[Editor’s note: This article contains major spoilers about the plot of “Mank.”]
“Mank” is a lot to take in. Diehard fans of classic Hollywood cinema and “Citizen Kane” obsessives alike may be well-suited to parse David Fincher’s complex portrait of world-weary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, but even then, this intricate black-and-white drama draws on a lot of reference points that a many audience members may not grasp the first time around.
The movie tracks two dueling narratives: Mank’s experiences in Hollywood throughout the ’30s, as he undergoes a falling out with Hollywood and studio moguls over their politics, and his decision to use his experiences in that world to write his greatest work — inspired by his former proximity to media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who became the template for the affluent mystery at the center of “Citizen Kane.”
But there’s more to “Mank” than that: Fincher, who draws on a script written decades ago by his late father Jack, has created a complex window into a bygone era where movies were king. Viewers who come out of the movie with questions about the movie’s expansive world should peruse this guide, as IndieWire writers have collected 25 people and places that give “Mank” its historical polish. We’ve consulted with historians, combed through history books, and compared fact with fiction to come up with the following breakdown. We encourage you to watch the movie first, then come here to keep the experience going.
Christian Blauvelt, Bill Desowitz, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, Dana Harris, Ryan Lattanzio, Kristen Lopez, Chris O’Falt, Anne Thompson, and Zack Sharf contributed to this article.
Mank Heads to the Victorville Ranch
According to Pauline Kael, in early 1940, Mank spent three months at Mrs. Campbell’s Guest Ranch in Victorville, California, 65 miles from Los Angeles, writing his loose adaptation of Hearst’s, for $500 a week. He was still hobbling around from a September car crash that broke his leg in three places (compounded by a later drunken accident at Chasen’s). At first, the bedridden Mankiewicz wrote five scripts for Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio show, and then, in late January, the director brought the writer to Victorville, attended by dictation secretary Rita Alexander, a German nurse, and Welles lieutenant John Houseman, who stayed in the same liquor-free compound, not a separate hotel, with a supply of “Mickey Finns” (chemical-laced drinks which failed to make Mank hate alcohol). —AT
“Citizen Kane” Easter Eggs
Without overstating it, Fincher has fun throughout “Mank” making visual connections between his film and “Citizen Kane.” The Easter eggs are as obvious as ice sculptures (an elephant ice sculpture seen during the “Mank” gubernatorial election nods to the various “Citizen Kane” ice sculptures) and as subtle as using a dining room table as a visual metaphor. In “Citizen Kane,” the deteriorating marriage between Charles Foster Kane and his wife is summed up in a scene where the two characters are blocked on opposite ends of their long dining room table. Fincher adopts a similar visual strategy during a climactic dinner sequence in which Mank shows up drunk to William Randolph Hearst’s mansion. It’s the definitive moment in the film where Mank is rejected from Hearst’s close circle, and Fincher marks the occasion by having Mank move further away from Hearst at the table until he’s sitting on the opposite end, just like Kane and his wife.
The film’s most blatant visual connection is in the trailer: Mank drops a liquor pottle out of his hand and it rolls onto the floor. The camera movement and editing mimics the famous moment in “Citizen Kane” where Charles Foster Kane drops the snow globe of his childhood home and it rolls onto the floor. —ZS
Upton Sinclair’s Gubernatorial Campaign
Some might be surprised at the pronounced role that Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign plays in the second half of “Mank,” but Fincher’s film regards the muckraker’s loss to the studio-backed Republican Frank Merriam — and the failure of his End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement along with it — as the moment that forever soured Herman J. Mankiewicz against Hollywood self-interest, and inspired the screenwriter to sharpen “Citizen Kane” into a scathing profile of power’s corruptive influence. A “radical” Socialist who rebranded his public works programs in a way that appealed to hundreds of thousands of hungry and work-starved post-Depression Californians, Sinclair might have won the election and helped the state out of poverty if not for the fear-mongering conservative backlash to his campaign, which (in timeless American fashion) pained Sinclair as a Communist and claimed that he would allow Los Angeles to be overrun by migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl.
As we see in “Mank,” Hollywood studios helped spearhead the effort to muddy Sinclair’s image, with MGM forcing its employees to contribute to Merriam and staging anti-Sinclair ads that wielded the power of the movies as a cudgel against change. It’s Mankiewicz’s resistance to these efforts that make the boozehound into the bumbling hero of his own film, as he rejects MGM production head Irving Thalberg’s (Ferdinand Kingsley) attempt to strong-arm him into a donation, and ruefully laments how Tinseltown is abusing the thrall its pictures cast over the public imagination. “You can make the world swear King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40,” the ever-sarcastic Mankiewicz sneers at his boss, “but you can’t convince starving voters that a turncoat socialist is a menace to everything Californians hold dear? You’re barely trying.” The screenwriter saw himself reflected in Sinclair’s idealism, and he refused to let go of it no matter the cost. If that made him into an organ-grinder’s monkey instead of a mogul, well, at least he became an Oscar-winning organ-grinder’s monkey before he died. —DE
About Those Shorts…
Thalberg did greenlight and produce the phony newsreels, which were attached to MGM films that played in theaters around California, and featured “interviews” with “real people” singing the praises of their chosen candidate. The Sinclair fans were portrayed as free-loading foreigners and blue collar dumb-dumbs, while his opponent Frank Merriam snagged high-class, financially savvy people (mostly white).
Slate even dug up one of them, which you can watch right here. Presented as “California Election News,” it’s easy to see why said newsreels were viewed and accepted as, well, real news. They weren’t, of course — they were the creation of a savvy businessman intent on using everything at his disposal (even public trust) to sow disinformation to millions. Sound familiar? —KE
The Rise (and Horrible Fall) of Shelly Metcalf
“Mank” does, however, take some liberties with those newsreels in other ways. In the film, the shorts are directed by test shot director Shelly Metcalf (played by Jamie McShane) who took on the gig because it was a) straight from Thalberg and b) he hoped it might catapult him into actual directing for the studio. In Fincher’s film, the results are far more tragic: Metcalf, also a drunk who has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, is horrified when the newsreels are released and assumes responsibility for Sinclair’s gubernatorial loss. In one of the film’s more wrenching moments, Metcalf kills himself over the whole affair, taking his life in his MGM office.
That’s mostly fiction. As Slate reports, while Thalberg’s newsreels really were directed by a test shot director eager to make a professional leap, his name was actually Felix Feist Jr., and he didn’t suffer the same consequences as the made-up Metcalf. “His conscience seems to have been untroubled and his ploy worked: He directed short films throughout the 1930s before stepping up to features in the 1940s, moving on to television in the 1950s. He died of natural causes in 1965,” Slate reports. Feist was best known for film noirs like “The Devil Thumbs a Ride” and “The Threat” and the boxing drama “The Golden Gloves Story.” Fun fact: he directed a pre-Ronald Reagan Nancy Davis in “Donovan’s Brain,” the second adaptation of the popular Curt Siodmak story. —KE
Hollywood Used to Be Republican
Louis B. Mayer was hardly the only one fighting to defeat Upton Sinclair. All the studio bosses rallied together to protect their bottom-line, with only Jack Warner having to cross the political aisle to do so. Democrats were a distinct minority in Hollywood power circles, but like a lot of things, that changed in the 1930s. The only reason FDR did not come to California to save Sinclair from Mayer and co.’s slander was because their golden boy, eventual Republican Governor Merriman, had already cut a backroom deal to support the Democratic President’s New Deal, a massive expansion of the federal government that was in the spirit of Sinclair’s “communist” EPIC plan. The 1934 election captured in “Mank” wasn’t simply a turning point for Fincher’s protagonist; liberals throughout Hollywood were outraged by how MGM used the sacred pre-feature newsreel to generate fake news. In the years that followed, Hollywood began to unionize and fight to wrestle power away from the conservatives controlling the industry. —CO
Lionel Barrymore Defends MGM Paycuts
One of Louis B. Mayer’s signature moments in “Mank” occurs when he informs MGM’s contracted employees that anyone making over $50 a week will receive a 50% pay cut in an attempt to sustain the studio amid the Great Depression. The sequence as depicted in “Mank” is factual. After an MGM screenwriter challenged Mayer’s order and expressed confusion over why a successful studio would need pay cuts, Lionel Barrymore came to Mayer’s defense and criticized the writer for not being a team player. Barrymore’s defense encouraged other MGM employees to agree with the salary cuts (“Don’t worry, L.B. We’re with you,” Barrymore says in the film — which is accurate, according to Miranda J. Banks’ book “The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild”). The catch was that Mayer himself was not taking any pay cut, although he surely didn’t make it seem that way during the meeting with MGM staff. Mayer touted the only way to save MGM through the Depression would be for everyone to have a salary cut. In “Mank,” Mayer is seen shedding a fake tear to play up his remorse over the pay cuts. —ZS
Hollywood Moves to…Florida?
