After watching Citizen Kane again for the 50th time or so yesterday, I thought it was time to finally get around to seeing RKO 281, the dramatization of the creation of Kane, especially the battle over the film between its creator, 24-year-old Orson Welles, and its thinly veiled subject, 78-year-old William Randolph Hearst. I have known about this made-for-cable movie for a while, but was avoiding it since I thought Liev Schreiber had no business playing Orson Welles, lacking the director’s charisma, presence, raw power, and last but not least his height and weight. But the audience is eased into excepting Schreiber as Welles, as his first appearance is in a faked newsreel chronicling the boy wonders rise to fame with Schreiber lipcynching to Welles voice as he apologizes for pandemonium caused by his “War of the Worlds.” After that, it is just Shreiber. I soon got use to him as a young Orson Welles, as he is appropriately intimidating as he throws drinks and overturns nightclub tables toward his closest collaborators, and his performance became one of my favorite things about this dramatization.
RKO 281 is built from a mixture of facts that are established by the various script drafts for Kane and studio memos as wells a generous helpings of conjecture and dramatization. There is no way to know, for example, exactly what Hearst said to his mistress Marion Davis after they arranged a private screening of Kane in his palatial estate. But the script is remarkably efficient at expressing in a few lines of dialogue the complicated figures of Hearst and Welles, and to a lesser extent Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, played by John Malkovich. The actual facts are simplified. For example, that “Mank” was made immobile during writing by a broken leg is left out, probably as it would have made scenes between Welles and Mankiewicz difficult to shoot. At times there may be a bit to much simplification. Specifically, the character of Kane was not based solely on Hearst, but a number of other men, including Welles himself, which is left out here.
Without reading more on the actual case, it is difficult for me know say how much this has be dramatized, but it is clear that the film widely considered the greatest ever made almost never saw the light of a projection room. It was threatened repeatedly, from the very moment when it first entered the conversations of Welles and Mankiewicz, until after the finishing touches were completed. I knew that Hearst banned all of the newspapers in his publishing empire from running ads for Kane or even mentioning the film.
What I didn’t know is (if this account is to be believed) that Mankiewicz was fascinated by Hearts but also so scared of him that he almost didn’t write the script for fear of reprisals. Welles worked on a closed set to keep Hearst from finding out about the film, but after it was in the can the publisher exerted extreme pressure on all of the major Hollywood studios except RKO to purchase the negative and all prints of Kane in order to destroy them. The RKO board of directors were ready to take up the offer until Welles rushed to New York and made an impassioned speech comparing Hearst’s tyranny to that of Hitler. This seems like the most dramatized moment of RKO 281, but future director Robert Wise, who cut his teeth editing Citizen Kane, later claimed to have been in the board room, and called the speech the best performance Welles ever gave.