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MANK: The Story behind the Story behind the Story of Citizen Kane

MANK: The Story behind the Story behind the Story of Citizen Kane

By Guest Author Date: December 02, 2020

By Sydney Ladensohn Stern, author of The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics

David Fincher’s Mank, streaming on Netflix starting December 4, fulfills the director’s long-held dream to make a black and white film based on a screenplay by his late father, journalist Jack Fincher. Jack loved movies, especially Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece about newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. In the 1990s, before David made his first feature film, Jack wrote a biopic about Herman Mankiewcz, the screenwriter who wrote Citizen Kane’s first draft.

Like Citizen Kane, Mank is a character portrait, the story of an alcoholic screenwriter (played by Gary Oldman) who writes a script for the money, casually and with no expectations. Neither he nor anyone connected with it, least of all Orson Welles, has an inkling it will become Hollywood’s most iconic film. But Herman does come to realize that he has done the best work of his career and, at least for one shining moment, takes pride in what he has created and sees his chance at a bit of immortality.

For a biopic, as opposed to a documentary, Mank is surprisingly accurate. In writing The Brothers Mankiewicz, my dual biography of Herman and his younger, more successful brother, writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, I spent years researching the details of Herman’s life and Citizen Kane’s creation, so by now I know them well. Any film based on a true story must take liberties with facts—events have to be compressed, sequences reordered, characters added or subtracted or compounded. Mank does all of those, including the addition of a fictional subplot about California’s 1934 gubernatorial election. Even so, it remains admirably faithful to the facts. And when it cannot be literally true, it aspires to find the characters’ emotional truth.

In Citizen Kane, the young Charlie Kane outrages his former guardian when he says, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” In that spirit, I think it would be fun to mix stills from Mank with photographs and some quotations from my book. Both tell the story.


As Mank begins, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) has been kicked out of every major studio in Hollywood and decides to go to New York to revive his newspaper career. 



They get no farther than New Mexico when Herman is seriously injured and is returned to Los Angles to recuperate. 



Among Herman’s visitors is “a brilliant young writer/director/actor he had met in New York several years before and taken to immediately. The large, handsome actor barely in his twenties oozed charm and overflowed with ideas he communicated in a remarkable, resonant voice.” (Tom Burke as Orson Welles with Oldman)



The neophyte filmmaker hires Herman to write the script for a biopic about William Randolph Hearst and they agree that to keep the alcoholic screenwriter out of trouble, he will write it at a Mojave Desert dude ranch. “They embarked in a two-car caravan….Herman lay in the back of a studio limousine, accompanied by two sets of crutches and a German nurse. Houseman and Rita Alexander, an English secretary Sara had found, followed in a convertible.” (Lily Collins as Rita Alexander with Oldman)



Creating Kane: Orson Welles visits. John Houseman reads. Herman’s nurse mops his brow. Rancho Verde, 1940.



As Herman writes his screenplay in Mank, he recalls his visits to Hearst’s fabulous San Simeon and his fondness for Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies. “Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner, September 24, 1931, displays cohosts feting Marion Davies (though Hearst paid).” Marion Davies is 6th from left, arm around Louella Parsons. Sara Mankiewicz is 4th from the right. Hedda Hopper is on the end. Standing, Irving Thalberg is 4th from the left. Herman is 4th from the right. Actor John Gilbert is 2nd from the right.



“Herman and Sara suspected she drank because she was bored and feared life was passing her by.” (Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies at San Simeon costume party)



In other Mank flashbacks, Herman recalls the years he and Joe worked at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer under Louis B. Mayer, who considered himself the father of the MGM family. “Mayer combined genuine kindness with ruthlessness, charm with histrionics (he could cry, faint, and even foam at the mouth at will), and ruled over an almost self-sufficient society.” (Oldman with Arliss Howard as Mayer, Tom Pelphrey as Joe)



Of course, Herman and Joe already had a father: Herman, Joe, and Frank Mankiewicz, aka Pop.

Enjoy Mank – I certainly did.

Photo credits:
Provided by Mankiewicz family members (from top): 2, 5, 9
Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (from top): 6
Screen capture provided by Mank team (from top): 1, 3, 4, 7, 8