In “Mank” there are rumors floating around Hollywood that the studios are moving to Florida. In fact, that was exactly what Louis B. Mayer and the studio bosses threatened to do if Upton Sinclair was elected California Governor. “What would they do about the mosquitos?” retorted Sinclair. “I have lived in Florida…right in the middle of a scene, one would bite the lady star on the nose and cost them fifty thousand dollars.” —CO
Pitch Session Pals: SJ Perelman
When Mank goes into Louis B. Mayer’s office and briefly meets a handful of pipe-smoking screenwriters who acknowledge him with a sage glance, one is “Sid Perelman.” The moment is the blink-and-you-miss feature debut of actor Jack Romano, but it’s also a nod to the Marx Bros. “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers,” to the Algonquin Round Table, to the first surrealist comic writer, and to the future Oscar winner for “Around the World in 80 Days”: S.J. Perelman. He also wrote more than two dozen books of short prose that earned him admiration from T.S. Eliot and Somerset Maugham (and, yes, Woody Allen), loved to make up words, twist phrases, and satirize anything that moved. Most of his works are out of print, but you can easily buy them at used bookstores. If you’re looking for an original gift for the Fincher completist, or a fan of great satire, you can’t go wrong. —DH
Pitch Session Pals: David O. Selznick
In that same pitch session, legendary producer David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) looms large with rising director Josef von Sternberg (Paul Fox) and the story team led by Herman and his prestigious recruits from Broadway. But the fictional spitball session — a highfalutin Universal monster riff — rings false for the ambitious von Sternberg (who had just begun his remarkable Hollywood run with Marlene Dietrich), and for its depiction of Selznick (“Gone with the Wind”) as an illiterate producer, who doesn’t know the meaning of fabricate. “That’s not Selznick,” said Sydney Ladensohn Stern, author of “The Brothers Mankiewicz.” “He was very literate and very interested in history, and he socialized with Herman [and brought him to MGM in 1933 as supervising producer]. The people they put in there was for the fun of having recognizable faces.” —BD
Pitch Session Pals: Ben Hecht
Also in the room: Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms). One prime source for Pauline Kael’s “The Citizen Kane Book” was memoir “A Child of the Century” by Oscar-winning “The Front Page” playwright-turned-screenwriter Hecht (“Underworld,” “The Scoundrel”), who was the only person sent the infamous 1925 telegram from Mankiewicz (“Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.”) Mank made a deal with Paramount’s B.P. Schulberg, promising that if Hecht didn’t deliver a hit, he could tear up his two-year contract and fire them both. Back in New York, Hecht had mentored Marion Davies’ nephew, the younger Charles Lederer, and wrote with him frequently. Hecht went on to earn Oscar nominations for “Viva Villa,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Angels Over Broadway” and “Notorious.” He was one of the first studio script doctors, paid $10,000 for a script polish on “Gone with the Wind.” —AT
Yes, the Marx Brothers Grilled Hot Dogs in Thalberg’s Office
Fincher’s meticulous attention to detail in “Mank” can be summarized effectively by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual gag in which Mank walks into Thalberg’s office and discovers the Marx Brothers grilling hot dogs in the office fireplace. Thalberg served as MGM’s head of production and was famous for cultivating the screen images of stars such as Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Greta Garbo, among others. Thalberg courted the Marx Brothers to make MGM their new studio home after their contract with Paramount expired. The first Marx Brothers-Thalberg production was 1935’s “A Night at the Opera,” a financial hit for MGM and one of the filmmakers’ most definitive screen comedies. As depicted in “Mank,” the Marx Brothers often set up shop in Thalberg’s studio office and would use the fireplace to grill hot dogs. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the hot dog grilling incident really did happen. —ZS
