If you’ve been following along on my podcast memoir that I’ve been doing in fits and starts over at goldtripping.com, you heard in the first episode how I started this website way back in 1999. in part to try to figure out why Citizen Kane lost Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley. I didn’t know the answer then but I know the answer now. I know because for the past two decades I’ve been watching the race from start to finish. From the hope springs eternal phase, through the wishful thinking phase, through the doors slamming shut face, to the bang and the whimper of the bitter end.
We all know this has been a really strange year. Right about now we would be on our way back from the Telluride Film Festival, flush with a few frontrunners and more often than not, the Best Picture winner would be a film we’d already seen. The Venice Film Festival is unfurling, such as it is, and most everyone else is frozen in place, thinking: what now?
There isn’t any way to make this situation less awful except maybe to dig into one of the most interesting Oscar years in their history: 1941. So why this year? Well, for two reasons. First, as I said, it was why I started this site at all, to look into the mystery of why one of the greatest, if the not the greatest, film of all time was not named Best Picture by the Academy. The second reason is because we’re all eagerly awaiting David Fincher’s Mank, a black and white film, with a screenplay written by his father Jack, about that turning point in American cinema when Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the script, along with Orson Welles, that would become Citizen Kane.
When I first started writing about or even thinking about the Oscars, I was a firm believer in film greatness as defined by film critics. That is, those with deeper perception and better taste than your average person, with a keen knowledge and awareness of film history who we could trust to properly place a film in context, and thus, have the authority and the smarts to know greatness when they saw it. That was how I naively thought about film criticism back then.
I’d already been online since 1994, in the early days of the internet and had found a Usenet newsgroup called Cinema-l. I was not a film critic but I’d grown up as someone whose life was defined by movies, going to the movies, watching the same movies I loved over and over again. I didn’t yet know that the internet would become such an integral part of the way we all live our lives now. Back then I was a freak, huddled over my keyboard tapping away all through the night about movies and, to my surprise, attracting readers from all over the world. I’m still a freak, of course, but billions of others in the modern world have joined us to live our lives, at least partly, online.
The one thing we in the newsgroup had in common was movies. To some degree, most of my readers were film snobs, it must be said, with sensibilities of film critics. And I was not. I learned everything I would need to know, however, about how to create a blog from the seeds of that group, and I also learned everything I knew about film criticism, which wasn’t much except that the Oscars didn’t matter but Citizen Kane did.
When I say the Oscars didn’t matter, I mean they were considered a joke among most highbrow cinephiles. Most people who were serious about film did not take the Academy seriously as barometers and arbiters of good cinema. Likewise, industry voters and especially Oscar voters used to pride themselves in not being critics, or in not listening to critics. After all, how in the world could critics have any clue about what makes a good or successful movie. Oscar voters are the ones who make the movies so they would know better. Not to mention how many of them toiled on a film for the better part of a year or so, only to watch critics torch it upon release.
They trusted themselves and audiences. Critics were useful or destructive but they went their own way when it came to choosing films. Of course, much of the time the two aligned. They could agree on what was GREAT – but the Academy drew the line at others telling them what they SHOULD pick, or what SHOULD win. Believe it or not that used to be a thing.
When I started Oscarwatch, now AwardsDaily, I had been ruminating on that question – why did How Green Was My Valley win and Citizen Kane did not. I absolutely know the answer to that question now. I understand better what kinds of films people in large groups vote for, what builds a consensus, and what shifts public perception.
Winning Best Picture has to do with momentary passion, a surge in mood that rarely lasts beyond the year the film came out. It has to do with what film makes people feel good in the moment, gives them that sense of urgency that they must pick THIS MOVIE right now.
A lot has happened in the last twenty years regarding film criticism and its place in the Oscar race. For one thing, that part where critics cared about the Oscars has completely shifted. They care now. They care a lot. In fact, they care about the Oscars as much, if not more than they care about their own awards. Part of that is, no doubt, the democratization of film criticism online (anyone with a hotplate can cook), but it is also due to the increasingly insular nature of the Oscars themselves. Maybe it’s ONLY film critics who care about them anymore since the general public seems to have lost interest in most of the films chosen. Not entirely, but at least allowing film critics to reign supreme in their influence.
