RKO 281 (1999) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A terrific TV movie to complement “Mank”

To be frank with you, it took some time for me to appreciate the greatness of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941), which has been regarded as one of the greatest works in the history of cinema during last several decades. When I watched it for the first time in 1996 via a cheap video tape copy, I merely regarded it as one of the classic films I was obliged to watch, and it was just another familiar tale of power, ambition, and loss to me at that time. When I watched it again in 2003 via a copy of the local 3-disc DVD edition, I was surprised to discover what a fresh and exciting piece of work it actually is in terms of storytelling as well as filmmaking, and my admiration and enthusiasm toward it have only grown more and more during last 17 years.

The local 3-Disc DVD edition, which I am still keeping at present despite its rather dubious production background, has only three supplements, and one of them is Benjamin Ross’ 1999 HBO film “RKO 281”, whose very title came from the studio production number of “Citizen Kane”. While David Fincher’s recent Netflix film “Mank” (2020) adamantly sticks to Welles’ co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz’s bitter viewpoint on how he came to write “Citizen Kane”, “RKO 281” mainly presents Welles’ viewpoint on the production of “Citizen Kane” in addition to paying some attention to Mankiewicz and several other real-life figures revolving around Welles, and the result is a vivid and compelling presentation of that troubled history surrounding the making of “Citizen Kane”.

At the beginning of “RKO 281”, a black and white newsreel scene, which is evidently influenced by the “News on the March” sequence in “Citizen Kane”, gives us a succinct summary on the meteoric rise of Welles during the 1930s. While recognized as a new boy wonder of Broadway thanks to several critical successes achieved by him and his famous theater company, Welles went further as doing a number of notable radio shows, and then he reached to the top thanks to his infamous radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” in October 1938. After boldly conquering both theater and radio in New York City, he was certainly willing to move onto another artistic field to challenge him, and that was why he subsequently accepted an offer from the RKO Studios in Hollywood, which guaranteed to him the unprecedented total artistic control over the first movie to be directed by him.

The first act of “RKO 281” revolves around Welles’ struggle to find a project ambitious enough for him and his growing reputation. While he has surely made a big impression on the folks of Hollywood with his glorious entrance, Welles, played by Liev Schreiber, soon finds himself running out of time without anything to be greenlit by RKO and its current president George Schaefer (Roy Scheider), and then there comes a serendipitous moment when he happens to be invited to the big manor of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell) in San Simeon, California. While getting the glimpses on the private life of Hearst and his longtime mistress Marion Davies (Melanie Griffith), Welles comes to have a brilliant story idea for his first movie, and then he persuades Mankiewicz to write the screenplay based on that. As your average jaded Hollywood writer, Mankiewicz, played by John Malkovich, is not so reluctant at first, but he eventually agrees to work for Welles because, well, it looks like the last opportunity in his dwindling movie career which has been deteriorated by his alcoholism. Having been one of Hearst and Davies’ regular guests for years, Mankiewicz surely knows some interesting personal facts about them, and he does not hesitate to use these facts including the pet name for Davies’ certain body part during his following creative process with Welles.

While he did his best for completing the screenplay within a short period of time as demanded by Welles, Mankiewicz is also well aware of the big danger of what he and Welles are attempting to do, so he sincerely warns Welles on that. Although he is not as rich and powerful as he once was, Hearst still can wield considerable power and influence over the presidents and executives of those major Hollywood movie companies including Louis B. Meyer (David Suchet), and it is only a matter of time before he comes to learn of what Welles’ first movie is about. Nevertheless, Welles decides to take risks mainly because he believes that his movie will draw more publicity due to Hearst, and Schaefer and RKO go along with his decision despite having understandable concerns.

What follows after that is a rather brief but exhilarating part giving us a closer look into the production of “Citizen Kane”. We see Welles thoroughly studying and analyzing John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939) along with his cinematographer Gregg Toland (Liam Cunningham), and then the movie serves us a series of amusing moments on the set including the scene where Welles and Toland go all the way for getting an extreme low-angle shot exactly envisioned by Welles. Because of that and many other incidents on the set, Schaefer and RKO executives have constant headaches everyday, but they have no choice but to keep tolerating Welles as legally bound to their contract with him.

However, these troubles turn out to be nothing compared to lots of wrath and threat from Hearst, who instantly embarks on suppressing Welles’ film by any means necessary once he is notified on the film by infamous Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Fiona Shaw). As depicted in the film, Hearst and Louella Parsons (Brenda Blethyn), another notorious gossip columnist in Hollywood who had incidentally been on his payroll for years, put lots of pressure on Meyer and other Hollywood studio bosses, and it is chilling to see how they could nearly succeed in destroying “Citizen Kane” once for all.

Nevertheless, the screenplay by John Logan, which is partly based on Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon’s Oscar-nominated documentary film “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” (1996), is surprisingly sympathetic to Hearst as well as Davies. While it goes without saying that he is the chief villain of the story, Hearst looks genuinely hurt after learning more of how his private life with Davies is blatantly appropriated by Welles and Mankiewicz’s story, and that consequently brings out his worst sides. In case of Davies, she is also not so pleased about that either as a fairly good Hollywood actress who is quite different from her tragically untalented fictional counterpart in “Citizen Kane”, and that makes her reflect more on many unhappy aspects of her relationship with Hearst, which becomes more strained than before thanks to his battle with Welles’ movie.

The conflict between Hearst and Welles in the story eventually culminates to a coincidental private encounter between them not long before the eventual premiere of “Citizen Kane” in New York City in May 1941. As arguing with Welles on “Citizen Kane” for a while, Hearst seems to sense that Welles is not so different from what he once was many years ago, even though he is still regarding Welles with anger and contempt. Regardless of whether this dramatic moment really happened in real life as Welles claimed later, there is some ironic poignancy in Hearst’s last words to Welles in the movie: “My battle with the world is almost over. Yours, I’m afraid, has just begun.”

Although it must be pointed out that Logan’s screenplay frequently takes artistic liberties with its real-life story (For example, Welles was actually never invited to Hearst’s manor, and it was in fact Mankiewicz who conceived the story idea of “Citizen Kane” first), the story and characters in the film are vividly presented under Ross’ competent direction at least, and his main cast members are uniformly excellent on the whole. While he does not resemble Welles that much, Liev Schreiber did a good job of channeling Welles’ larger-than-life persona instead of resorting to mere imitation, and he is also supported well by a bunch of vividly colorful performers. Often looking as weary and sardonic as required, John Malkovich complements Schreiber’s spirited acting well on the screen, and their dynamic interactions on the screen establish the solid ground for a fictional moment of reconciliation between Welles and Mankiewicz after their serious clash over that controversial authorship of “Citizen Kane”. While Roy Scheider is ever-patient as a guy who must constantly balance himself between his business and Welles’ artistic ambition, James Cromwell and Melanie Griffith ably convey to us the human sides of Hearst and Davies’ flawed but ultimately enduring relationship, and Brenda Blethyn, Fiona Shaw, Liam Cunningham, and David Suchet are also effective in their small supporting parts.

As a TV movie, “RKO 281” looks plainer compared to “Mank”, but it is still worthwhile to watch thanks to its engaging storytelling and performance, and it will certainly make a wonderful double feature show along with “Mank”. Although quite different from each other in many aspects including tone and style, these two movies show and tell us a lot of things about “Citizen Kane” via their respective fictional narratives, and you may appreciate more of the sheer genius of “Citizen Kane” after watching them together.

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