Ever since New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael published a controversial 50,000-word essay in 1971 arguing for the primacy of co-screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz’s contributions to Citizen Kane, long considered one of the finest—if not the finest—American film ever made, the question of authorship (or auteur-ship, if you prefer) has tended to dominate the conversation among cinephiles and academics. It has often obscured or overshadowed Welles’ myriad contributions as co-screenwriter, director, producer, and star, Gregg Toland’s groundbreaking deep-focus cinematography, future Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmman’s lushly memorable score, or the innovative, often under-appreciated sound design. For the late screenwriter Jack Fincher and his award-winning son, director David Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac), Kael’s oft-disputed, controversial position remains a resonant, truthful one. Recent scholarship may suggest otherwise, but the argument—at least emotionally—elevates Mankiewicz into the role of co-creator or even co-auteur.
A Cliché Given Flesh, Blood, and Angst
Practically the living, breathing cliché of the brilliant and destitute pre-WWII writer undone by the commercial Hollywood machine, Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) made a semi-comfortable living during the Depression injecting his sardonic witticisms into close to 40 scripts—many without screenwriting credit of any kind. He eventually won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane, just a decade before alcoholism and uremic poisoning led to his untimely death at the age of 55. Even that film was meant simply as an uncredited work-for-hire gig for industry wunderkind Orson Welles. Only much later did Mankiewicz fight for and eventually receive co-screenwriting credit for Citizen Kane.
Meeting Mank (Again)
The Mank we meet in the opening scenes falls right in line with those cliches of the Hollywood writer, though he’s closer to the end of his life than the beginning. He’s writing the initial draft(s) of the Citizen Kane screenplay while recovering from a car accident in a guest ranch under the watchful, patient care of Rita Alexander (Lily Collins): assistant, factotum, and unlicensed therapist to Mank’s multiplicity of anxieties, neuroses, and complexes. Mank is also joined by John Houseman (Sam Troughton): the Mercury Theater’s co-founder, future Paper Chase actor, and Welles’ unofficial enforcer. As a re-energized Mank continues work on the ever-evolving, ever-expanding script—the equally brilliant, equally egotistical Welles shapes, sculpts, and revises it into the shooting script for Citizen Kane.
Purposely echoing Citizen Kane’s non-linear structure and black-and-white photography, Mank leaves the house-ridden title character behind for a series of flashbacks that unfold roughly a decade earlier. Here we see Mank, always with a drink in his hand and a dry, bitter witticism on his tongue, as he becomes a popular guest at William Randolph Hearst’s Castle in San Simeon. Hearst, an ultra-wealthy media mogul and one-time (or two-time) candidate for political office, lives openly in Catholic sin with his longtime mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), whose movie career Hearst supported through wealth, power, and influence. Based on their mutual outsider status (Mank as a struggling writer, Davies as Hearst’s lover and not his wife), they develop a tentative, tenuous friendship—a friendship that eventually sours as Mank, an expert at saying the right thing at the wrong time, talks out of turn (i.e., speaking literal truth to power) and falls precipitously out of his benefactor’s favour.
Hearst, California Politics, and “Fake News”
Though Hearst looms large in Mank’s first-hand, personal experience and as the central inspiration for Charles Foster Kane, Mank (the film) shifts focus, expanding to explore the devastating political, social, and economic effects of the Great Depression and the watershed 1934 California’s governor’s race. In the case of the latter, we’re reminded that Hollywood’s conservative studio heads took up against socialist candidate Upton Sinclair, producing misleading newsreels (the “fake news” of the day in case you’re looking for a timely connection to our current socio-political climate) to take him down. As Mank’s writing career begins to dissolve, first-time filmmaker Welles taps Mank to write the initial draft of Citizen Kane script, due to a combination of Mank’s screenwriting skills and his insider access to Hearst and his circle.
In Fincher’s deliberately paced, tangent-heavy, subplot-rich retelling, Mank wrote Citizen Kane as the ultimate form of revenge for his perceived mistreatment. He set out to expose Hearst’s personal failings and professional failures for which Hearst understandably responded by trying to sink Citizen Kane’s commercial prospects and undermining or outright ruining Mank and Welles’ respective reputations. Regardless of the rationale, Mank became increasingly invested in the screenplay, recognizing its potential to rehabilitate his career and contribute something lasting or enduring (the goal of most, if not all, art). Lasting art was what Mank, Welles, Toland, Herrmann, editor Robert Wise, and their other collaborators made and what Fincher, reverently bringing his late father’s vision of the nearly forgotten Mank and Citizen Kane’s screenplay to the screen, has aimed for as well. Marshalling a creative team behind and in front of the camera, Fincher garnered lived-in turns from a deep-bench cast, and delivered a cinematic wonder, not just about Hollywood or Mank’s place in Hollywood or cultural history, but art in and of itself.
Mank is available to stream on Netflix starting today.