That would then beg the question, given everything that has changed would Citizen Kane win today?
Well, that one is hard to measure because you have to factor in how film criticism has evolved away from the more traditional definition of what makes a good film. The last time there was a major shift in how “good” was defined can probably be traced back to the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Not only did perceptions change about art and politics and life in America, but the Oscars themselves changed. The kinds of films they rewarded changed. We’re going through a similar counter culture revolution now with inclusivity and “woke” politics with a new generation defining what they think of as good — how it addresses their pressing needs about identity, gender, sexuality, skin color, ethnicity. Who gets to define what is “good” and who doesn’t. That has dramatically altered how films are reviewed because no critic or film critic group wants to be called out for favoring the dreaded “all white, all male” sensibility. That white patriarchal gaze is considered “the enemy” to the revolution unless it sees films through that lens.
What this counter is to the culture that was before is to rewrite the rules of almost everything, from how college admissions work, to how science is researched, to how people speak, to how journalists write headlines, to how people operate their businesses, to how editors manage equity, to how many films by women or people of color are included in the Oscars every year. It has been decided, even, that the films up for Oscars will be held to some kind of inclusivity standard, although that has not yet been defined officially.
The baby boomers who wrecked and revamped everything that was in place in the 1960s and 1970s have dominated the Oscars for as long as I’ve been covering them, and maybe even film criticism. That legacy is what is being dismantled right now, or is targeted to be.
So the question, could Citizen Kane win today – well, no. The reason being, it would be considerably dinged for being a film about a white man, made by all white men, with a somewhat negative portrayal of two female characters, Kane’s two wives. It would not be considered simply as a great film — maybe the definitive film about American capitalism or even the same patriarchy that has become a problem for so many now. It would be judged by a shared ideology of what defines good.
This is important to know because it will inform this year, how reviews are written, how awards are given out, how various groups tweet about their winners, how the hive responds to those winners. To an extent the Academy is sort of out of that loop but as we found with Parasite last year, and Green Book the year before, that is becoming less and less true. This is Oscars by hive mind, and like everything else, it is vulnerable to being called out, boycotted, or celebrated.
Regardless, time has elevated Citizen Kane into one of the greatest films ever made — and it hasn’t yet been dismantled by Generation Woke, as far as I can tell. A quick google search of “Citizen Kane” and “problematic” only turns up two stories.
One from 1999 by David Thomson that talks about how Sight and Sound did not list Kane as one of the greatest films of all time on their 1952 list, but how he saw it one day and it left him changed. His piece called “Film Studies: ‘Citizen Kane’ must be banned – for its sake, and for ours” makes the case that Kane has now been dragged out as the greatest film of all time to the point where students do not recognize its greatness anymore and can’t. He writes:
No one needed to withdraw Citizen Kane in 1952. The way of the world then was that the only place to see films was in cinemas booked out with new pictures. There was no video; there was little yet in the way of films on television; there was only the Classic art-house circuit that offered “old” films in repertory. And Citizen Kane had been a commercial flop in 1941. It was true that the few books on film spoke warmly of Kane, but it was largely unknown, and effectively beyond recovery.
In short, ladies and gentlemen, it was just about the most desirable film I could imagine when, one day in the mid-1950s, the Classic in Tooting, elected to revive it. I saw it there – alone. I was probably 14 or so, but I was terrified, because I had never been so moved by the medium, and had never seen my hideous future so clearly.
And one from 1941, Bosley Crowther writing for the New York Times covering what was at that time a version of “cancel culture,” but of the rich and powerful and conservative, rather than the newly woke university graduates. “Orson Welles’s Controversial ‘Citizen Kane’ Proves a Sensational Film at Palace”, the headline reads.
