The Real-Life Feud Behind Citizen Kane

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It’s been about 75 years since Orson Welles first introduced New York audiences to his cinematic vendetta against publishing giant William Randolph Hearst. The movie written and directed by and starring Welles helped change the face of film with its innovative camera angles and nuanced symbolism. But show-biz insiders of the time were more titillated by the fact that Welles had based his lead character, Charles Foster Kane, on the immensely powerful newsman.

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Hearst got wind of Welles portrayal by a gossip reporter who had seen an advance screening, and accused Welles of trashing both him and his Hollywood starlet girlfriend, Marion Davies. Hearst was so enraged he declared war on the picture and its director.

William Randolph Hearst’s attempts at a smear campaign against Orson Welles during filming of Citizen Kane included:

  • Hiring a naked woman to surprise Welles in his hotel room. When the filmmaker caught wind of the plan, he checked himself into another room.-Labeling Welles a draft-dodging communist in an effort to tarnish his reputation, which eventually led to an F.B.I. probe into Welles background and his being blacklisted by the film industry.
  • To keep the film from coming out, Hearst attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to purchase the negatives from the head of RKO Pictures, George Schaefer.
  • No Hearst publication, including the 20-plus newspapers under his control, was allowed to advertise or promote Citizen Kane or any other RKO movie.
  • Additionally, none of the theaters owned by Hearst would show it.
  • The nine-time Oscar-nominated film wasn’t a favorite at 1942’s Academy Awards ceremony. Welles took home the prize for Best Original Screenplay but the crowd majorly booed the film every time it was named in a category. Many speculated that Hearst packed the audience with (paid) supporters.
  • When Welles and Hearst found themselves alone in an elevator at the Fairmont Hotel the night Citizen Kane premiered in San Francisco, Welles took this as an opportunity to invite Hearst to see the film. Hearst declined and upon exiting the elevator, Welles is reported to have said, Charles Foster Kane would have accepted.
  • Hearst’s ire over Citizen Kane wouldn’t subside. In the mid-1970s, Hearst Corp. finally allowed a film critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner to give it an official review. Hearst passed away in the 1950s.

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