I watched “Citizen Kane” again last night. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the 1941 Orson Welles landmark over the years: 10, 15, 25. For this viewing, though, I tried to watch it through the eyes of Donald Trump, who claims it as his favorite movie of all time.
And you know what I realized? Of course he loves “Citizen Kane.” He thinks it’s about him.
Let’s take a step back. Judging presidents and candidates by their favorite movie — or most loved song, or, I don’t know, their preferred Beatle — is a useless but occasionally telling parlor game. Bill Clinton has professed to adore “Casablanca,” which is a safe enough choice, although when he rhapsodized about Ingrid Bergman to Roger Ebert in 1999, saying “God, I wish I’d known that woman,” that was more information than most of us wanted.
Hillary Clinton has claimed “Casablanca” as a fave as well, along with “The Wizard of Oz” and “Out of Africa.” That last one’s intriguing. What possible interest could she have in a drama about a strong, independent woman coping with a feckless husband? And where’s Robert Redford in a biplane when you need him?
Obama likes “The Godfather” (parts I and II), Reagan liked “High Noon,” Eisenhower liked anything with horses and cowboy hats. Mitt Romney has gone on the record about his love for the Coen brothers “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Former Texas governor Rick Perry’s favorite movie is “Immortal Beloved,” the 1994 period film starring Gary Oldman as Ludwig van Beethoven. Maybe those glasses are real, after all.
Everyone assumes Richard Nixon’s favorite movie was “Patton,” the George C. Scott war biopic which he indeed screened more than once. But according to the diaries of White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, the 37th president’s actual most-loved film was “Around the World in 80 Days,” a splashy, wide-screen entertainment that won the best picture Oscar for 1956 and that Nixon watched more than any other movie. This gets to a nugget of truth: When it comes to filmgoing, the famous are like the rest of us. They don’t want something that reflects themselves. They want something that takes them away from themselves.
Except in the case of Donald Trump and “Citizen Kane.” Here it’s all about the self. For the culturally benighted or the very young, “Kane” is the fictional story of Charles Foster Kane, an all-powerful media baron and failed politician who amasses wealth and belongings while collecting ex-wives (only two in his case) and pushing the country into the occasional war. The movie was directed with groundbreaking verve by the 25-year-old Welles, who also co-wrote the script, produced, and starred as Kane. It’s really the first indie movie in the modern sense, made with ironic style and a cutting sensibility, and it’s a work of immense egotism both on the screen and behind it. The title of Herman Mankiewicz’s original screenplay was simply “American.”
“Kane” was famously (if only partly) based on the life of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, but if you squint the right way, it applies to our modern Rupert Murdochs and other self-styled masters of the universe. It’s about anyone who dreams in oversize fashion and bullies the world into matching the dream.
The difference is that Welles embedded his portrayal with criticism. Most of us understand that the movie’s hero isn’t to be taken for a role model. But most of us aren’t Donald Trump. You can imagine him watching “Citizen Kane” and thinking, Wow, what a guy.
Except for that little “Rosebud” thing, the detail that, for Trump, turns the film into a cautionary tale for the 1 percent — a story of the loneliness that money brings. “‘Citizen Kane’ was really about accumulation, and at the end of the accumulation, you see what happens, and it’s not necessarily all positive. You learn in ‘Kane’ that maybe wealth isn’t everything.”
That’s Trump speaking in 2008 about the movie, in an interview filmed by Errol Morris that’s available on YouTube. Against the director’s standard white background, Trump free associates on the meaning of “Rosebud,” Charlie Kane’s mistakes, and a mogul’s troubles with women. “The table getting larger and larger and larger with he and his wife getting further and further apart as he got wealthier and wealthier — perhaps I can understand that,” Trump says. “The relationship that he had was not a good one for him. Probably not a great one for her, although there were benefits for her, but in the end she was certainly not a happy camper. In real life, I believe that wealth does in fact isolate you from other people.”
(Toward the end of the clip, the off-screen Morris asks, “If you could give Charles Foster Kane advice, what would you say to him?” Trumps replies with a grin, “Get yourself a different woman.”)
To a mind incapable of processing irony, “Citizen Kane” must play like an instruction manual for wannabe tycoons. Kane survives business successes and bankruptcies alike; he’s called a communist by some and a fascist by others. He serves no political party but himself. He doesn’t build a wall, but he does foment the country into the Spanish-American War (as did Hearst, among others). Kane’s aside to a newspaper editor — “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough” — could serve as the Donald’s mantra of public relations.
All the ostentation and gaudiness are there, all the endless things money can buy to advertise one’s wealth. Kane’s mansion, Xanadu, is described as “the costliest monument a man has built to himself” — it only needs a TRUMP along the top to be complete. When his first wife (Ruth Warrick) says, “People will think —,” and Kane interrupts with a snarl, “What I tell them to think,” right there may be the key to a successful presidential primary strategy.
Kane even gets off one line of dialogue that, more than any other, has become synonymous with the candidate who so admires him. “Sure, we’re speaking, Jedediah” Kane reassures his chastened college friend and best writer, Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton). And then he lowers the boom: “You’re fired.”
And here you thought “Citizen Kane” was just the greatest (or most overrated) movie ever made. Nope: It’s a mirror in which a world-class narcissist can take comfort, pause, and instruction. Which is to say that if Donald Trump ever had his own “Rosebud,” he probably burned it himself a long time ago.
Donald Trump talking about “Citizen Kane”: