The Battle Over Citizen Kane

Besides being named (rightfully) as the greatest movie of all time, Citizen Kane produced one of the most vicious controversies ever to strike Hollywood. The battle was between two titans, both at the zenith of their respective, and loosely related, industries: William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate, and Orson Welles, radio and movie genius. It is not known whether Welles made the movie out of hatred or adoration for Hearst, or whether the movie is even a portrayal of Hearst at all. Although Welles later denied any resemblance between Hearst and his character "Kane," all signs point to the opposite. Regardless, the ensuing storm over Citizen Kane would be felt throughout the country and eventually lead to the fall of the two giants.

Orson Welles had created a name for himself before he even stepped through the door in Hollywood. After directing some of the most important plays of the 20th century and becoming a nationally-known figure with his War of the Worlds broadcast, he was offered a virtually limitless budget and a contract for two films from RKO pictures. After months of unrest due to his lack of ideas for a movie, he came up with Citizen Kane. Before this, Herman J. Mankiewicz, a Hollywood writer and a friend of Welles', would propose a movie about the life of Hearst, or so he claims. The accuracy behind this claim is questionable; the world may never know if Welles truly intended the movie to be about Hearst.

Mankiewicz, a known drunkard, did leak the script, though, to a friend of Hearst's while under the influence. Hearst learned of Welles' intentions before the final draft of the script was even finished. Hearst, no stranger to coercion through threats, promptly had a few of his men send death threats to Welles' house. If anything, this opposition only fueled the proud young man's creativity. Long before the movie was released, reviews from an advance screening spread like wildfire throughout the media. Hedda Hopper, a columnist for Hearst's paper, wrote the only negative review on Citizen Kane, calling it a "vicious and irresponsible attack on a great man."

Real life soon turned into a Kane-esque movie. Hearst began a whirlwind of a campaign against Welles. Hundreds of Hollywood players, led by Hearst and Louis B. Mayer, attempted to buy Citizen Kane with the sole intention of burning the negative. After being chased by hired goons after walking home at night from working on the movie, Welles hired bodyguards to watch him twenty-four hours a day. Each of Hearst's newspapers carried a virulent story about Welles almost every day, going so far as to calling him a homosexual, murderer, traitor, communist, and thief. The stories of communism were enough to cause an FBI investigation into Welles' life. The controversy surrounding the movie and Welles himself became more and more like the life of Citizen Kane.

After realizing that he could not fight Welles directly, Hearst began to fight back in other ways. After an unsuccessful lawsuit, he declared that any movie theater that played Citizen Kane would be denied space for advertisements in Hearst's papers. He also began to pay movie theaters millions of dollars not to show Citizen Kane. When RKO confronted Welles about this problem, he replied, "Show it in tents outside the theaters. It will make millions: 'the film they don't want you to see.'" Although some theaters accepted the bribe and proceeded to play the movie in deserted alleys, Citizen Kane had much smaller screenings than it deserved.

The cap came during the Academy Awards, where Hearst reportedly paid off hundreds of people in order to minimize the amount of awards Citizen Kane would receive. It worked; out of a total of nine nominations, Welles won only Best Original Screenplay, which he shared with Mankiewicz. The only reason Citizen Kane won even one award was because of Mankiewicz's friendship with Hearst. Best Original Screenplay was, in fact, the award it was least likely to win if it were not for Hearst's meddling. When Welles took the podium to accept his award, he was booed.

Hearst's efforts pushed Welles far back in his movie career. Citizen Kane would be the last movie RKO would produce, and Welles would dive out of the public eye for some time. Hearst, however, was dealt a larger blow. By the end of the fiasco, Hearst was in debt close to 18 million dollars, due in equal parts to his extravagant lifestyle and the recklessness with which he pursued Welles.

Why did Hearst care so much about the movie? During his lifetime, many people had taken jabs at the yellow journalist. Perhaps it was the challenge; the aging Hearst wanted to prove himself over the new kid on the block. Maybe in his old age Hearst had just gone a little crazy. The most likely explanation is that Hearst was defending his wife, Marion Davies. Citizen Kane portrayed all of Kane's wives in a disapproving manner. Hearst was known for his strong devotion to his wife and he was certainly not one to sit back and take dishonor. Still, his battle with Welles cost him his money and, years later, his life.

In 1975, Welles talked about his experience with and opinion of Hearst. Whether he is being honest or not is debatable. Since I find the interview to be particularly interesting, I've included what Welles had to say about his famous rivalry.

The Battle Over Citizen Kane DVD