David Fincher’s new film, Mank, is a bio-pic of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s years in Hollywood, centered on his work on Citizen Kane and based on a script by Fincher’s late father, Jack, a journalist to whom Fincher had suggested the subject. The movie is an attempt to define the very nature of Mankiewicz’s contribution to Citizen Kane, and to the history of cinema—and to dramatize his battle to get credit for it.
[In 1940, at the tender age of 24, Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood by a struggling RKO Pictures with a contract befitting his formidable storytelling talents. He was given absolute creative autonomy, would suffer no oversight, and could make any movie, about any subject, with any collaborator he wished….]
[suspenseful instrumental music playing]
EXT. VICTORVILLE – GUEST RANCH – DAY – 1940
[dog barking in distance]
[Mank straining] It’s all right. I’ve got this. I’m good.
[horse neighs in distance]
I had them set you up out here so you wouldn’t feel quite so confined. The ladies will scandalize the neighborhood by occupying both bedrooms. I will be staying in town at a bucolic spa called, if you can believe it, the Shoulder Arms. I will do my editing there. As you know, Fraulein Freda is not only a nurse and physical therapist, she studied nutrition back in the old country. Ja, liebes Fräulein?
Jawohl, Herr Houseman.
It’s a dry house. The owner of the ranch doesn’t permit alcohol.
[Houseman] But you’re from Pennsylvania. You’re no doubt used to it.
Saved by the proverbial bell. Set it here, please. And, uh, careful. Careful. Thank you.
Naturally, you’ll do your damnedest to get at it. By the time you finish the first draft, which is to say, in 90 days, you should be a world-class sprinter. Rita, come in here, will you? This is Mrs. Alexander. She types 100 perfect words a minute and takes dictation like a clairvoyant. Rita Alexander, Herman Mankiewicz.
How do you do, Mr. Mankiewicz?
Uh, that’s a big question.
Well, since you like working nights, Rita here runs on London time. Her husband is one of our bold lads in the RAF. Flies… What is it, Rita? Spitfires?
My sympathy and prayers.
I beg your pardon?
Given the speed, climb, and turning radius of the Messerschmitt Bf 109–
I hope we won’t need your sympathy, Mr. Mankiewicz. We’ll do the praying and the fighting.
[Houseman] I will meet with Orson weekly. Keep him to date on our progress. We’re expecting great things. What is it the writer says? “Tell the story you know.”
I don’t know that writer.
[woman speaking on phone]
Yes. Yes, he’s right here.
Well, you should have everything. If I’ve forgotten, there’s a clipboard. Yes? Hello?
They’re getting him.
Our wunderkind does have the gift of theatrical timing. Orson, hello. We just got in.
[Welles speaking indistinctly on phone]
[Mank grunts and sighs]
[Welles] Mank! Houseman tells me we have you just where we want you.
[Mank] Lucky me.
How’s the leg?
“Thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone.”
Excellent. Ready and willing to hunt the great white whale?
Just call me Ahab. I understand we’ve 90 days.
[Welles] Let’s aim for 60.
[softly] He’s just cut a month.
I used to do it in five for you at the Mercury. This is leisurely.
Sixty days, and then we can noodle.
Nothing like a good noodle. Uh, is the reason you lopped 30 days to run it past the RKO legal?
[Welles] I thought I told you, Mank. I have final cut, final everything. There are no studio notes. We’ll have no one but ourselves to blame.
[Mank] Sixty days and a noodle.
[man] Mr. Welles, we’re ready.
Gotta run. I’m doing tests for Heart of Darkness.
Oh, little that, lesser Joe Conrad.
If anyone should ask, tell ’em you’re adapting.
[Mank] Oh, you don’t know this sun-bleached sewer here, my friend. Break wind at Hollywood and Vine, and a producer in Santa Monica reports a ruptured main.
[Welles] No, I don’t know this burgh, not yet. I’m toiling with you in spirit, Mank. And I don’t hear any typing. [hangs up]
No notes. And then he turns 24. [sighs] Trapped.
