“Citizen Kane” has been hailed for generations as the greatest movie ever made, but the newspaper mogul who inspired Orson Welles’ iconic portrait of a reclusive, affluent entrepreneur who dies alone did everything he could to act as if it never happened. Throughout his life, William Randolph Hearst kept the movie out of Hearst newspapers and never discussed it publicly, a tendency that was picked up by his heirs in the years following his death.
That all changed on Thursday night at the 60th SF International Film Festival, when Hearst’s grandson, William Randolph Hearst III, spoke for a half hour before a screening of the film. The biggest surprise? He’s a huge fan of the movie — and has a lot of ideas about it.
Discovering a Masterpiece
“Inevitably, someone wants to ask me what I think and I usually disappoint them by saying how much I love the movie,” Hearst said in a conversation moderated by film scholar David Thompson. “It’s just a great movie, a great story. It’s not meant to be a documentary. But I do think it’s quite accurate in the way it portrays the newspaper business.”
Hearst doesn’t remember meeting his famous grandfather who died in 1951, when William Randolph Hearst III was still a toddler. However, the younger Hearst is certain that the movie was never mentioned during his childhood.
“It was a forbidden subject,” he said. “In families where there are dark secrets, I don’t think I ever remembered overhearing my parents, someone in the family, talking about the movie, or expressing an opinion on it.”
However, he did mention one bizarre instance when he was in the car with his parents as they arrived at a gate and Hearst’s father, William Randolph Hearst II, showed his identification to a guard. “The guy said, ‘Oh, you’re Bill Hearst, I love that movie about you!'” Hearst recalled. His father was curt. “He said, ‘It’s not actually about me, get the hell out of here.’ As a kid, I picked up on his discomfort and awkwardness as he asked this question. I thought, ‘What was that about?'”
Hearst himself didn’t see the movie until he was in college, when “Kane” had begun to accrue legendary status with revival screenings across the country. “I didn’t know what to expect it was all about,” said Hearst, who at that point had a strong interest in film history. “I figured it would be a political movie like something by Costa Gavras.” He went to a midnight screening and was blown away. “You can tell in the first 15 seconds that you’re in good hands,” Hearst said. “The performances and the writing are very good. It’s always amazing to me that Orson had this obvious gift.”
Hearst never met Welles (though Hearst said critic Michael Sragow tried to arrange a meeting once in the ’80s) but the heir and longtime San Francisco Film Society board member became a big fan of the director’s work. “I’ve seen many of his films, including the lesser-known ones like ‘Mr. Arkadin,’ and they all had that stamp of something important happening,” Hearst said. “Someone’s in complete control of the story. They just take you away.”
Hearst was quick to point out that not every detail of “Citizen Kane” drew from his grandfather’s life. In particular, he took issue with Welles’ portrayal of Kane’s opulent lair Xanadu, inspired by the Hearst Castle overlooking the town of San Simeon.
“I always felt like Xanadu was all wrong,” Hearst said. “That part of the movie is dark, kind of lonely, no one has turned lights on in the rooms for years. The [castle] that I remember was light, with white stones, a party place. You can imagine having a party there for 60 of your closest friends, and two of them are getting to know each other… it was just a marvelous space for entertainment and fun. Xanadu was dreary and depressing.”
Hearst added that he saw some parallels between his grandfather and Welles, even if both men would have been unlikely to admit them. “San Simeon was a stage,” Hearst said. “Both Orson and my grandfather liked to put on a good show. I think Orson would’ve liked to be there.”
Hearst did acknowledge other aspects of the movie that drew from his grandfather’s legacy. “There are parallels,” he said. “My grandfather came very close to losing his business in the financial crisis. He did become interested in politics and wasn’t very successful at that.”
Then, of course, there was Hearst’s decade-long affair with his mistress, actress Marion Davies, who inspired Kane’s second wife, the untalented opera singer played by Dorothy Comingore. Hearst was aware of Davies early on in life, though he never met her prior to her death in 1971.
“I do remember my parents talking about someone named ‘MD,’ and I thought maybe there was a doctor in the family,” he said with a chuckle. “It took me much longer to realize who they were really talking about.” He has made peace with the history of the unseemly romance, and acknowledged that Hearst’s wife refused to divorce him even as he carried out the affair in public. “They were a real couple for a long time,” Hearst said. “I’ve just come to the conclusion that he must’ve really loved her and was very happy to have her around.”
Thompson also prodded Hearst about the meaning of the word “Rosebud,” Kane’s final words, which Gore Vidal once claimed to be Hearst’s pet term for Davies’ vagina. Hearst smirked. “Sounds like Gore Vidal,” he said, as the audience laughed. “Your grandfather never discussed that?” Thompson asked. “I don’t think he mentioned it, no.”
Hearst Could Take a Joke
But Hearst wasn’t entirely convinced that his grandfather was as troubled by the popularity of “Citizen Kane” as official lore suggests. “I can’t find a letter expressing his intense dislike of the movie,” Hearst said. “My impression is that the people around him thought that they could curry favor by saying things like, ‘We’ll take care of this, we’ll get rid of this damn movie.'” However, Hearst said his grandfather tended to handle criticism with ease, recalling one instance in which Harvard Lampoon did a parody of the Hearst-owned Cosmopolitan. “They sent a copy to him,” Hearst III said. “He said, ‘It’s better than the one we put out.’ So I think he could take a joke. I guess ‘Kane’ just didn’t strike him as funny.”
After Thompson noted that the original title for the film was “The American,” Hearst explained the value of scrutinizing his grandfather’s legacy. “The news business has lived off the missteps, the foibles of public figures for years,” he said. “You become kind of accustomed to somebody getting on the soap box, telling you that it’s all about the kids, or ‘I’m just trying to save America.’ People are drawn to it. My grandfather was. The figure in ‘Citizen Kane’ certainly thinks he’s going to make a better America.”
Hearst was especially eloquent when addressing the movie’s perspective on the alienating effect of wealth, a theme that even Donald Trump has discussed before. “If you’re in a wealthy situation that causes you to become isolated and to live in a cloistered world, sadness is not far away,” he said. “But if it allows you to go out into the world, you can see how you can make a difference.”
Thompson asked Hearst whether the name Kane or Hearst would last longer. Hearst laughed. “In Hollywood, ‘Citizen Kane’ has lasted longer, but the Hearst Company is still in business, fighting for attention,” he said.
A Future With Media
The pair also dug into the changing face of journalism, and it was here that Hearst’s own early experiences as a reporter and his family’s history in news publishing really came into play. “My view is that we have left behind the kind of journalism that was considered a calling for people 20-30 years ago, to some degree because of Roger Ailes at Fox,” he said. “He discovered it was a lot cheaper to have two generals in front of a map pushing pins around than it is to send people to cover the war in Afghanistan. So we’ve substituted dialogue, opinion, and paid experts debating each other, with no facts or actual reporting, and that, I think, is a bigger challenge to journalism than left versus right.”
That led Hearst to a rousing conclusion that was met by warm applause. “I think we’re ready for the pendulum to swing back from, ‘Everybody’s opinions are equal,’ to, ‘No, some people’s facts are really facts.'”