Lily Collins, Caretaker
British stenographer and Mank’s eventual right-hand assistant Rita Alexander (played by Lily Collins in the film) was indeed real, and is believed to be part of the inspiration behind the name of “Citizen Kane” character Susan Alexander Kane (played by Dorothy Comingore in Welles’ film, long understood to be the film’s Marion Davies surrogate, as “Mank” reports). But as Collins told Vogue earlier this year, information on the real Alexander is pretty slim. “Rita is, of course, a real person, but there’s little information to be found about her, other than that she’s a stenographer from England and her husband was in the war. “I think I saw two photos of her,” the actress told the outlet. For Collins, the challenge came in creating a film-ready persona for Rita, even with such little hard-and-fast information to go on. “It was about what she represents for Gary [Oldman]’s character, because he’s at his most vulnerable when he’s with her. They’re each other’s confidantes. For a woman of that time and in that position, Rita was very bold. She believed Mank was capable of more than he himself did, and she’d remind him of what he’d promised to do. He needed that extra kick sometimes,” she told Vogue. —KE
Poor Sara Mankiewicz
Known by Herman’s friends and colleagues (and sometimes even her own husband) as “Poor Sara,” Sara was Herman’s long-suffering wife, who stood by his side until his bitter end in 1953 despite his drinking, gambling, and “silly platonic affairs.” Born Sara Aaronson and hailing from Baltimore, Sara married Herman in 1920, when he sunk her $2,500 dowry into relocating them to Berlin. There, he served as political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune before relocating to the U.S. to begin his work in Hollywood. Per Netflix’s press notes, Fincher’s note to actress Tuppence Middleton was, “I don’t know if you know many writers, but it’s a very specific thing to be a writer’s wife. It’s a life sentence.” —RL
Who Was Fräulein Frieda?
Along with other cohorts such as secretary Rita Alexander and producer John Houseman, Mank brought along his German-Jewish nurse to North Verde in Victorville, CA, to write “Citizen Kane” in sober isolation. Dubbed Fräulein Frieda in the film and played by Monika Gossmann, she doubles as the physical therapist responsible for rehabbing Mank’s broken leg. The film relates a backstory in which the valiant Mank supposedly helped free Frieda’s entire village from Nazis. While that’s a creative stretch, the scribe was known for helping refugees escaping fascism during Hitler’s rise to power, and it would seem to be in his blood given his German-Jewish émigré parents who came from Hamburg in 1892. —RL
Mank’s Brother Joe
From Columbia University to Paramount studio, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey) followed in his brother Herman’s footsteps, but, as “Mank” shows, younger brother Joe was far better equipped, temperament-wise, to handle the brutal creative environment of Hollywood. In fact, in the late ‘30s – the years leading up to “Citizen Kane,” when Herman’s career was falling apart – Joe rose up the ranks to become a producer with particularly fruitful collaborations with Frank Borzage (“Three Comrades”) and Katherine Hepburn (“The Philadelphia Story,” “Woman of the Year”). By the late ’40s, he became a successful director with “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve,” which received 14 Oscar nominations, winning six, including Best Picture, and catapulted Mankiewicz to elite A-list status in the 1950s, when he made epics like “Cleopatra” and musicals like “Guys and Dolls.” —CO
Did Mank Really Know Marion Davies?
