San Luis Obispo Film Fest: 'Citizen Kane' Plays in William Randolph Hearst's Private Screening Room

Ben Mankiewicz, the grandson of the film's late co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, introduced the unprecedented screening, a fundraiser that was given the go-ahead by Hearst's great-grandson Stephen Hearst.
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Hearst Castle

Seventy-five years ago, millionaire media mogul William Randolph Hearst was fighting to stop the release of Citizen Kane, the directorial debut of a 26-year-old punk named Orson Welles whose film ruthlessly mocked the older man. But on Friday night, in a twist worthy of Hollywood, Citizen Kane, which is now widely regarded as the greatest film ever made, screened in none other than Hearst's own private screening room.

So much for "No trespassing!"

Actually, the unprecedented event, which served as a fundraiser for the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, had the full blessing of W.R.'s great-grandson Stephen Hearst, who saw it as an opportunity to support a local film fest and to highlight the differences between Hearst and Kane.

The idea for the event was conceived and pitched to the Hearst Castle organization by SLO film fest director Wendy Eidson. "It was initially kind of a joke," she recalled. "When I found out that they would actually consider it, I just sort of floated down the hill [from the castle]." As she looked around the premises, she added, "It really does have an incredibly magical feel to it."

Fifty guests from near and far had the opportunity, for $1,000 a head, to experience the magic. Mal Huntley, who made a five-hour drive from Nevada City to San Simeon with his wife, said he wouldn't have missed it for anything: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime event. To be able to see the movie, which I've always loved, in the screening room at Hearst Castle, hosted by [TCM's] Ben Mankiewicz, whose grandfather [Herman J. Mankiewicz] co-wrote the script? I mean, how could you not? Seriously."

During a pre-screening tour of Hearst Castle, a sprawling mansion located behind massive gates and high atop a hill (just like Kane's Xanadu), museum director Mary Levkoff suggested that it was Kane's demeaning depiction of the three most important women in Hearst's life — his mother Phoebe Hearst, his wife Millicent Hearst and his lover Marion Davies — that so angered him and motivated him to mobilize his massive media interests in the cause of crushing the film. "It basically insulted three women who were not able to defend themselves," Levkoff noted, "and that is probably why Hearst, who had a very thick skin, took such umbrage."

Later, after the guests — including the actor Bill Paxton — were seated in Hearst's lavish private screening room, Ben Mankiewicz introduced the film, noting how surreal it was to be "in this theater, where my grandfather watched movies — and then left early to go drink with Marion Davies." Herman was a recurrent guest at Hearst Castle in the 1930s before his hard-drinking got him banned, which may have inspired him to set his sights on Hearst after Welles solicited his partnership on Citizen Kane.

Though Herman and Welles brainstormed ideas together, received joint-credit and shared an Academy Award for writing the film's script, Ben laughed that "co-screenwriter" is "a word we don't use in the Mankiewicz family," since his grandfather always insisted that he wrote "98 percent" of the film. Neither man attended the Oscars the night they won, but Ben said Herman later shared the speech he would have given had he been there: "I'm very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles' absence because the screenplay was written in Mr. Welles' absence." In any event, Ben added, "I feel like I'm honoring my grandfather, and my father through him, [by being here]."

I asked Levkoff what she, as someone who has studied and lectured about Hearst for nearly 20 years, thought that the man himself — who moved out of the castle in 1947 due to failing health, died in 1951 and bequeathed the mansion to the State of California — would have made of the evening's festivities. "I try not to presume to know or even imagine what Hearst would have thought about things," she said. "I try to stay on the straight-and-narrow as a historian and a scholar and I just depend on primary sources. In some cases, I have a pretty clear idea about what he would have thought about something; with Kane, I have to say that I sort of doubt that he would have wanted to have the movie screened here, but, as his great-grandson said, it gives us a wonderful opportunity to compare the fact and the fiction."

Levkoff continued, "Having been able to talk to some of the supporters tonight — and they're all philanthropists — I just want to say how delighted I am by the very positive feeling about William Randolph Hearst that I am sensing across the board. I think he would be very happy to know that there have been such positive thoughts and opinions expressed about him tonight."

The 21st San Luis Obispo International Film Festival continues through Sunday. In addition to a solid lineup of screenings and guests, Eidson cracked, "We are probably the only film festival on this continent that can say that we have a castle as a venue!"

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg