It may never be regarded as the greatest American film ever
made, but RKO 281 -- Home Box Office's excellent new film depicting the making of Citizen
Kane -- is certainly no slight to the theatrical that inspired it.
The movie is well-written, solidly directed by Benjamin
Ross and superbly performed by a heavyweight cast.
Leads Liev Schreiber -- who portrays Kane auteur
Orson Welles -- and James Cromwell (Welles' subject, publishing mogul William Randolph
Hearst) are probably the least famous of the bunch, although viewers will no doubt
recognize the latter from L.A. Confidential and Babe.
Both deliver solid performances that highlight the striking
similarities between two men who no doubt see themselves as polar opposites. Although
Schreiber's performance and John Logan's script portray Welles as a passionate crusader
for his project, they don't shy away from his darker side.
On the one hand, Welles rails against Hearst for using
people to get ahead to his Citizen Kane co-writer, Herman Mankewicz (portrayed
solidly by John Malkovich). A few scenes later, Welles does the same to his alcoholic
cohort, removing his name from the draft screenplay, only to coax him back to the project
later to help him through a crisis of confidence.
The script also details how Hearst used his control of the
newspapers -- and the influence of his star Hollywood gossip columnist, Louella Parsons
(Brenda Blethyn) -- to pressure the film industry's moguls to scuttle the project.
However, the scene in which every Hollywood studio head --
from Louis B. Mayer to Walt Disney -- is sitting around a large conference table,
conspiring to block the film because Hearst has threatened to reveal their darkest secrets
(including the fact that most were Jewish), seems a tad far-fetched.
One of the film's most pleasant surprises is the
performance of Melanie Griffith as Marion Davis, Hearst's longtime live-in mistress.
Griffith's portrayal gives Davis more depth than her Kane counterpart, particularly
when she learns of the profligate spending that forced the Hearst empire into bankruptcy.
Griffith's portrayal of a woman who both stands up to and
stands by the fallen tycoon has a toughness and sense of street smarts to it that blends
well with Cromwell's take on the hard-headed, proud Hearst.
Schreiber smartly stays away from the melodramatic in his
treatment of Welles, despite a script that could provide an actor with ample opportunity
to do so.
And Roy Scheider, as RKO Pictures studio head George
Schaefer, also delivers a powerful performance as someone trying to walk the tightrope
between what's best for the studio and support for the picture.
RKO 281 debuts on HBO Saturday, Nov. 20, at 8 p.m.