I dove into the HBO series of biopics with The Life and Death of Peter Sellers a few weeks ago. I applaud HBO for having consistently high quality in the scripts, locations, and acting choices that I saw first in the Peter Sellers story, and that I saw in this week’s film, RKO 281. Regrettably, RKO 281 isn’t nearly as interesting or as craftily put together as the previous movie. There’s a stagy quality to the script and set-up of RKO 281 that made me think of the atrocious Gable and Lombard; that apparently, Orson Welles lived a life that was so perfectly set-up to be a filmed production making sure you never see Welles as a human being. The humanity of the story comes from an alternate plot about the rising debt of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, a story that the screenwriter felt was infinitely better and thus tips the movie further into that story. (It’s the right choice, but should have been its own movie.) As a HBO production, this is a far better biopic than any of the made-for-television reviews I’ve written previously, but it falls short of the best of HBO’s quality.
Orson Welles (Liev Schreiber) aspires to make the best movie in the world. Inspired by the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell) and his mistress Marion Davies (Melanie Griffith), Welles puts the pieces together to craft his opus: Citizen Kane.
The original intent of RKO 281 is fascinating, as well as a sad emblem of what could have been. The movie was meant to be a theatrical release with Edward Norton as Welles, Marlon Brando as Hearst, Madonna as Marion Davies, Dustin Hoffman as Herman Mankiewicz, and Meryl Streep as Louella Parsons. I would say that’s enough talent for an Oscars sweep, right there. The studios decided to pass on the project because of the budget, and it was significantly trimmed down to make a television movie. The cast assembled is well-done, and the story is interesting, but oh, what could have been.
In a way, RKO 281 is a stripped down version of The Aviator. Both movies focus on determined men whose ambition causes them to separate from their friends, and yet they went on to widespread acclaim and immortality. Orson Welles is written as an extremely ambitious man who has no problem blatantly stealing Herman Mankeiwicz’s (John Malkovich) script and claiming it as his own. Both movies even have the same first scene involving a childhood version of our star interacting with a mother who dies. Here, we see that Welles’ mother is dying, but possesses the strength to prophetically tell him he’s “born for the light.” The script is lighter than The Aviator, as this production is only an hour and twenty-six minutes. It comes off too lean because the making of Citizen Kane is presented in a linear style with no deviation. We see Welles get the idea for the movie at a dinner party at Hearst Castle, and then we go through the various methods of film production. Outside of that one brief scene with Welles mother, and a touching speech about his father, this movie doesn’t do anything to illuminate Orson Welles: the man. His determination to bring Hearst down with his movie is never sufficiently explained, outside of “He’s wealthy and thinks he owns everyone.”
The script also fails to include any insight into Welles as a director. We see Welles trying to get the camera lower, going so far as to dig a hole in the set and make the cameraman shoot from a trench, but that’s it. If you don’t know anything about Welles before watching this movie, you’ll end up as uninformed as you were before. The script is able to hide some of this with peppy dialogue, and gives Welles’ character a few grandiose speeches; but much like Gable and Lombard, the movie too often winks at itself. When Welles gives a particular speech it’s during the recording session for Citizen Kane’s soundtrack. So as Welles increases his volume and becomes more impassioned, the music intensifies, as well. It’s a beautiful piece of music, but lessens the impact of the moment, and that of Citizen Kane overall. What is the movie saying; apparently that the score of Citizen Kane can be applied to any situation as long as it’s intense? And furthermore, why is the script insinuating that Welles’ life was its own production? The Life and Death of Peter Sellers had Sellers tell the movie of his own life, and impersonate the real people in it, as a means of showing you who he was. We saw that Sellers wished desperately to be able to control the events of his life, and change events to suit himself. Here, the movie sloppily says Welles’ life was no different from any other movie about a man with ambition. There’s no Orson Welles in this movie, simply an actor playing Orson Welles. He’s the Great Gatsby with a Hollywood veneer and an equally iconic name.
I can’t begrudge the casting of Liev Schreiber because he is fantastic in the role of Welles. He has the voice, the carriage, the vitality of Welles; if only the script peeled back the layers and let Schreiber loose. I mentioned the scene where Welles tells of his father’s death, and that’s a scene-setting moment for Schreiber. He holds back the emotion, and only let’s a single tear out of his eyes before moving on. It’s a stoic façade that can be cracked, and Schreiber lets you in. Transcending Schreiber is John Malkovich as fellow screenwriter Herman Mankeiwicz. (Sadly, Malkovich was ignored at the Golden Globes that year, although Schreiber was nominated for Best Actor.) When the movie starts, Mankeiwciz is a lush who lives off his famous friends and hasn’t written in years. Welles is one of Herman’s best friends, yet he’s heartbroken when he discovers that Welles wants to make the production without him. I thought the movie would play up the rivalry between them, but after the first thirty minutes they hastily resolve their differences and it’s never mentioned again. James Cromwell makes a strong William Randolph Hearst; and while Melanie Griffith is good as Marion Davies, I didn’t see it as a Golden Globe worthy performance.
Running concurrently to Welles’ making of the movie is the story of Hearst and Marion Davies. Instead of telling a tale about Orson Welles, this should have been a movie about the deteriorating financial state of Hearst when Citizen Kane was being made. During this time, Hearst was losing money hand over fist, and it was feared he’d have to declare bankruptcy. As the plot goes on we see that Marion isn’t a gold digger, as Citizen Kane implied, but a woman who finds herself taking care of a man who needs her. I’m not sure if it’s true, but the movie includes a sequence where Davies sells all her jewelry (totaling a million dollars) to help Hearst pay off his debts. You see a relationship that isn’t romantic, but is based on love. Marion asks Hearst why he’s spent money on so many paintings; does he need them or want them? Hearst replies he wants them, to which Marion says “so there is a difference between want and need.” The true heart of RKO 281 is the story of an old tycoon realizing that even he isn’t infallible to the avarice of money; and what happens when it’s gone. If anything, Welles’s success is at the expense of Hearst’s and forces the audience to side with the newspaper magnate. I found their story infinitely more engaging than Welles’s, and the script appears to agree as there’s long stretches where we follow Hearst only to get back on track with Welles. I understand that the script wants to present a dual mentality: show us how Welles sees Hearst, and what’s really going on in Hearst’s inner sanctum; but there’s not enough meat to the Welles story, and too much in the Hearst/Davies story.
I liked RKO 281, but not for the story it set out to tell. The Orson Welles story is thin. You never get anything more than “He made an American classic.” There’s no true development into who he is, but merely what he did during a particular moment in time. The Hearst story is engaging in a way that the Welles story isn’t, making the audience desire more of the latter character. I recommend watching it for the performances, and the Hearst story specifically. If you go in with zero information on Welles, don’t expect any substantial information about him, here.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.