Right at the end of Mank, we get to the crux of a very controversial point in cinematic history. Journalist-turned-Hollywood scriptwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz pleads with the legendary director, Orson Welles: “I want credit... it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.” Welles then throws an absolute shit-fit. His answer is not the one Mank wants.
“The best thing” he’s ever written is, of course, the script for 1941’s Citizen Kane, the Oscar-winning film that has since been lauded as one of the greatest movies of all time. But Mank, the 11th film by director David Fincher, and written by his late father, Jack Fincher, is less concerned with the exalting of Welles as the sole genius behind the whole movie. Instead, it tells the story of Mankeiwicz, aka Mank, the writer who some believed to have written most, if not all of, the script of Citizen Kane, but instead has been resigned to a footnote in history.
Mank is a complex film, a movie-within-a-movie with the added layer of real-life characters at the heart of it - these were actual people in 1930s Hollywood - but the “true” story about the man at its centre ultimately depends on what the audience chooses to believe.
In this way, Mank mirrors the concept of Citizen Kane - we see the downfall of a great man, told through flashbacks and memories in a non-linear plot. In the stunningly-shot black and white film, Mank, played in yet another career-defining performance by Gary Oldman, starts at the end; a washed-up drunk, who’s wife ends up having to undress him for bed each evening. Is this the American Dream? Because it seems more like a nightmare.
But as the film goes on, we see that Mank was previously the toast of Tinseltown, the wise-cracking writer at the heart of the golden age of Hollywood; the go-to scriptwriter for the big studios and invited to every dazzling party thrown by the industry. These include the epic bashes hosted by William Randolph Hearst, the real-life millionaire media mogul, played by Charles Dance, and said to be the person Charles Foster Kane is modelled on in Welles’ film.
*That* drunken rant
It’s at one of these parties at the end of the film that the undoing of Mank occurs. Grieving over the deaths of two of his acquaintances; shamed by the duplicitous nature of Hearst and the political fake-news he was coerced into producing, and frustrated that his script is about to be byline-bandited by Welles, he lets loose in one of the greatest drunken rants to appear on screen in recent years.
With all the guests in the opulent dining room at San Simeon castle absurdly dressed up as circus folk, Welles lets rip, telling the story of his screenplay, a “modern-day Don Quixote” tale. In his slurring speech, he reveals that he’s not-so-subtly based the entire main character on Hearst, a once-socialist idealist who then “lusts for voters to love him”, and who has been corrupted by the pursuit of power.
Mank talks about this “fictional” character who finally looks into the mirror and breaks the glass as “a maddening reminder of who he once was”. Mank is talking in triplicate here; he’s talking about Hearst, Kane and himself. Then, in the ultimate mic drop, he chunders on the floor. He’s moved from verbal vomit to actual vomit.
It’s a turning point in the movie, as it’s the point where Mank has finally begun speaking truth to power - even if it was fuelled by booze. In an interview with New York Magazine, David Fincher said at first: “[The film] didn’t strike me as a middle-aged man taking stock of his life’s contributions… But as I started thinking about it, I realised it was amazing marrow out of which to grow the red blood cells needed for this story, which is about a man finding his voice.”
Mank is finding his voice to speak to people in positions of power, something he’s kowtowed to all his life. Which - despite being palmed off by Hearst with the monkey and the organ grinder speech, telling him in no uncertain terms that he’s just the puppet for the masters of the Hollywood studios; don’t bite the hand that feeds you - seems to empower him to also confront Welles about the script.
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you
The studio system in Hollywood in the 30s effectively made a commodity out of culture, as Theodor Adorno first wrote about in The Culture Industry in 1944. The big five studios all put their employees under strict contracts - from the actors and directors to the crew - for all the productions being filmed on their sets, giving millionaire studio owners complete control and allowing them to majorly profit from the work of their employees.
Writers like Mank were just a gun for hire - we see in the movie he’s pulled in to work on a ridiculous monster movie and he works as ghost-writer for films that he’s never given credit for. As Life magazine wrote in 1957 of these studio system films: “It wasn't good entertainment and it wasn't art, and most of the movies produced had a uniform mediocrity, but they were also uniformly profitable... The million-dollar mediocrity was the very backbone of Hollywood."
Mank is never given creative ownership of his work, and by the end of the film, he can see how he’s been played and exploited by the system from people like Hearst, Louis B. Mayer (played by Arliss Howard) and Welles (Tom Burke). The contracts he would have had with the studios will have seceded his right to ever have his name linked with any of his work.
Interestingly, the subject of ownership is also something that would have resonated with David Fincher and his father, Jack. The pair both experienced mistreatment in the industry - David, as a director when Alien 3 was taken off him post-production and recut (he disowns the film to this day) and, as Peter Bradshaw in The Observer explains: “Jack’s earlier biopic screenplay for the life of Howard Hughes was going to be the one for Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, until it was hurtfully rejected in favour of a rival version.” Both men had been burned by the fickle nature of Hollywood before, and it feels like there’s a little nod to this hurt in the character of Mank, although Fincher added in the press pack for Mank: “If you were smart about how films were made you had to embrace a kind of enforced collaboration.”
Showdown with Welles
Which takes us to Mank’s final showdown with Welles. Welles, who arranged for Mank to recuperate for 90 days in a Californian ranch and write the Citizen Kane script, believes he’s the orchestrator of the entire thing as he “eliminated every excuse - family, cronies and liquor” to enable Mank to finish writing the film.
After Mank asks to be credited on the film, Welles rants at him and threatens him that he will lose everything. “Who’s producing this picture, directing it, starring in it?” he yells. His words hit harder than the case of alcohol he lobs against the walls - we, as viewers, know he’s exactly right. It’s Welles’ name that will be forever linked with Citizen Kane, not Mank’s.
The question of who actually wrote Citizen Kane still remains a mystery. In a 1971 essay by Pauline Kael called Raising Kane, she suggested that Welles shouldn’t have been credited as co-writer because the screenplay was Mankiewicz’s work alone. However, this has since been disputed by others, such as the director Peter Bogdanovich in his article The Kane Mutiny. The Smithsonian Magazine also notes: “Analysing two overlooked copies of a Kane “corrections script” unearthed in the archives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the University of Michigan, the journalist-turned-historian Harlan Lebo found that Welles revised the script extensively, even crafting pivotal scenes from scratch—such as when the aging Kane muses, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
Ironically, Welles’ outburst also sparks one last flash of genius in Mank, “an act of purging violence”, for when Susan leaves Kane, which of course also made the cut for the famous Citizen Kane scene where Kane smashes up a bedroom.
In real life, Mank was eventually given co-credit as writer for Citizen Kane and it goes on to win just one Oscar, for Best Original Screenplay. Welles was noted in saying: “Mank, you can kiss my half.”
Happy to get the last word, Mank then said: “I am very happy to accept this award in the manner in which is which the screenplay was written, which is to say in the absence of Mr. Welles”. The underdog, for once, has finished on top.
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox
Need some positivity right now? Subscribe to Esquire now for a hit of style, fitness, culture and advice from the experts
You Might Also Like