It wasn't exactly a secret that Welles was taking a sharp bite at William Randolph Hearst in this film. Seriously, he wasn't even trying to be subtle. Check it out:
- Like Kane, Hearst was a newspaper tycoon, running a media empire that he controlled with an iron fist.
- Like Kane, Hearst built his own private estate, San Simeon, which he filled with a private zoo and numerous works of art, among others.
- And like Kane, Hearst had a great love that he tried to boost up beyond her talents. In this case, it was actress Marion Davies, who had a gift for light comedy, but who ended up in a lot of lavish—and incredibly boring—event pictures thanks to Hearst's influence. (Though it should be noted that Davies was much better at acting than Susan Alexander Kane was at singing.)
Hearst, of course, wasn't too fond of Citizen Kane. And since he controlled a huge number of newspapers at the time, he didn't have to just sit there and take it. He banned all advertisements from the movie in his papers, and even blackmailed studio heads by threatening to expose all kinds of dirt on them if they didn't play ball. As a result, the film bombed at the box office and the Academy refused to acknowledge it at the Oscars, where it crawled away with just a single award for Best Original Screenplay.
The results left Welles on the outs in Hollywood and struggling to maintain creative control over his films. He spent the rest of his career trying to gather money for his personal projects while appearing in other people's movies for a paycheck. He made some good ones, but none of them ever measured up to the potential of this one. Hearst definitely got his revenge.
But Welles had the last laugh after all. While RKO put Citizen Kane away in the vaults for a while, the Europeans discovered it after World War II and aired it on television, allowing people to see it for what it was. Its reputation soared, and its lacerating digs at Hearst rapidly became associated with the newspaper mogul. (Hearst died in 1951 and was no longer around to strike back.) It ended up tarnishing his reputation as much as Welles…ironic, since the film itself shows the kind of hubris and folly that both men had in spades.
In the end, the battle destroyed both men, but the film survived…and the story around their battle was so good it inspired a couple of really good film adaptations about it. One of the best is a PBS documentary entitled The Battle over Citizen Kane, though if you'd like a fictional version, there's RKO 281, starring Liev Schreiber as Welles and James Cromwell as Hearst.
That's how good Citizen Kane is: we got multiple other good movies based solely on efforts to destroy it.