Before ‘Mank’ There Was ‘RKO 281,’ A Competing Vision Of The ‘Citizen Kane’ Creation Myth

While David Fincher’s Mank finally hits Netflix this weekend, it’s worth noting that it’s not the first film about the production of Citizen Kane. Mank focuses specifically on co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, during the pre-production of Kane and Mank’s feud with Kane subject William Randolph Hearst. Yet before Mank there was 1999’s RKO 281, a made-for-HBO movie directed by Benjamin Ross, which starred Liev Schreiber as Orson Welles and focused on the battle to get Citizen Kane made and released. The two make an ideal double feature.

Or at least they would, if RKO, that year’s Golden Globe winner for best miniseries or TV film, was available anywhere online. I had to order mine as a physical copy from Amazon, which once it arrived seemed to have once been owned by a library. Logistical hurdles aside, the two films are contradictory and complementary, both iconic depictions, in their own way, of the complex personalities who clashed and collaborated to create one of the original Great American Films. Ultimately they complete each other more than they contravene each other, probably a bit like Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz themselves.

Unfortunately, some backstory is probably in order first. Both films depict, to some extent, Kane‘s credited co-writers Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. But the battle for that credit is an epic story in and of itself. It can and has filled multiple books. Mank‘s initial script, written by David Fincher’s father Jack, who died in 2003, was said to have been heavily influenced by Raising Kane, a book-length essay written by Pauline Kael originally published in 1972. That essay, intended as a belated attempt to reclaim Mankiewicz’s rightful glory, was later discredited, for factual errors, plagiarism, and “ethical breaches.” Kael’s disputed Raising Kane in turn spawned “The Kane Mutiny,” a point-by-point rebuttal written by Peter Bogdonovich (a close friend of Welles) published in Esquire in 1972. Six years later there was a book by Robert Carringer, The Scripts Of Citizen Kane, which also leaned towards Welles as the “true” author. Then there are the countless Welles biographers and Kane scholars with books of their own.

Suffice it to say, Welles vs. Mankiewicz is an 80-year pissing contest that has long since outlived its initial participants (not to mention Jack Fincher and Pauline Kael). To their credit, both Mank and RKO 281, regardless of their origins, seem to understand that Mank vs. Welles isn’t a zero-sum game.

Whereas the black and white, often austere Mank, from David Fincher, depicts Orson Welles mostly as a voice on the telephone, hectoring the bedridden Mankiewicz while the latter struggles with “his” script, RKO 281 gives us Orson the auteur, starring a lushly saturated Liev Schreiber in what might honestly be his ideal role.

In 1939, Welles was the 24-year-old “boy wonder,” coming to Hollywood to fulfill a generous contract, eschewing constant exhortations to make an adaptation of War Of The Worlds his first film. Like Welles, Schreiber’s booming baritone — which has since gone on to narrate everything from Hard Knocks to Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs — is the foundation for Welles’s persona. Schreiber, as Welles, is a master of a certain kind of earnest, vaguely overwrought gravitas. Or as Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (played by Melanie Griffiths) describes Welles in the film, “attractive, in a hammy sort of way.”

Mank, meanwhile, is a stylistic homage to Kane — complete with black and white cinematography, brutalist compositions that evoke German expressionism, wipe transitions, and comedic 30s pitter-patter dialogue. Where Mank eschews auteur theory and the traditional biopic, RKO 281 is unabashedly traditional. It is open in its artifice, to the point of employing, at one point, the ultimate in utilitarian dialogue: “you just don’t get it, do you?”

With a script by John Logan, which was actually adapted from the 1996 PBS documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, RKO 281 also happens to be one of those wonderfully-written films that uses artifice and shorthand so well that it reminds you why those things exist in the first place. The dialogue is pithy, but so good at cutting each interaction to the quick of its conflict that it feels somehow both purely Hollywood and entirely true to the spirit of events. Logan’s words are spare and pointed, creating the illusion that what we’re watching is simply a more succinct version of the real events, where all that’s been cut is the fat. In that way, it retains the spirit of Citizen Kane itself just as strongly as Mank does without being such an obvious stylistic parody.

As Mankiewicz, played here by John Malkovich, tells Welles in RKO 281, “You’re about to be the youngest never-was in the history of Hollywood.”

“Better than the oldest has-been,” Welles shoots back.

“Is it?”

For all the books written about Citizen Kane’s authorship, could you ever boil it down better than those three lines? RKO 281 is full of moments like that. Mank admirably attempts to give Mankiewicz the credit he was mostly denied while he was still alive (everyone knows that Hollywood always screws the writer, then and now), but RKO 281 is so thoroughly fair to both Welles and Mankiewicz that it feels like the version you want to believe, regardless of the truth.

RKO 281 focuses more on the studio side of Citizen Kane, with Roy Scheider from Jaws playing RKO studio head George Schaefer. Mank, naturally, deals more directly with Mankiewicz and his direct circle — his writing assistant, played by Lily Collins, wife played by Tuppence Middleton, etc. The two films overlap most notably in their depictions of William Randolph Hearst and his Brooklyn moll-ish mistress, Marion Davies.

