Saturday, November 5, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Citizen Kane" (1941)

Scene from Citizen Kane
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Citizen Kane (1941)
Directed By: Orson Welles
Written By: Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles (Screenplay)
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dortothy Comingore
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Running Time: 111 minutes
Summary: Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance.

The Movie

If you have to ask what Citizen Kane is, it's likely that movies aren't a high priority in your life. Director Orson Welles' directorial debut is considered to be the gold standard by which all film is measured. It constantly appears atop lists that involve the words: greatest, movie, and ever. There's plenty of good reason. At the age of 26, Welles created the future of cinema through creativity and in part by necessity to bring to life one of the most tragic antagonists of the era: newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane. While other titles like The Godfather and Vertigo have also come to define the medium, there's no denying that Citizen Kane has a slight edge on every film, if just because it is used as colloquialism for quality. No film past its release even comes close to having the reputation.

It is almost important to have an opinion on Citizen Kane as a result of this. It is the film that is as engaging to watch as it is to dissect. There's been endless commentary on the film, and Welles could easily be considered one of the great directors for this film alone. It is easy to see why. It has heart, passion, and craft. It may be lost to audiences who have seen the technique used on films since, but it did so much as look different from most titles of the time. The mystery of "Rosebud" was likely one of the first major spoilers in film culture. It has been lampooned to death and almost every facet of pop culture-related society has referenced it at some point. It is for this reason and many others that Citizen Kane is a film that is almost impossible to not at least know about. It even spawned the careers of Hollywood regulars Robert Wise (West Side Story), Bernard Herrmann (Psycho), and Joseph Cotten (The Third Man).

So, did it win Best Picture if it was the "greatest movie ever"? Not exactly. While what follows wasn't necessarily an Oscar campaign, it isn't too far off from smear campaigns that would crop up in later years, such as the anti-gay rhetoric towards Brokeback Mountain. It may not be nearly as racy in that sense, but the cultural impact of one man ruined the chances of Welles' future before it had gotten too far. Welles had done theater and stage work, most notably with The War of the Worlds radio production, but was no match for capitalism in media; of which would bring about his biggest foe William Randolph Hearst.

The Campaign

To summarize, Hearst was a newspaper tycoon in America at the time. His word was bond. He is considered to be one of the most influential people in journalism history because of his ability to make or break careers by forcing his publications to withhold stories. He was a man of power, and one that wouldn't back out of a fight easily. He had the money to destroy whomever he wanted. It was because of this and many more reasons that Hearst found himself pretty well represented in Citizen Kane's Charles Foster Kane. To say the least, he wasn't too keen on his image being displayed in a negative light.

Welles himself has claimed that Kane isn't based specifically on Hearst; though he has claimed that the character is based off of a "news publisher." This didn't stop Hearst employee Hedda Hopper from discussing the film with Hearst upon seeing it. Since the tycoon was a public figure, everyone could piece the details together. Xanadu was Hearst Castle. Kane's mistress (a failed opera singer) was Marion Davies. Even certain practices were too uncanny to the man's lengthy career. The only thing that arguably was different was the names and dates that Kane's life story took place in. Hearst wasn't happy at the presumed attack on his character.

This was a hatred that ran deep. It started simply enough with every Hearst publication pulling any mention or advertisement. This was a pretty big deal, as the circulation included 26 newspapers, 16 magazines, and 11 radio stations. What mentions there were of Welles involved attacking his character and accusing him of being a Communist. Hearst would go so far as to make Anti-Semetic insinuations by suggesting that Hollywood was full of "immigrants" and "refugees." MGM head Louis B. Mayer even offered to pay home studio RKO a total of $842,000 to destroy the print and not release the film. Head producer George Schaefer refused. There were also attempts to boycott the film by lawsuit threats Fox, Paramount and Loews theater chains. Considering that most of Hollywood was considered to be bitter about Welles' technical prowess and cockiness, it was easy to fall in line. 

Amid all of the backlash, it is important to remember one fact. Welles was adamant that Kane was not Hearst. The elderly tycoon had been in business since the late 1800's and was showing no signs of losing impact. His word pretty much set the expectations for anything related to the media. To defy him was to face career risks that would be impossible to come back from. While Welles would suffer studio interference in the future, it's difficult to wonder if his cocky beginnings doomed him from the start. Despite getting positive reviews, he was still an outcast that wouldn't stand a chance of getting the respect of his peers. He was too young and ambitious. He was too defiant. He was too thickheaded to not go after someone a tad less influential.

The Payoff

To be fair, Citizen Kane wasn't a total loss. While Hearst's attack definitely made the film almost too taboo to vote for, it still managed to land nine Oscar nominations. This included Best Picture, Best Director (Welles), Best Actor (Welles again), Best Original Score, and Best Editing among others. The nominations clearly recognized the talent that it took to make the film. However, it was too controversial to stand any chance of winning big. What did end up happening was that Welles shared a Best Original Screenplay win with Herman J. Mankiewicz, which remained Welles' only Oscar win in his entire career, and his only film to receive major Oscar consideration. 

It is important to note the difference between Citizen Kane in 1941 and the film now. For starters, the assessment of it as a grand masterpiece would take decades to reach its current status. For the film to lose to How Green Was My Valley in Best Picture is still considered the biggest Oscar upset in history. However, it should be noted that John Ford's career was far more established and can be seen in his four Best Director statues. It was equivalent to Martin Scorsese's Best Director win for The Departed: recognizing a legend more than the work itself. Yes, How Green Was My Valley was itself a technically impressive film. However, its legacy is unfairly tarnished by any and all comparisons to the tonally different Citizen Kane.

Since it is rarely discussed, I will choose to list the eight categories it lost in followed by who actually won. I feel like this is largely forgotten trivia and something that will help audiences to further understand the cinematic landscape in 1941. The categories were: Best Picture (How Green Was My Valley), Best Director (How Green Was My Valley), Best Actor (Gary Cooper - Sergeant York), Best Score of a Dramatic Picture (Bernard Herrmann - All That Money Can Buy), Best Sound Recording (That Hamilton Woman), Best Art Direction Black and White (How Green Was My Valley), Best Cinematography Black and White (How Green Was My Valley), Best Editing (Citizen Kane). Ironically, Herrmann was the only one of the bunch who lost to himself for a different movie. 

The film wouldn't stay buried forever. While Hearst would hold a grudge against the film, it would receive critical assessment in decades to follow. The film's sole Oscar win would be sold at auction for $861,542. Critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris would argue whether the award should've been given to Welles or Mankiewicz; both believing that only one had a bigger impact. However, recent years have also seen a change of heart from the Hearst family. Hearst's grandson Stephen held a 60 person event with tickets at $1,000 at Hearst Castle. He also insisted that the family should embrace the film. With all things considered, Welles won the long term battle, but his career took a hit with Citizen Kane that never quite recovered. It isn't all about awards when it comes to great films, but this was an example of how compliance can make or break young careers. Maybe Welles did it wrong.

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