INT. MANKIEWICZ HOME – NIGHT – WEEKS EARLIER
[woman] Uh-uh. Let me take off these clothes.
[slurring] They let me go just as I achieved perfect equilibrium. I won’t work with half the producers on the lot, and the other half won’t work with me.
What’s this, a racing form?
You stop reading, you stop learning.
Hold still. Lay back.
Hermie, if a match gets anywhere near your breath, you’ll burst into flames.
Even the dog’s name is awful. Sounds like a Japanese houseboy. You mark my words, Sara. The Wizard of Oz is gonna sink that studio.
Sleep. You’re driving to New York tomorrow.
[exhales] Remember when you used to take the train from back East? I’d sneak aboard in Albuquerque and climb into your compartment naked.
I also remember how I spent my honeymoon in Berlin, with hookers running up and down the stairs all night because my dashing correspondent couldn’t afford a nice hotel.
Weren’t those the days?
Yeah, yeah, and the nights weren’t bad either.
For the last time, what?
What year is it?
I should have done something by now.
Give me a sign, oh, Lord. I am as your servant Moses, though I won’t work half as cheap.
Go to sleep, meshuggener.
Why do you put up with me?
[sighing] I don’t know.
That bush in the front yard, if it catches fire tonight, you will let me know? [grunts]
[man] I mean, you know all kinds of things. Iambic pentameter, the words of the great poets. What about the way she signed it? “Always, Ethel.” [chuckles] Can you beat that? Not just “Ethel.” “Always, Ethel.”
Tommy, if we can find civilization by sundown, I hope to climb out of this crate and into a cold martini.
She’s not the kind to use “always” if she didn’t mean it. If she meant just “Ethel,” she’d write just “Ethel,” not “always.” Wouldn’t you think?
Uh, the road, Tommy.
I know. You read it and see what I mean.
[Tommy] She loves me, don’t you think?
[unsettling music playing]
[echoing] Mank? It’s Orson Welles.
Of course it is.
[Welles] I think it’s time we talked.
I’m all ears.
[Welles’s laughter echoing]
[Mank] Once a castle on a hill, now a memory of what once was. Alone in his unfinished, already decaying pleasure palace, aloof, seldom visited, never photographed, we see an old man in a robe, smoking a pipe, sitting alone by his pool…
…um, uh, discarded pages scattered at his feet.
Narrator, “An emperor of newsprint continued to direct his failing empire, vainly attempting to sway, as he once did, the destinies of a nation which had long since ceased to listen to him…” No. “Had ceased to trust him.” We see through trees as an aide pushes this old man in a wheelchair across neatly groomed lawns.
Narrator, “There, last month, as it must to all men, death came to–“
Let’s have that cuppa, Mrs. A.
I know who it is.
[Mank chuckles softly]
[Rita] Or who it’s meant to be.
What makes you think it’s meant to be anybody?
Oh, come, now. Everyone in the English-speaking world will recognize him instantly.
Exactly what he would say.
Did you know the man?
Maybe. I used to.
You wrote for one of his papers?
Oh, no, praise God. I met him after he started bankrolling his girlfriend’s pictures.
You knew Marion Davies?
If anyone did.
Really? What’s she like?
Why is it when you scratch a prim, starchy English schoolgirl, you get a swooning moving-picture fan who has forgotten all she ever learned about the Battle of Hastings?
Hastings. 14 October 1066, ten centigrade.
EXT. PARAMAULT STUDIOS – DAY – 1930 (FLASHBACK)
[upbeat music playing]
[studio bell rings]
Sorry. Somebody told me Mankiewicz was in here.
He is. I’m the promising brother, Joe.
I didn’t know Herman had a brother.
Neither does anyone else. Let me guess. “There are millions to be made, and your only competition is idiots,” stop.
How did you know?
I hate to tell you, anyone who can rub three words together and make a sentence gets one. Come on.
It’s after lunch, and we’re on a deadline. He may be busy.
I promise I won’t be a bother.
