[Editor’s note: In the month of February I am reviewing several Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning movies that I haven’t seen.
Citizen Kane (1941) was nominated for:
It was widely thought the film would win most of the awards it was nominated for, but it only won the Best Writing (Original Screenplay) Oscar.]
Prologue by Ian T. McFarland:
Citizen Kane is not the best movie of all time.
The American Film Institute would disagree, having placed it in the top spot in both its original and redo on the 100 Best Movies of All Time list. And the general zeitgeist of film criticism would be on the same page – how many times do you hear the phrase, “It’s not Citizen Kane, but. . .” when describing an average movie? (The answer is too often.) But, at least as far as my opinion is concerned, Citizen Kane is far from the greatest thing ever.
There. Now that we have that out of the way, you can appreciate Citizen Kane for what it is – a great movie that is eclipsed by its importance.
Orson Welles isn’t remembered all that kindly anymore, so it may be a surprise to find that he was considered the next big thing in the world of theatre when he was barely older than a teenager. At the age of twenty-five (twenty-five!), Hollywood co-opted him in a deal that gave him complete artistic freedom – something that even today’s A-List directors like David Fincher and Christopher Nolan could never get from a studio. The result was Citizen Kane – his first movie, and a liberatingly different take on what the medium of cinema was capable of.
Coming out of a Hollywood system that churned out product like Grade B meat, here was a film that used the camera like a paint brush instead of a documenting tool. The film didn’t just look good, the cinematography was real artwork. But at the center of Kane is, well, Kane – an unconventional protagonist that isn’t particularly likable or even all that moral. None of that matters, though – what makes the film is the enigma of the character, not just what Rosebud was, but what it meant to him.
These ingredients make for a great film, but more importantly they were ingredients that were never used so radically before. Citizen Kane isn’t the greatest movie of all time, but could well be the most important.
Phew. I couldn’t have asked for a better review from Ian for several reasons, mostly that it takes the pressure off of me.
My excuse for missing more recent classics like Wayne’s World and Big Lebowski, even Top Gun, has been my family. We rarely went to the movie theatre growing up, so what we watched on the weekends was whatever my dad brought home from Video Library (RIP). He loves old movies, so that’s what we watched. Why haven’t I seen Citizen Kane, one of the most famous “old movies” of ever ever ever? I’d like to blame my parents for this atrocity, but I’ve been out on my own for nine years and I need to be accountable for my poor life decisions. In addition to my love for movies made before 1980, I have visited the Hearst Castle and obsessively read Hearst biographies for months after my trip. What is wrong with me? Why have I avoided this for so long?
Truthfully, it goes back to what I’ve said before about hype. With the #1 ranking on the AFI list and repeated acclaim from every ill-informed and pretentious film student (why I will probably never watch 400 Blows), I anticipated being disappointed and knew my expectations would never be met.
In a way, I was right. Citizen Kane is not the greatest film I’ve ever seen. But I feel like my skepticism led me to be more realistic and I ended up enjoying the movie a lot more that I thought I would.
Citizen Kane is not without its flaws. Aside from Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten (who has always been a favorite of mine, thanks to his role in Shadow of a Doubt), I thought the acting was atrocious. I tend to harp on female actors but I am not sure I’ve seen a female performance worse than the one by the actress who played Susan Alexander (and maybe that was done on purpose, since she was panned for her terrible operatic acting). Also, I suppose that the makeup in the movie was “ahead of its time,” but I couldn’t help but get flashbacks of the terrible makeup on Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar. Ick.
Unfortunately Rosebud’s identity is one of the worst kept secrets in cinema history, a la Keyser Söze (I still haven’t seen that movie), but I found the plot very interesting and well-developed (and I expected to be very bored). The structure of the film– beginning with Kane’s death, the news reels and the journalist’s initial investigation into “Rosebud,” followed primarily by flashbacks– was extremely entertaining. This same plot executed in a more linear fashion would have made for a very boring movie. I also loved the cinematography– particularly the highlights of Xanadu, portrayed as an almost haunted and evil mansion. And overall, I thought Orson Welles did a tremendous job. He really has the most soothing voice, doesn’t he? I would never have freaked out at his radio narration of War of the Worlds because his voice would have put me to sleep (in a good way). I don’t know if I’ve been heavily influenced by Welles’s age and theatrical accomplishments, but I thought his acting and directing was superb.
Face palm moment: I’ve never seen Orson Welles in anything, nor have I heard the War of the Worlds recording. I’m not sure that this warrants a face palm. Maybe it does.
Favorite part: See below.
The “I missed that in pop culture trivia” moment: I feel like THE ABSOLUTE WORST for not knowing this GIF came from Citizen Kane. I’m terrible.
Regrettable tardiness scale (out of 10): 7/10. I suppose my review is more harsh than I really felt. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, but definitely disagree with the #1 ranking it regularly receives. My BFF Roger Ebert has Citizen Kane ranked as #14 on his official “top movies” list and I’d agree more with that ranking.