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Hearst and Welles--did Mankiewicz know how right, and how wrong, the two men were for each other? Both thrived on sensation: one journalistic, the other theatrical. They brought art and news to the masses, showed it in images an immigrant could understand; some said they lowered standards to become rich or famous. The arc of Hearst's career--early innovation and influence followed by fruitless runs for office, by the ebbing of his empire--would be Welles' too. And there were the famous liaisons with actresses: Welles wed three, Hearst one. For decades, while his papers denounced Hollywood morals, the old man lived openly with Davies, a comedian he foolishly tried to remake as Garbo. She stayed with him, good times and bad, in San Simeon (the "Xanadu" of Kane), his Spanish-Moorish-Italian "ranch" crammed with four millenniums' worth of trophies. It was your crazy uncle's attic, half the size of Rhode Island.
Welles, thrilled by Mankiewicz's idea for a Hearst film, was also desperate. His first RKO project--Heart of Darkness, which would be told with a subjective camera and would star Welles as Marlow and Kurtz--was deemed too pricey. Now, with Mank's unbilled help (the deal specified no screen credit for his script), Welles hoped to turn a jolly plutocrat into a tragic figure, swathe the San Simeon Sun King in the menacing shadows of movie melodrama. Kane would be Welles' Hearst of Darkness.
By putting so many facets of his young boss into Kane--the inhuman vigor, the using of others, the sled he loved as a boy--Mank effectively wrote Welles' autobiography for him in screenplay form. There was a lot of the sour old writer too in the dark vitality of the newspaper scenes, the habit of looking down on men in high places, the name of young Herman's bicycle: Rosebud. The two men privately insisted it was Hearst's pet name for Marion's sex. But that could be an impish trick, just as the whole Rosebud plot is--since, on the evidence of the film, no one heard Kane's dying word, so no one could search for its meaning.
The main thing for Welles, beyond the games, was the work. He goaded his newcomer cast and ace cinematographer Gregg Toland into playing the script's long scenes with few cuts; the audience, he figured, would be smart enough to find the drama without the nudging of montage. He kept the film secret from studio brass. But he couldn't keep Kane from Hearst. Mank couldn't, anyway. He handed the script to Charles Lederer, who was both Davies' nephew and the new husband of Welles' ex-wife. It came back annotated by Hearst's lawyers. And that was just a hello. Soon the old man was promising scandal and lawsuits against RKO and any theater chain that dared exhibit the film.
Hearst's action against Kane suited Hollywood's Old Guard fine; MGM's Louis B. Mayer offered to buy the picture for $1 million and destroy the negative. Kane was finally released, amid raves and some skepticism from critics, a yawn from the public. At the following year's Oscar party, having earned nine nominations, the film was booed every time it was mentioned. Callow says that by today's counting methods, Kane would have won for Best Film. In fact, the only statuette went to Welles and Mankiewicz, for Best Screenplay. Mank, who did not attend the ceremony, told Welles he would have said, "I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles' absence because the script was written in Mr. Welles' absence."