Not exactly what I meant.
Come on! Hey. You know I’m good for it.
Shh. These are high stakes.
[man 1] Go on.
[laughing] Ooh, tails! That’s it!
God damn it!
[man 2] Oh, Mank!
All right. Double or nothing. This time, banjo-eyed son of a bitch, let it hit the floor.
[man 1] Son of a bitch?
[man 2] Mank once bet me a five-spot to see how long it would take a falling leaf to hit the ground. Had to go to management to cover it.
For five bucks?
[Mank] Come on, come on. Heads, you bastard!
[man 3] Oh, Mank!
[man 1] Ooh! Pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen.
Hey, Charlie. Yeah. You all remember the Algonquin cabin boy, Charlie Lederer, a poor but somewhat talented magazine writer, come West to join our merry band. Well, you know most everyone.
George is fine, kid.
Nice to meet you, son.
Do you prefer Sidney or SJ?
Uh, he takes what he gets. The great Charles MacArthur.
[Lederer] Good to see you again.
My resident jack-of-all-trades, Shelly Metcalf.
Oh, save the “mister” for the anointed. And last, not yet among them, my brother Joe.
Have Cyclone say, “I don’t mind the heat as much as I do the humanity.”
And the one and only Ben Hecht.
Have you been laid yet?
[Perelman] Do you have to think about that?
Hello. Yeah. Right away. Selznick, everyone. Five minutes.
[Mank] You’ve arrived in the well-known nick Charlie. Just in time for a story conference with the great David O.
Once more unto the breach…
[Kaufman] Breach? Hell, unto the wire…
Without a net.
Keep your mouth shut and watch us for your cue, okay?
[Mank sighs] What I wouldn’t give to see that in a tight sweater.
Herm, can I use that?
I need a status report. Boys, come on in.
Ah, make yourselves at home.
Now, you all know Joe von Sternberg.
You wanted 72 hours, you got 72 hours. Tell us what you have so far.
Ben, why don’t you start?
Well, this was tough, David. In the beginning, we couldn’t agree on an approach.
Really? And why was that?
Well, we see a different kind of Paramount picture.
[Selznick] Different how?
Frankenstein and The Wolf Man all rolled into one, only–
I don’t make cheap horror pictures, Universal does.
Uh, this is different. This is about something.
Imagine a mad scientist, touring the boonies with a mechanical freak he’s fabricated.
Now, what does he mean, “fabricated”?
And displays it to superstitious hayseeds in a giant, silk-lined casket for the price of admission.
But every full moon, the monster awakens and raises unholy hell with the villagers.
Give it a Eastern European look, men in leather shorts, gals in tattered peasant blouses.
Let me guess. They think it’s the devil?
Villagers always think it’s the devil.
And the scientist and his creation are forced to flee during a raging electrical storm.
Flee from outraged peasants…
Who pursue them mit torches…
Overturn their creaky wagon…
And set fire to it. Tell him about the finale, Charlie.
Oh. Well… the rain turns to sleet, puts out the fire, and entombs the monster in solid ice. While nearby, an old priest weeps.
Hmm. A weeping priest?
Thunder, lightning, blood, fire, religion…
All in one film?
And with an unseasonal thaw… a sequel.
I thought you said this was about something, this was different.
Plus, the ominous futility of man playing God.
The Faustian bargain of life everlasting.
And the triumph of the human spirit over the beast incarnate in our far-too-solid flesh.
It’s not for Joe. Boys, this is serious. We need your help. We’ve got to get people into theaters, but… how?
Show movies in the streets.
[energetic music playing]
You okay, Charlie? Taken care of this weekend?
I’m going to see my aunt.
Oh, that sounds like fun.
You obviously don’t know my aunt. If you’re not doing anything, come along.
Careful, I just might.
Glendale station at 7:00. Bring Sara if you like.
Sara, isn’t that your wife?
Oh, you mean Poor Sara. No, she and the kids are back East.
[car horn tooting]
[Lederer] Herman. Herman. Herman!
