Watching Celebrities Self-destruct
It was this man that Orson Welles, age 26, elected to skewer in “Citizen Kane”—which he directed and starred in, and is considered to be one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. Welles’s portrayal of the Hearst character, Charles Foster Kane, is mesmerizing, as is the script, the acting and especially, the camera work.
Hearst went ballistic when “Citizen Kane” was released and did everything in his power to sabotage the film. The depiction of Hearst’s/Kane’s ruthlessness—and in particular, the relationship with his alcoholic mistress, in real life, Marion Davies, on whom he spent millions trying to make a movie star—would ignite the fury in any man.
But in my opinion, it was the opening scene where Charles Foster Kane lay dying that scuttled Welles’s career. The old man’s lips fill the screen and they utter a single word:
The rest of the film is a flashback—a search for the meaning of “rosebud.” Finally at the very end, we see a child’s winter sled being tossed into a fire that is incinerating some of the dead Kane’s possessions. On the sled was not the logo “Flexible Flyer”—the sled my generation grew up with—but rather, “Rosebud.”
It is now generally believed that “rosebud” was the real-life Hearst’s bedroom appellation for the most private anatomical part of his mistress, Marion Davies.
Hence the Hearst blitzkrieg against Welles, the film and the studio that made it.
How could Welles have known this intimate fact of the Hearst-Davies relationship? Gore Vidal describes the possible sequence of events:
Marion Davies was an alcoholic who surrounded herself with other merry drinkers and though Hearst and his servants did their best to keep the palaces dry, vinous times were had by Marion and such intimates as her nephew and niece, Charlie and Pepi Lederer, and, for a time, Herman Mankiewicz [“Citizen Kane” screenwriter with Welles]. Charlie Lederer was a screen-writer, a wit, a sometime drug-taker.