RKO 281

Orson Welles incurs the wrath of William Randolph Hearst when he makes Citizen Kane. An important story about the collision of art and commerce, told in a brisk, enjoyable, coherent, straight-ahead fashion.

In the manner of most TV movies, it is overlit, overacted, oversimplfied and over-explained. In the manner of most biographical dramas, compression renders complex relationships into two-line exchanges, scenes where Famous People trade Statements instead of human beings conversing.  The characters almost wear name tags and plot points are telegraphed far in advance.  John Logan, who wrote the screenplay, went on to write many very good scripts, including the similar The Aviator, which gets the Famous Person Biography genre with much more panache, grace and detail.

The presence of Brenda Blethyn reminds me of Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s film about Gilbert and Sullivan, which is my personal high-water mark for biographical drama of this sort. In that film, a premium is placed on observation and behavioralism; one picks up the plot as the film goes along. Here (and, honestly, in most biographical drama) the viewer is constantly reminded who everyone is and what their relationships are. Or as David Mamet puts it, people are always saying “Come in, because I am the King of France.” The drama is presented instead of inferred; the audience does little work, there are no dots to connect.

The cast is an extraordinary collection of very good actors, but sadly, whenever a group like this is assembled to play Famous, Charismatic People from the Past, all they can really do is demonstrate how we don’t have titans like that in our culture any more.

Liev Schreiber, one of my favorite actors working today, can only hint at the towering presence and commanding force that Welles possessed. I can hardly blame him; the last time I saw Welles depicted on film, it took both Vincent D’onofrio and Maurice LaMarche working together to pull it off. (It’s funny how, in yesterday’s query for films about filmmakers, Welles comes up so often, and always in such tragic terms.)

One thing that RKO 281 does that I wasn’t expecting was to make a human being out of William Randolph Hearst, and it brings up an idea that fascinates me: how does it feel to be the subject of a brilliant artist’s scathing portrait? How does it feel to be portrayed as a soulless monster by an artist with full command of his tools, to know that, no matter what else you accomplished, you will always be remembered as “that guy from Citizen Kane?” How does it feel to be the guy in Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know?” How does it feel (sorry) to be the subject of “Like a Rolling Stone?” It doesn’t matter what “your side” of the story is, the other side has already been told too well, no one would ever believe you, or care to listen.  The subject is defenseless.

Ironcially enough, it’s largely through the craft and brilliance of Citizen Kane that anyone bothers to think about William Randolph Hearst at all these days.  Also ironic is that, as much as Hearst must have hated the film, that Welles, in fact, endowed him with more pathos and sympathy than he probably deserved.
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12 Responses to “RKO 281”
  1. mcbrennan says:

    I liked RKO 281 quite a bit, and/but I agree with everything you say about it, especially the television drama “feel” and the unfortunate “hello, I am Walt Disney!” “Well, HELLO, Walt Disney, I am Louella Parsons!” signifiers. I think the feeling is it holds the audience’s interest, but I think it tends to come off like “The Many Moods Of Kevin Pollack”.

    Maurice LaMarche is a genius. Have you ever seen him as Welles (well, as a tiny evil lab-rat mouse Welles) in Pinky And The Brain, spoofing the Welles “frozen peas” tape? Oh, man. That was something.

    I’ve given a lot of thought to the question (“how does it feel to be the subject….”) In Kane‘s case, I think the real tragedy was the way Marion Davies was portrayed as a talentless, shrill, classless hack. I knew Kane before I ever saw a Davies film and I was shocked to find out how funny and talented she was. It’s the one note in Kane that I think Welles really got wrong-wrong. Hearst was what he was, and I think if anything he was well treated by the film. It lionized him as a kind of American version of a Greek tragic hero. Was he ever as good a guy, as well-intentioned a guy, as Kane was during parts of that movie? But poor Marion Davies was so funny and down-to-earth and generous of spirit. Welles didn’t need to take that kind of dramatic license. It wasn’t integral to the plot, it wasn’t truthful to the story, and it was needlessly cruel. I don’t feel too much for Hearst–he made his enemies, fought his battles and more than earned his criticism–but Davies deserved better. Her comedies are really worth seeing.

    James Cromwell does a nice job with Hearst in 281. I thought it was a much more emotionally revealing performance than Edward Hermann’s Hearst in The Cat’s Meow–though Hermann might have been closer to the real guy, who knows.

    I have no further comment on Dave Coulier, especially after Mr. Urbaniak’s recent brutally accurate analysis of the Coulier iconography in my troubled subconscious. I am seeking professional help.

  2. rfd says:

    Any idea where this new trend of making movies about old Hollywood started? These seem to be popping up everywhere lately.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Dave Coulier. Geez, is that guy still alive?

  4. eronanke says:

    On the subject of Welles, I just watched “Ed Wood” again last night. So adorable.

  5. urbaniak says:

    I’ve been thinking about “Citizen Kane” lately since I myself am currently in a controversial, technically sophisticated movie that explores the national implications of a public figure through his imaginary death. In a historical context, Welles’ movie strikes me as the more insanely brazen of the two.

  6. toliverchap says:


    We were just discussing Kane in a cinema theory class that I’m taking and started to reach a consensus that it really has quite a bit of humor. I mean some of the acting certainly is odd, though that might just be my contemporary take on “realism”. But also in the scene toward the end, when Kane and his entourage are at the beach , they used Pterodactyl footage made up for King Kong as birds in the background. It’s like they were vacationing in the Land of the Lost or something. Don’t get me wrong it is a supremely well crafted film, that’s why it’s at the top of so many 100 lists but maybe the parody is not as scathing.

  7. kornleaf says:

    i am sure Hearst LOVED the rosebud reference….

    but seriously
    i really really enjoyed this movie, with it’s shortcomings because it not only showed what you described but it touched upon certain very interesting things, like how some producers were being blackmailed into not promoting it because their names sounded jewish, etc.