[Mank slurring] Charlie!
[birds singing outside]
[Mank grunts softly]
[men vocalizing and chanting]
[woman continues screaming]
[director] Cut! Next setup, please.
[big band music playing on phonograph]
What is Mank doing here?
Do I know him?
He wrote one of our Lon Chaneys.
Thalberg, the boy genius.
I am shocked to see you here.
I’d be shocked to see me here, too, Irving, if only I knew where here was.
You wrote one of our Lon Chaneys.
[Mank] Among many.
At MGM, movies are a team sport.
Which may be why I’m at Paramount.
Since when don’t Paramount use writers by the truckload?
But all at once, not in relays. Helps spread the blame around.
You remember our chairman, Louis B. Mayer?
By reputation only.
A short one. Plagued by spirits. A hell of a way to spend the Sabbath, fellas.
Here in support of a friend. His leading lady is making a mid-career adjustment.
Ah, I’m on my way over. Any notes from the oversight tent?
Who was that again?
Just a writer.
Slumming on a Saturday, Mr. Metcalf?
[chuckling] Mank. No, sir, helping out on B camera. It’s a home movie, but his idea of a home movie.
I know you.
[Mank] Well, what’s at stake here?
We met at John Gilbert’s birthday. You’re Herman Mankiewicz.
Guilty. And I remember you, Miss Davies. Regaling us with stories about dodging trolley cars in Brooklyn. Your Flatbush was showing.
You fractured Wally Beery’s wrist Indian wrestling.
Admittedly, a lucky break.
Boy, was he surprised. You’re stronger than you look.
And from what I understand, you’re smarter.
That was a compliment.
See what I mean?
[Marion laughing] You are interesting. I need a favor, but you’re gonna have to promise you won’t laugh.
Given the state of the world, a tall order.
You’re gonna. I just know you are.
I have got such a hangover right now, there’s just a fighting chance I won’t.
I’m being burned at the stake, and I am dying for a ciggie-boo.
There. God’s punishing you.
Watch those stairs. They’re treacherous.
[Mank] Every moment of my life is treacherous. Any last words?
Welcome to San Simeon.
I’ve written worse.
[Marion] You’ve never seen it?
No, but George Bernard Shaw was right.
“It’s what God might’ve built had he had the money.”
Well, as they say in the Bronx, “Make yourself to home,” Mr. Mankiewicz. Or shall I call you Herman?
No. Please, call me Mank.
Good morning, Charles.
Aunt Marion. Mank.
[Marion] You sleep well?
Until your rather dramatic wake-up call.
This is all Pops’s idea. He wants me ready to take on the talkies.
[director] First positions! Riders, ready! Rolling!
[crew member 1] Speed! Action!
[energetic instrumental music playing]
Help! Please! Someone save me!
[crew member 2 coughs]
[crew member 3] Cut!
[Marion] Pops, this is Herman Mankiewicz, but we have to call him Mank.
Mankiewicz? Herman Mankiewicz, New York playwright and drama critic?
Turned humble screenwriter, Mr. Hearst.
[Hearst] Why, no need to be humble, Mr. Mankiewicz. Pictures that talk are the future. They’re gonna need people who honor words, give them voice. There’s a golden age coming when all the world will be a stage, and you, perhaps, their Shakespeare.
[Mank] Oh, I wouldn’t have thought you’d be that keenly interested in the honoring of words.
What’s so funny?
I’m just surprised that a vaunted muckraker like yourself sees Hollywood’s future as such a shiny penny.
[director] Back to one.
Times are changing, Mr. Mankiewicz, and I’m not just referring to this Depression.
All that bother.
[Hearst] And when all this is over, picture-makers are gonna have to service this new entertainment. I intend to make pictures with the help of real literary minds.
Mm, I support that.
Instead, what do most studios give us? Gangster flicks, zanies.
[Mank] Too true. Now, how many gangsters do Americans meet in a lifetime? How many families are like the Marx Brothers?
You mean besides my own?