Davies is the kind of role all actors seem to love, the bubbly, tacky Brooklyn party girl who calls Hearst “Pops” and loves to shock the old stiffs she’s always surrounded by, both deliberately and by accident. She’s Guys and Dolls meets Harley Quinn with an awardsy sheen. Some said “Rosebud” was Hearst’s pet name for her clitoris. In Mank (with Davies played by Amanda Seyfried), Davies is a slightly bigger part, covering her close relationship with Mankiewicz and his guilt over having to betray her to write Citizen Kane. RKO 281‘s Davies is played by Melanie Griffith in an equally wonderful performance, who cries the first time she sees Citizen Kane (“How could they do it to us, Pops?”). Once she calms down, she privately admits, ruefully, that the filmmakers probably got her right. It’s hard to choose a favorite between the two versions of Davies, though it would’ve been nice to see Seyfried in saturated color.

Meanwhile, Hearst, who was the subject of Citizen Kane in the first place, is obviously a complicated figure. Born wealthy (in Kane, he’s adopted off to live with the family’s banker) he went on to become a powerful newspaper publisher in the era of Yellow Journalism. Initially part of the progressive movement, Hearst supported, then turned on FDR, and eventually became a staunch conservative, like Rupert Murdoch today, only much more powerful. Mank‘s Hearst is played by the great Charles Dance (previously Tywin Lannister, among other roles, now becoming a name actor after a career as a prolific one). Partly by virtue of its flashback structure, Mank‘s Hearst comes off as arguably a little more nuanced. This Hearst, at various points, does still seem to delight in ruffling the feathers of his fellow rich men, keeping Mankiewicz around as a kind of exotic pet, to sic Mank’s caustic wit on unsuspecting partygoers for laughs. The film pivots on Mankiewicz’s disillusionment, sparked by the 1934 governor’s race and Hearst’s part in torpedoing Mank’s favored candidate, Upton Sinclair.

RKO 281 offers a much more straightforwardly spiteful and evil Hearst, played by the also-great James Cromwell (Babe, Six Feet Under).

(Incidentally, it’s interesting that RKO, from a British director, features a mostly American cast, while Mank, from an American one, has a mostly British cast. That may have something to do with the aura of ersatz exoticism — and thus, prestige — we assign to our fellow English speakers across the ocean. Which is also illustrated by Citizen Kane‘s entire cast speaking in that peculiar mid-Atlantic accent that was so ubiquitous in the thirties and forties, whose main quality is simply making you believe that the speaker was born “somewhere else.” Presumably some place more sophisticated and cool than whatever pig pen you happened to wriggle out of.)

Cromwell’s Hearst is far more straightforwardly dour and bitter than Dance’s Hearst. The contrast between Dance’s pale eyes, always sparkling gleefully, and his gaunt face, give him an air of wickedness that is his most salient feature. Cromwell, six foot seven and beaky, plays terse and morose much more often, sometimes against type as the austere WASP with a heart of gold. In a way, RKO 281′s Hearst might be more true to what a son of a bitch the real Hearst actually was. To illustrate this, RKO 281 relates, through Mankiewicz, the story of Thomas Ince, a silent movie director who officially died on Hearst’s yacht, but who, according to the rumor, Hearst actually shot and killed. Accidentally, according to Malkovich’s Mankiewicz, though Hearst then supposedly used his publishing might to bury the story while paying off all the witnesses to keep silent. While this Hearst, who later tries to blackmail Hollywood’s studio heads into killing Citizen Kane using pictures of gay sex parties and threats to whip up anti-semitism, is clearly more of a pure antagonist, RKO 281 does eventually round him out with a bit of pathos.

In another one of John Logan’s beautiful, self-consciously iconic lines, Hearst tells his mistress Marion, “There is nothing to understand but this: I am a man who could have been great, but was not.”

The two movies, three if you count Citizen Kane, are in many ways inseparable. Mank the definitive portrayal of Mankiewicz, RKO 281 the definitive portrayal of Welles making his masterpiece — Kane the infamously damning portrait of William Randolph Hearst. RKO 281 manages to capture the iconic spirit and unabashed “movie magic” of Citizen Kane without being a direct stylistic parody. While Fincher, in getting so carried away with his stylistic homage, manages to evoke Welles’ single-minded pursuit of his vision even while barely showing Welles himself.

They’re both triumphant films that end on a somber note. In Mank, with Mankiewicz struggling to claim credit for his masterpiece. In RKO 281, with Welles cursed to forever wonder if he’s peaked at 26. In the latter’s final scene, it’s Mankiewicz who consoles Welles over a drink. “All stars burn out, Orson. It’s the flame that counts.”

‘Mank’ is available via Netflix December 4th. ‘RKO 281’ is available wherever old DVDs are sold. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.