A new 70th anniversary edition of Citizen Kane, first released in 1941, was recently issued. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss why I think this film is great. When film historians and critics write about Citizen Kane, they mention its innovative camera angles — the way director Orson Welles plays with shadow and perspective — or its groundbreaking departure from chronological narrative.
While I admire these features, what I appreciate most about the film is its psychological portrait of Charles Foster Kane. Long before the label narcissistic personality disorder entered our lexicon and people routinely discussed the narcissistic behavior of their friends and family, Orson Welles gave us a character unable to feel empathy for other people; who craves, even demands attention from the entire world, and who becomes enraged when he can’t have what he wants. These are the features we have come to associate with the narcissist.
Charles Foster Kane — or Charlie, as he is known to his friends — was born to parents who operate a simple boarding house in Colorado. When mining stock given in lieu of payment by a boarder makes his mother (Agnes Moorehead) wealthy, she consigns Charlie to the care of a wealthy banker for his education.
In the scene when she signs the necessary papers, Mrs. Kane at first appears emotionally detached; but when her husband threatens to beat Charlie for pushing the banker into the snow, she says, “That’s why he’s going to be brought up where you can’t get at him.” This scene, with an emotionally remote mother and an abusive father, offer the only clues to the origins of Charlie’s personality and later difficulties.
He grows into a charismatic young man who decides to run a newspaper because it would be “fun.” His paper crusades on behalf of the underprivileged and Charlie views himself as their champion, using his generosity toward “the poor” as a kind of narcissistic feed. As his best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) remarks, “You talk about ‘the people’ as if you owned them, as though they belonged to you. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve talked about ‘giving the people their rights,’ as if you could make them a present of liberty, as a reward for services rendered.” As accurate description of narcissistic grandiosity as you’re likely to find.
Charlie falls in love, as narcissists do, with a woman who reflects well upon him and feeds his own idealized self-image. Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick) is the niece of a president and an important socialite. Charlie adores her, until her perfect admiration for him begins to wane.
In a brilliant montage of scenes over the breakfast table, we see their mutual idealization slowly transform into alienation and contempt. Charlie never truly cared about Emily, any more than he cares about his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). In the scene when he first meets Susie, he seems most concerned with the fact that she “likes” him. When he tries to make her an opera star against her own wishes — again as a narcissistic feed for his grandiose view of himself — he cares nothing about her feelings and proves himself incapable of empathy.
She finally attempts suicide in order to escape his relentless narcissistic drive: “I couldn’t make you see how I felt, Charlie, but I couldn’t go through with the singing again. You don’t know what it means to know that people are … that a whole audience just doesn’t want you.” Charlie replies, “That’s when you’ve got to fight ’em. [pause as she incredulously gazes back] All right, you won’t have to fight ’em any more. It’s their loss.”
He experiences Susan’s failure to win over the public as both personal shame and narcissistic injury; he blames “the people” rather than himself, and blame is one of the core defenses against shame. In order to bolster his narcissistic view of himself, he then builds a monument to his own greatness — Xanadu, a grandiose castle and the largest private home ever built in America. He fills it with treasures and art works collected over a lifetime; he and Susie live immured in this castle without human contact, a perfect symbol for the beautiful false self the narcissist often erects to disguise the shame they feel about their internal “ugliness.” When Susie finally walks out on him, he explodes with narcississtic rage and savagely destroys her bedroom.
As an old man, Jed gives the best summation of Charlie’s character, and one of the most insightful descriptions of the narcissistic personality you’ll ever find: “I suppose he had some private sort of greatness but he kept it to himself. He never gave himself away. He never gave anything away, he just … left you a tip. He had a generous mind. I don’t suppose anybody ever had so many opinions. But he never believed in anything except Charlie Kane. He never had a conviction except Charlie Kane and his life. I suppose he died without one. It must have been pretty unpleasant. ‘Course, a lot of us check out without having any special convictions about death but we do know what we’re leaving. We believe in something.”
Charles Foster Kane believed in nothing but himself and his self-image; he spent a lifetime craving the narcissistic feed that would give him an inner sense of meaning and value, but in the end, he died a lonely, isolated man. Such is the ultimate fate of all narcissists, because they lack the ability to feel love or empathy and thereby to form meaningful relationships. Their worldly endeavors are geared toward earning praise and admiration, and for this reason, nothing they do has real depth or purpose.
When he dies, Charlie’s final words tell us that nothing has mattered in his life since he was that child who was separated from his mother. He developed no personal relations of any depth; he accomplished nothing that meant anything to him and dies dreaming wistfully of the sled he owned as a boy.