[Hearst laughs] Very good. Have him seated next to me.
[energetic music resumes playing]
Miss Davies, Mr. Hearst would like Mr. Mankiewicz seated to his left at dinner.
Oh, Pops likes you.
[Mank sighs deeply]
Why is it when Houseman edits, everyone ends up speaking like a constipated Oxford don?
[indistinct chatter on phone]
Yes, he is. No, not at all. Please hold on. It’s Poor Sa– [gasps] I’m sorry. It’s your wife.
[Sara] I heard that. Hermie, Joe called four times in the last three days. He wants your number up there.
[Mank] So give it to him.
Knock it off!
The boys are remodeling. He seemed concerned about something. Is everything okay?
If I could swim, I’d be doing swimmingly. And don’t mind Joe. He’s a worrisome old woman in disguise.
Well, he wants to offer you work.
Baby Joe offering me? [scoffs] Well, if he calls again, give him this number, Schnutz. I’ve gotta run. Kiss the offspring.
[in British accent] I say… a letter from the gallant “leftenant”?
[in normal voice] Now, let’s hope it makes more sense than the last. Fighters off the decks of aircraft carriers. Whoever had that idea?
It’s not good?
[Mank] Not good? German U-boats are starting to hunt in packs, and a Stuka dive-bomber can drop one down your stack from 500 feet.
[in British accent] What’s our valiant laddie have to say for the cause–
It’s not from her husband. His ship’s been sunk off Norway. Presumed lost at sea.
[sighs] Always the smartest guy in the room. [exhales]
[jazz music playing on radio]
[woman singing on radio]
[owl hooting outside]
You’re right, of course. Aircraft carriers are a shitty idea, but I don’t appreciate the callousness. I expect more of you. “Presumed” means they don’t know, so I choose to believe he’s alive until… Mank. Mank! Mr. Mankiewicz?
He’s all right. Just sleeping.
Well… I shouldn’t wonder. There’s enough Seconal in those bottles to bring down a bull elephant in heat. Young Orson doesn’t believe in chance.
[Mank] Houseman, you sly thing. You slipped me a Mickey.
So we did. How you managed to reach it so early in your rehabilitation, I cannot imagine. How was it? Mother’s milk?
On balance, better than nothing. I plan to use it as a nightcap.
As you Yanks say, “He went out like a light.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself, which may be why I write for the movies.
Will you stop? You write for the movies because you’re super at it. Excuse me, you two, I’ve masses of typing to do.
[Houseman] Seventy-six pages. By the time she translates your red chicken scratches, it’ll be less than 40. At this rate, you’ll never finish.
What I wanna know is what you think of it.
[Houseman] Of course, the writing is first-rate, but you know that. His lust for power, your exquisite evocation of his hunger for love from those who fear his worst side, but–
The dreaded yet foreseeable “but.”
You’re asking a lot of a motion picture audience. All in all, it’s a bit of a jumble.
Did you say “jumble” or “jungle”?
[Houseman] A hodgepodge of talky episodes. A collection of fragments that leap around in time, like Mexican jumping beans.
Welcome to my mind, Old Sock.
The story is so scattered, I’m afraid one will need a road map.
You mean it’s a mess.
Would you consider simplifying?
[Mank] As Pascal once said, “If only I’d had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
All I am saying is no one can write like that.
But I can write like that, Houseman. I have. The narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll, not a straight line pointing to the nearest exit.
You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours.
All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.
[Houseman] But nobody expects Shakespeare. People aren’t spending their hard-earned 25 cents to see Macbeth.
Maestro the Dog-Faced Boy did Macbeth.
Voodoo Macbeth. Don’t be fooled. He’s a showman. Busker reveling in sleight of hand. Save yourself the trouble, be done in 60 days.
He’ll get this, and the audience will too. Stop worrying. Have a pickle.
No, thank you. I’m not hungry. Haven’t been since we got here. Cheerio. Write hard. Aim low.
Where were we, chief?
[Rita] What are you gonna do?
