in a great monologue by John Malkovich — was set in 1924, almost two decades before the release of Kane. So I withdraw the thought!  Ms. Griffith hasn’t been seen on-screen that much for the past decade, so RKO 281 represents one of her later major film roles, and she’s fun to watch, doing a great job of bouncing off of James Cromwell’s Hearst.

But despite the cast, I found myself a bit let down by RKO 281. I think watching it after watching all of the special features on the Citizen Kane blu-ray set, including the feature-length Documentary The Battle for Citizen Kane (upon which RKO 281 was based) does not cast RKO 281 in the best light.  It seems to me that the script (by Richard Ben Cramer, Thomas Lennon, and John Logan) plays fast and loose with the facts in a frustrating way.  As an example, the film creates this whole scenario at the beginning in which Welles and Mankiewicz are invited to one of the lavish parties that Hearst threw for Marion and her friends at his huge estate San Simeon.  At this party, we see Hearst insult Welles, which seems to be one of the triggers for Welles to create Kane, a character inspired by Hearst.  That’s nice, but to the best of my knowledge nothing of the sort ever occurred.  Not only is it just annoying, in principle, for the filmmakers to just make something major like that up, but to me it also trivializes Citizen Kane. Yes, clearly William Randolph Hearst was an enormous influence on the character of Charles Foster Kane, but there were other influences as well.  As RKO 281 presents it, Welles created Kane purely as an avenue of character assassination towards Hearst, which to me cheapens the whole idea.

My favorite parts of RKO 281 are the scenes which give us a glimpse at the day-to-day logistical struggles of creating the film Citizen Kane: writing the script and producing the movie.  There are some great scenes where we see Welles and Mankiewicz struggling to find the core of Charles Foster Kane’s character (and landing on Kane’s line: “Love on my own terms.  Those are the only terms anybody ever knows”).  The scenes showing some of the actual production of the film were also a real pleasure for me.  I loved the scene showing the filming of Kane’s post-election confrontation with a drunken Jedediah.  The story of Welles having the crew cut a hole in the studio floor so he could get the camera low enough to get the angle he wanted is a great one, and it was fun seeing that brought to life.  (Though I couldn’t believe they didn’t show the famous story of how Jedediah’s drunken stumbling over his words was actually a mistake by a very-tired Joseph Cotten that Welles decided to leave in.  They set it up by having Cotten comment about how tired he is, but then didn’t show the moment!  That was a weird choice.  While I’m on the subject, let me comment that Angus Wright didn’t look a thing like Joseph Cotten, to me, but his vocal impersonation was fantastic.)  I was fascinated by those glimpses into how the magic of Citizen Kane came together, and wish there had been more of those scenes in the film.

The second half of the film shifts the focus away from Welles and onto Hearst and Marion Davies.  While I enjoyed getting to see more of James Cromwell, I must admit to this shift in focus causing me to loose interest somewhat.  I just wasn’t nearly as interested in Hearst’s struggles (the super-rich guy is embarrassed, and he’s losing some of his massive fortune in the depression — poor fella!) as I was in Welles’.

But the most bizarre mis-step of RKO 281, for me, was actually it’s very opening scene.  In that scene, the filmmakers give Mr. Welles a “Rosebud” of his own, as we see young Welles being forcefully told by his dying mother of how he’s destined for greatness.  Did that scene have any basis in reality?  Is that ever something the real Orson Welles has ever talked about?  It feels like a complete fabrication to me, and comes across as a simplistic way to explain Mr. Welles’ failings and excesses.  It just struck me as totally false, an off-putting way to start the film.

Ultimately, RKO 281 is a well-made, enjoyable movie.  Any film that explores the behind-the-scenes struggles of creating art interests me, and when the art in question is the masterpiece Citizen Kane, then all the better.  But I wish the film had hewed closer to the facts.  The real story of the making of Citizen Kane is such a fantastic true-life epic, no exaggerations or alterations were necessary.