The fall of Citizen Murdoch

July 20, 2011

Rupert Murdoch and the famous title character of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane share the megalomania that comes with enormous wealth and power.

"Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel. His paper should be run out of town. A committee should be formed to boycott him. You may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contribution of one thousand dollars."
-- Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane

I DON'T know if Rupert Murdoch lies awake at night thinking that he's a scoundrel who deserves to be run out of town, but as I sit and watch his global media empire shrink into a more diminished place in the world, I have this feeling that we've seen all of this before.

I couldn't get Citizen Kane off my mind.

Many consider Orson Welles' classic 1941 film, co-authored by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, to be one of the greatest moviews of all time. It was a slap in the face to American media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who the central character, Charles Foster Kane, was based upon. The film premiered with great fanfare in Hollywood.

For me, large chunks of the Murdoch story are all there in Citizen Kane: A youthful reformer (though in Murdoch's case, this was a very brief moment) who became the later companion of dictators, a man who used scandal to make millions, a tyrant who vindictively used his power to destroy his enemies, and a man who pushed a government into a needless and bloody war.

Hearst returned the favor by making sure that Citizen Kane fell short of the box-office success that Welles had hoped for. Hearst used his vast chain of newspapers and radio stations to suppress advertising for the film and attempted to mute praise for the many innovative techniques that Welles employed in making it.

WATCHING THE film 70 years later, it holds up well for a modern audience.

The film begins with the elderly Kane on his deathbed, where he suddenly mumbles his last word on earth--"Rosebud"-- and a snowy glass menagerie falls from his hand, crashing onto the floor. Rosebud may be the most enigmatic word uttered in in the history of film, but it's meant to convey the longing for something he lost long ago, a tragedy he never recovered from.

The movie works its way back to Kane's youth in a mountaintop homestead somewhere in the American West, where, by a stroke of luck, his father, a broken, worn-out miner, has found himself literally sitting on a mountain of gold. Kane's mother, played Agnes Moorhead--best known to the world as the mother-in-law in the television series Bewitched, but also one of the best actors of her time--has big plans for her son.

Young "Charlie," as Kane's father calls him, wants to stay with his dad, but his mother appoints a guardian, Mr. Thatcher, to raise him, monitor his education and protect the child's fortune. Thatcher is a grim, straight-laced businessman who Charlie wants nothing to do with, but he's nevertheless ripped away from his father and sent off with Thatcher. This becomes one of the major conflicts of the film--the struggle of Thatcher to mold young Kane in his image and Kane's struggle to resist it.

Much later in the film, Kane, filled with regret for the choices that he has made in his life, confronts Thatcher:

Kane: You know if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
Thatcher: Don't you think you are?
Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
Thatcher: What would you like to have been?
Kane: Everything you hate.

What is it that he hates so much? The young Kane hates the rich, the powerful, snobs and conventional attitudes. He is thrown out of one boarding school after another and enjoys tweaking the nose of Thatcher, who is constantly fuming at his antics and disrespect. He is something of an aristocratic rebel. "I always gagged on the silver spoon," Kane boasts.

After he reaches the age of 21, almost on a lark, he decides to take over the publishing of a small newspaper that his trust owns, but that isn't profitable. "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper," he writes to Thatcher, who, of course, fumes at his decision, but can't do anything about it.

Kane brings along his best friend Jedediah Leland, played by Joseph Cotton, to be a leading columnist on the newspaper. Kane and Leland begin their newspaper adventure with high-minded principles. Leland, though an immoral playboy, is Kane's moral conscience and charts his decline through the years.

Kane has a talent for publishing newspapers, and his power, wealth and influence grow through the years. He marries the niece of the sitting U.S. president and develops political ambitions of his own. Kane decides to run for governor of New York against the candidate of the city's political machine, Boss Jim Gettys. Gettys and his henchmen steal the election, and Kane is powerless to do anything about it.

His wealth can only get him so far--other powerful people and institutions have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. Even the smallest changes are to be fought against tooth and nail. Depressed and frustrated, Kane looks inward.

A sickening cynicism takes over Kane's life. His high-minded ideals go out the window, and he has nothing but contempt for the public he once championed. His vision narrows. His first wife Emily asks him about what the "people will think" about some of his newfound political positions, and he replies, "What I tell them to think."

Kane's first marriage is over, and he marries his mistress, Susan Alexander, whom he tries to make into a great opera singer, but she has neither the talent nor the stamina, and attempts suicide. Everyone has failed Kane, including himself. He seeks out the company of other dictators like Hitler and Mussolini.

Kane goes into wealthy seclusion as his empire crumbles under the hammer blows of the Great Depression. His last years are spent living on his Xanadu estate, modeled on Hearst's San Simeon Castle in California, surrounded by exotic animals and sycophants--a monarch without a country.

Critic Rogert Ebert reminds us of a scene that is easy to miss in the film:

The tycoon has overextended himself and is losing control of his empire. After he signs the papers of his surrender, he turns and walks into the back of the shot. Deep focus allows Welles to play a trick of perspective. Behind Kane on the wall is a window that seems to be of average size. But as he walks toward it, we see it is further away and much higher than we thought. Eventually, he stands beneath its lower sill, shrunken and diminished.

THE FICTIONAL Hearst and Murdoch may have led parallel lives in some respects, but they weren't carbon copies of one another. Unlike Kane, Murdoch was born into wealthy publishing family. His brief flirtation with reform was during his time as a student at Oxford University, when he was a supporter of Labour Party. In his earliest days as a publisher in Australia, he campaigned against the death sentence of Max Stuart, an aboriginal man found guilty of murdering a young white girl.

But that was long ago and far away. Murdoch built his empire on the basis of union-busting and nasty right-wing politics. Unlike Kane, Murdoch's Thatcher--British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher--was not his nemesis but his sponsor, and her ilk around the world helped him create a vast media empire.

What Kane and Murdoch do share in common is the megalomania that comes from thinking that since you're the richest guy in the room, then you must be the smartest. Ambition breeds arrogance that in turn rots into megalomania.

Is he heading to his own personal Xanadu? Hopefully. But whatever happens to Murdoch, during this summer of Transformers 3 and Zookeeper, one's time might be better spent watching a 70-year-old black-and-white film classic to understand the world we live in today.

Further Reading

From the archives