Kane was considered “controversial” enough that powerful forces in Hollywood were considering banning it, burying it, even so far as destroying the negative. As Crowther writes:
Within the withering spotlight as no other film has ever been before, Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” had is world première at the Palace last evening. And now that the wraps are off, the mystery has been exposed and Mr. Welles and the RKO directors have taken the much-debated leap, it can be safely stated that suppression of this film would have been a crime. For, in spite of some disconcerting lapses and strange ambiguities in the creation of the principal character, “Citizen Kane” is far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon. As a matter of fact, it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood. Count on Mr. Welles; he doesn’t do things by halves.
A film’s life in the Oscar race has everything to do with the time and events that surrounded its release. Kane was way too controversial to win the Oscar. Welles was an outsider, without a doubt, a punk kid the industry mostly resented, as they tend to resent anyone who receives what they consider overblown praise from critics. But the film itself has to function as massive influencer on a large consensus — that means, they have to know why they are voting for it. And in John Ford and How Green Was My Valley’s case, that was easy: a film about his Irish roots. That win was a no brainer.
In 1941, John Ford was arguably among the most influential and important directors in Hollywood at the time. Welles himself watched Stagecoach over and over, to study the nuts of bolts that held a great movie together. Ford had already won Best Director twice without winning Best Picture. The Informant and the Grapes of Wrath. That meant he was where both Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Roma) and Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi) are. In other words, he was way overdue for the coveted paired win. How Green Was My Valley was his most personal film. It was an insider’s movie rather than what Kane was, an outsider’s movie. Not to mention the threatening cloud that hung over Kane as the provocative film was being mildly shunned by a fearful faction of Hollywood collectively worried about what William Randolph Hearst might do to wreak revenge.
Had they voted for Citizen Kane then they would have been voting FOR someone who has dared to wave his spear at a mighty American icon. A film that dared to dissect a man who was known to wield his media empire like a weapon. There is no way that a large number of Oscar voters would risk that happening. But the screenplay won. And many believe it won not for appreciation of Orson Welles — but for his co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, or Mank.
But now, it’s reputation redeemed, Citizen Kane reaches across decades of time, and the way it’s perceived has changed as generations change. Its influence has expanded in unexpected directions depending on which budding filmmakers and curious filmgoers have discovered it. Great works of art do that: they are never exhausted by time. Although who knows, maybe the new generation will find a way to redefine what is good and maybe that will throw the baby out with the bathwater. Put it this way: I won’t be surprised if there is a postmodern attempt to deconstruct both the film and the people who love it.
Mank, a gemius in how own right, is about to be explored, exposed and perhaps exalted anew, in the full light of day with David Fincher’s upcoming film, which has been tightly kept under wraps — not even a screenshot has emerged but you can feel people salivating at the notion of a Fincher feature in black and white. Holy Mother of God.
Fincher’s films also have the ability to reach across decades of time. In particular, Fight Club and Seven are two films that only seem to get better as the generation they were released into gives way to fresh eyes. That has to happen for a film to survive. It can’t get stuck in the time it was born or it will never last.
But Best Picture winners do not have that luxury. They have to hit their mark in their moment. Whether they can last is not a consideration. The Oscars are a snapshot about who the industry was and how they wanted to present themselves more than they are about rewarding quality cinema. How Green Was My Valley is a lovely film. But more importantly, like every Oscar movie that has to win a consensus, it could be easily understood on first viewing and it make people feel good to vote for it.
Humans and the films we love fall along dividing lines between lightness and dark. Films that confirm optimism, where goodness wins out do battle with films that confirm our folly, our despair, that either we or the world are fundamentally corrupt. The counter-culture revolution of the 1960s and 70s was anti-establishment, which is probably why many of the darker films that won in the 1970s confirmed what voters thought about the world they were living in. Nixon rose to power, then briefly Jimmy Carter before Ronald Reagan took power in 1980 and transformed culture once again.
How will the political turmoil of the current year inform the Oscars? We won’t know until we see what the movies are going to be. We might not even know until we move past it. The ground is still shifting beneath our feet and most of us have no idea where we will end up.
But there is one great thing about this year: David Fincher has a movie coming out. And not only that, it’s about Citizen Kane.