Mank’s first meeting with actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) takes place while she’s filming a martyr movie on the grounds of Hearst’s massive estate, San Simeon. If you’re wondering what the movie is, well … stop wondering, because it doesn’t exist. According to Davies’ biographer, Lara Gabrielle, none of the 52 movies Marion made in her career involved being burned at the stake. Gabrielle also says there’s no evidence that they ever filmed any of Marion’s features on the Hearst estate, either. In fact, much of Marion’s relationship with Mank is fictionalized, according to Gabrielle. “She may, in passing have known him, through Charlie [Lederer],” said Gabrielle, but it was far from a close friendship. —KL
Mank Asks Marion for Help
Mank soliciting Davies’ help to stop the anti-Sinclair campaign also sounds like an artistic liberty, according to Gabrielle. Though Davies was a registered Republican, good friends of her said she was a natural liberal. “Marion tended not to be involved in his [Hearst’s] business,” said Gabrielle. “She had her opinions and oftentimes they were close to Hearst’s and then sometimes not at all, but she wouldn’t have interfered in that.” That being said, Gabrielle added that Hearst did solicit Davies’ thoughts on his business, though it often was with regards to film production. —KL
Mank Gets Wasted at San Simeon
Herman, the notorious drunk, was most famous for throwing up at a party hosted by cultivated producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. and quipping: “Don’t worry, Arthur. The white wine came up with the fish.” In “Mank,” the drunken incident is reworked during the climactic dinner party at San Simeon, where the embittered screenwriter hurls more than invectives at host William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). But it loses something in translation. “The point was the host,” said “The Brothers Mankiewicz” author Stern, meaning Hearst was no Hornblow. “It certainly works there because he’s disgraced and he’s trying to rescue it by being smart,” she added. Meanwhile, songwriter Howard Dietz claimed the line originated with him at a bachelor dinner. But they “stuck to Herman because it’s so in keeping with his humor.” —BD
“Citizen Kane” Was Originally Called “American”
It’s become accepted wisdom that Charles Foster Kane is a caricature of William Randolph Hearst, but — from the very beginning — it was always important to Welles and Mankiewicz that the ever-elusive “Citizen Kane” should also not be about anyone so easily identified or defined (it is, after all, a film that opens with a “no trespassing” sign and ends with a reveal that only raises more questions). In fact, Welles’ first germ of an idea for the movie grew from a fascination with unknowability, and not biography. In a book of published conversations between him and Peter Bogdanovich, Welles recalled that he’d been “nursing an old notion of showing exactly the same thing from wholly different points of view. Basically, the idea ‘Rashomon’ used later on. Mank liked it, so we started searching for the man it was going to be about. Some big American figure — couldn’t be a politician, because you’d have to pinpoint him.”
“American,” the title of the screenplay we see Mankiewicz writing in “Mank,” reflects that broader interest in the infinity mirror of human identity as it’s seen through the prism of a Great Man of some kind of other. Welles and Mankiewicz had already settled on Hearst as an agreeable starting point before the latter began typing away (and after Howard Hughes had been dismissed as a model), but — true to their project’s “Rashomon”-like origins — the extent to which it was meant to be about the newspaper tycoon depends on who you ask. So far as RKO studio chief George Schaefer was concerned, the parallels were a little too clear for comfort; in an effort to make Kane stand on his own two feet, Schaefer slapped the fourth of the script’s seven finished drafts with the new title “Citizen Kane,” and that one seems to have stuck. —DE
The Meaning of “Rosebud”
The true meaning of “Rosebud” — the word that Charles Foster Kane whispers with his dying breath, and that his chambermaid somehow manages to hear from the next room over — is the great mystery that drives the curlicue narrative of “Citizen Kane,” and the answer that Welles provides for it in the final moments of his film only manages to raise more questions. Yes, “Rosebud” is the name of Kane’s childhood sled, but that reveal is meant to highlight its own banality more than anything else. “We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it,” Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, referring to the script’s stated insistence that whatever “Rosebud” means is less important than the fact that no one in Kane’s life would ever know for sure. But if Welles himself derided it as “a corny idea” that remained in the movie “because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville,” that hasn’t stopped people from ascribing it a deeper and less innocent meaning.
