RKO 281-The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1999)

“Has he no idea of the power that controls him?”

The HBO film RKO 281: The Battle Over Citizen Kane is the fictionalized background story of the making of the film Citizen Kane. Orson Welles (Liev Schreiber) was a promising young star–dubbed the “boy wonder” when he starred in and directed one of the most important American films ever made. The film depicts Welles attending a dinner at the opulent Hearst Castle–home of idiosyncratic newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell). Here Welles butts heads with the publisher, and this incident is seen as the spark that ignited the creation of “Citizen Kane.” Welles, in collaboration with screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich), writes a script about a man who sacrifices his principles to his ambitious desire for great wealth and power. Citizen Kane–in its implied criticism of the ‘American Dream’ is a bold film, but when Welles decided to blatantly model the main character on Hearst, he courted disaster.

A large portion of the film shows the struggle and determination with the film itself, and another portion deals with Hearst’s attempts to squash the film. Hearst’s attempts to destroy the film are blatant censorship, and the film shows Hearst as nasty, cold, and dictatorial–employing some extremely dirty tricks–including blackmail and racism with the aid of the gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Brenda Blethyn). RKO 281 does an excellent job of recreating the times–this is right before America’s entry into WWII, and the war is a distant rumble in Europe. Hearst exploits the fact that Jews own a number of the film studios–and creates a news release that the studios are employing “swarthy” foreigners–to whip up ethnocentrism. Hearst, perhaps the most powerful man in the country, exploits that power to bring Hollywood to its knees.

The relationship between Hearst and his actress mistress Marion Davies (Melanie Griffith) is portrayed as a widely disparate relationship between two troubled souls. She loses herself in alcohol, and he resorts to autocratic haughtiness when she dares question his decisions. In one great scene, Davis questions Hearst about his out-of-control spending, and she states that there’s a difference between wanting and needing–“Not to me, there isn’t” Hearst retorts, and indeed Hearst’s megalomaniacal pursuit of antiquities hoarded within the walls of Hearst Castle is seen as a pathological condition. Welles is portrayed as an idealist, and he’s nicely teamed with the sycophantic Mankiewicz. If you can suspend your belief for the duration of the film and accept Liev Schreiber as Welles (and let’s face it, this is a tough role), the film is an interesting, gossipy look at a great scandal of the age. From director Benjamin Ross

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