For seven decades, two names have been inextricably linked yet permanently separated by fiction and fury: William Randolph Hearst and “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’ scathing, inventive movie that appeared to indict Hearst’s lifestyle as a mega-wealthy publisher and film producer in the 1920s through 1940s.
The standoff will end March 9, when, with the blessings of the Hearst family, “Citizen Kane” will air on the five-story-tall screen in the Hearst Castle Visitor Center as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Film star Harrison Ford is to present an award before the showing.
The clash between Hearst and Welles began even before the 1941 release of the movie, which many people assumed to be an accurate depiction of Hearst, and continued beyond the publisher’s death in 1951 and the 1958 conversion of his lavish San Simeon estate into one of California’s most popular state parks.
Hearst never saw the movie, according to longtime companion Marion Davies, but he was deeply angered and hurt by what he heard about it.
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Major theater companies declined to show the film, fearing Hearst’s 28 papers — which reached 20 million readers — would write about the private lives and political sympathies of Hollywood celebrities. Fearful of damage to the film industry, a group of industry executives tried unsuccessfully to buy and destroy negatives of the film — which the American Film Institute has since named the best American movie ever made.
“(The movie) bothered W.R. in a large way,” his great-grandson Steve Hearst, a Hearst Corp. vice president, told The Cambrian Friday, Jan. 13. “He realized people would be making a judgment about him based on the film.”
Festival organizers say they were surprised when Steve Hearst heartily endorsed the proposal to screen the film at the theater.
The younger Hearst has seen the film “a number of times” and considers it “a classic, entertaining American film,” he said. “I obviously don’t believe it to be an accurate depiction of W.R. or his love for the property” in San Simeon, or “his lifestyle, associations and demeanor.” The film “shows the Castle as a dark, gloomy, nasty place,” Hearst recalled. “Everybody knows what it really is like: light, lovely, sunny ... very bright, a joyous place to be.”
He said he believed it was time to provide people with an opportunity to see “Citizen Kane” in San Simeon, in its proper context, in part because so many people have used the film to form erroneous opinions about W.R. Hearst, Davies and their life there.
Writing about the film in 1975, Welles listed some of the differences between Hearst’s real life and the movie’s characters and plot.
“There are parallels, but these can be just as misleading as comparisons,” he wrote, claiming that, except for one line of dialogue and the art collection, “in ‘Kane’ everything was invented.”
The supposed Davies character in the film — aspiring but talentless singer Susan Kane — is nothing like Davies, Welles wrote.
“As one who shares much of the blame for casting another shadow — the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane ... Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen.”
Welles took pains to point out the differences between W.R. Hearst’s relationship with Davies in real life and the characters in the film.
“Theirs is truly a love story,” Welles wrote of Hearst and Davies. “Love is not the subject of ‘Citizen Kane.’ ”