To hear it from “Mank,” the persistent rumor that “Rosebud” was actually William Randolph Heart’s pet name for Marion Davies’ clitoris started as soon as Mankiewicz filed the first draft of his script. Mank claims it’s a coincidence, and laughingly regrets that he didn’t know enough about Heart’s sex life to include such a detail on purpose. (Welles biographer Patrick McGilligan has reported that “Old Rosebud” was the name of a racehorse that Mankiewicz put money on during the 1914 Kentucky Derby, and that the filly had come to symbolize the writer’s “lost youth and the break with his family.”) Fincher would have you believe that — by the time “Citizen Kane” premiered — it was already accepted “fact” that “Rosebud” was specifically intended to get under someone’s skin and touch a few nerves (Hearst’s, not Davies’).
Welles and Mankiewicz were both fond of Davies and denied that she was the inspiration for Susan Alexander Kane, but it’s true that Hearst tried to destroy “Citizen Kane” for one reason or another from the start, and the saucier rumors are always the hardest to rub out. This one was bandied about in the 1970s before given new, perhaps undying life when Gore Vidal wrote about it as fact in a 1989 issue of The New York Review of Books. When pressed on this point by a letter to the editor, Vidal didn’t have any hard evidence to back it up, but the damage was done. —DE
Charles Lederer Tries to Sabotage “Citizen Kane”
Mank takes a special interest in budding writer Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross), summoning him to Hollywood via telegram (in reality, it was Ben Hecht). Charles also just happens to be the nephew of Marion Davies. In “Mank,” he arrives at Verde Ranch furious over how his aunt is fictionalized in the screenplay as “the lonely showgirl, trapped in a castle, doing jigsaw puzzles.” In the film, it’s implied that he showed the script to Davies. According to her memoir “The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst,” Davies didn’t read the script or even see the film upon release. But Mank’s son Frank, in the PBS special “The Battle Over Citizen Kane,” confirms his father gave Lederer the script fully knowing he was close to Hearst. “Talk about self-destructive,” Frank said. —RL
Orson Welles Throws a Tantrum Over Writing Credit
Mank gets the idea for Kane to destroy one of the rooms in Xanadu by knocking everything over — save for the snowglobe, the sight of which seems to calm the mogul — by seeing Welles do much the same in real life when he asks the director for a screenwriting credit. At least that’s the version according to “Mank.” In real life, Welles probably didn’t explode into a frenzy of “purging violence” at the idea. For his part, Mank’s grandson Ben Mankiewicz said, “I don’t know totally know whether that explosion [of anger] is correct.”
True, Mankiewicz had originally been hired to do his draft uncredited, as his contract was with Welles’ Mercury Theatre and not “Kane” distributor RKO. Mercury Theatre co-founder John Houseman (played in “Mank” by Sam Troughton) usually stipulated that writers under contract to the Theatre would forego a credit. Mankiewicz appealed to the Writers Guild of America for arbitration to have his credit added, unlike the moment where he asks Welles for credit in the film. In a 1962 interview with Sight & Sound, Houseman, who indeed shepherded the early drafts of “Kane” from Mank at the retreat he set up for the writer in Victorville, California, claimed that the script “was essentially Mankiewicz’s. The conception and the structure were his.” In 1975, he told the writer Kate McCauley that Welles was “a hog” for wanting the solo credit, but that “Actually, it’s his film,” meaning Welles. “It was Orson’s film completely,” he said.
