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RKO 281, biographical film, biography, review, biopic

RKO 281 (1999)

“BOY WONDER WOWS HOLLYWOOD” screams the newsreel in an opening scene deliberately reminiscent of Citizen Kane. It is a device employed several times throughout this film, reinforcing its depiction of the uncomfortable similarities between filmmaker and film subject, and how both men’s dogged determination cause them to be either unable or unwilling to see the effect that their actions have on those around them.


RKO 281 (Kane’s original production number) depicts Orson Welles’ struggles as writer, director, producer and star of a movie destined to be hailed as one of the best ever made. Liev Schreiber, in a performance which avoids mimicking Welles’ baritone voice, portrays the filmmaker as a petulant genius, who alternatively chastises, charms and begs his cohorts to get his own way.


On the other side of the battle-lines are James Cromwell, as a wounded William Randolph Hearst, and Brenda Blethyn as his attack dog, Louella Parsons. Her ‘dirt file’ on the sexual activities of Hollywood’s elite backed up by her hateful columns about the Jewish influence on the film community sends the studio bosses scrambling.


It is left to one of the film’s few sympathetic characters, Melanie Griffith’s Marion Davies, to express a sentiment that could apply equally to both Hearst and Welles… “It's hell when you gotta look back and say, 'goddamn, what I could have been'.”

cast, Liev Schreiber, Orson Welles, John Malkovich, Herman Mankiewicz
Louella Parsons, Roy Scheider, George Schaefer, Liam Cunningham, Gregg Toland

Contrary to this biopic it was Herman Mankiewicz who suggested to Orson Welles a movie based on William Randolph Hearst, not the other way around.

Orson Welles was never a guest at Hearst's San Simeon.


According to Marion Davies, neither she nor Hearst ever watched Citizen Kane.


Head of RKO, George Schaefer, was not fired on the day Citizen Kane opened. He was dismissed the following year.

James Cromwell, William Randolph Hearst, Melanie Griffith, Marion Davies, Brenda Blethyn

For a movie about the making of a movie, there are surprisingly few scene recreations in this biopic. Those that are featured underscore the close collaboration between Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland. 

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