Critic and longtime Welles historian Jonathan Rosenbaum, who helped restore “Touch of Evil,” said that there’s only one instance of Welles having any big blow up around this time, and that it wasn’t over the credit issue. Instead it was a blow up at Houseman, some time before the hiring of Mankiewicz for “Kane.”“By [Welles’] own testimony, it was a deliberately staged ‘eruption’ designed to scare [Houseman] and get rid of him, but this is the only case of a violent outburst that I’ve ever heard about,” Rosenbaum said. In Richard Meryman’s book “Mank: The Wit, World, and Life of Herman Mankiewicz,” Welles’ assistant Richard Wilson said that, though RKO had mandated that Mankiewicz be given co-credit, Welles was the one who suggested that Mank’s name appear above his own — which is how it appears in the end credits. —CB
“Citizen Kane” Wins an Oscar, but the Writers Aren’t There
“Citizen Kane” was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor, but the Academy only gave it Original Screenplay, shared by Welles and Mankiewicz, as Kael described him, “their own resident loser-genius.” She theorizes that if Academy voters had stood up to Hearst and backed Welles by giving the film Best Picture, “Citizen Kane” might have not only survived at the box office but changed Welles’ career. Maybe yes, maybe no. Neither man attended the ceremony. Welles was in Brazil working on the film “It’s All True,” while Mank stayed home (per his biographer Richard Meryman) and listened to the radio broadcast as members of the audience asked, “Mank! Mank! Where is he?” President of RKO Radio George Schaefer accepted Herman’s award. Mank’s press conference in the movie quotes what he said his acceptance speech would have been: “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’ absence, because the script was written in Mr. Welles’ absence.” —AT
So What Did Welles Contribute to that Script?
Quite a bit, if you believe some sources, or not enough, if you believe others. “Mank” is coy about exactly how much Welles tweaked Mankiewicz’s sprawling drafts of “Citizen Kane,” aka “American,” since it never visits the set or touches on the final project aside from its Oscar win. And while the movie does suggest that the script we see assembled in the movie was written by Mankiewicz alone, Welles himself never really disputed that. The Mercury Theatre prodigy wanted to tackle a provocative subject for his big Hollywood debut; as a Hollywood insider who understood (and reviled) its power structures, Mankiewicz found one and went to town. Welles repeatedly supplied the scribe with 300 pages of notes — including dialogue and visual details — at the start of the process, but Mank gave the story its original shape.
Years later, after Kael’s controversial “Raising Kane” essay disputed Welles’ authorship of the film and stirred controversy, Welles laid out the dynamic of the collaboration in a letter to the Times of London. “The initial ideas for this film and its basic structure were the result of direct collaboration between us,” he wrote. “After that, we separated, and there were two screenplays: one written by Mr. Mankiewicz, in Victorville, and the other, Beverly Hills, by myself. … The final version of the screenplay was drawn from both sources.” Nothing in “Mank” really suggests otherwise, since it stays with Mank’s perspective throughout. It also doesn’t really provide much insight into how the men might have talked through the actual story beats of “Citizen Kane” aside from an amusing aside after Welles throws a fit about sharing credit during the third act.
In any case, one could argue that many of the most distinctive qualities in “Kane” go well beyond the constraints of a script. Yes, the sled was likely a Mank invention, along with the intricate flashback structure, but the use of film language extends well beyond that. One memo between the men unearthed in various texts proves that Welles came up with the famed Kane-Emily sequence, when the mogul and his first wife become increasingly separated both physically and psychologically as time passes by. Throughout the movie, dramatic camera angles (including the iconic crane shot at the end) point to the cinematic ambition Welles shared with cinematographer Gregg Toland, who certainly doesn’t have a writing credit or deserve one. And of course, the performance of Kane himself, the enigma at the center of the movie, belongs to Welles above all. But Mank was certainly a major figure at the starting line. As a movie, “Citizen Kane” was the product of many creative forces no matter what the credits tell you, but “Mank” makes it clear that — at the very least! — its central ideas started with one man’s experiences, and the courage of his convictions that compelled him to write them down. —EK