[sighs] About what?
[Rita] He’s right. You won’t be done till Christmas.
[Rita] You made a promise.
I did what?
Sixty days is two weeks from now.
[car engine starts]
Where were we?
Bernstein’s speech, the young woman on the ferry boat.
Read it back, please.
“A white dress she had on, and she was carrying a white parasol, and I only saw her for one second, and she didn’t see me at all.” “But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.” A snapshot from the Mankiewicz family album?
You might say that.
It really is a gorgeous–
Spot to get stuck?
Is Bernstein meant to be Louis Mayer?
If form follows function.
Mayer is the same pathetic sort of lap dog to our Charles Foster?
Bernstein is a far nicer character.
You don’t much like Mayer.
If I ever go to the electric chair, I’d like him to be sitting in my lap.
EXT. MGM STUDIOS – DAY – 1934 (FLASHBACK)
$750 a week? That’s half what you make, Herman.
You’re a junior writer, Joe.
So, you’re only half the wit your big brother is. How many half-wits make that?
Herm, how do I look?
You look like you. Fine.
[sighs] What should I be expecting?
You’re related to me. He already thinks you’re a genius.
[Mank] The job will be yours if you can do two things. One, don’t roll your eyes. Two, try not to fall asleep.
[Mayer] This isn’t Gower Gulch. You want I should make a picture about a prostitute?
[Gilbert] What’s wrong? My mother was nothing but a whore. [grunts]
[Mayer] You would talk about your own mother that way? The woman who gave you life? You ungrateful bastard! I ought to cut your balls off!
Do it, you fucking junk dealer! I’ll still be the better man!
L.B., this is my brother, Joe.
Nice to meet you, Joseph. I’m Louis Mayer.
I can’t tell you what this means to him, Louis.
They’re all there, Mr. Mayer.
On my way. Joe, walk with me. My boy, there are three work rules at this studio. Rule number one. Ars gratia artis, art for art’s sake. How you doing? One million dollars a year we spend on stories we never even film. Why not? I’ll tell you. They don’t make me cry. What makes me cry? Emotion. Where do I feel emotion? Here, here, and here. Rule number two. You may have heard MGM has more stars than there are in the heavens. Do not believe this. Hiya. We have only one star. That is Leo the Lion. Never forget that. Many stars have, and now they twinkle elsewhere. Rule number three. People think MGM stands for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It does not. It stands for Mayer’s gantze mishpokhe, Mayer’s whole family. Never forget that. You got a problem, come to Papa. This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies, and don’t let anybody tell you different.
[studio bell rings]
I find myself in a horrendous position, and I come to all of you on bended knee. We are suffering, as all Americans are, from our country’s terrible economic woes. Good people, everyday people, can’t afford to go to the movies. So even our preeminent dream factory… is in grave financial difficulty.
I am asking everyone in the MGM family to take a painful step. I am asking to roll back salaries.
[Mayer] I don’t want to, but for this hallowed place to continue to exist, I am forced to. I won’t break up this family over something like money.
How long are you asking for?
Shouldn’t be long.
How much are you asking for?
[worker 1] Half?
Could be less.
Is everybody going to be pitching in? Are you, Mr. Mayer?
Real families root for each other in the good times, take care of each other in tough ones.
We’re with you, L.B.
You may be, Mr. Barrymore, but a 50% pay cut for grips and electricians–
Eight weeks, my friends, eight short weeks. As soon as FDR reopens the banks, you’ll get back every penny. On that, you have the sacred word of L.B. Mayer.
Well, I vote yes.
I do as well.
How’d I do, Ben?
It was great, Mr. Mayer.
[upbeat jazz music playing]
Not even the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen.
[Fraulein Freda] Good.
[Fraulein Freda] Okay.
[Mank] Oh, yeah.
[Fraulein Freda] Yeah? Okay.
Maybe a little bit left?
I’ve got to get typewriter ribbon. Here are this morning’s pages.
[Mank] Dreck. It’s all dreck!
Don’t flagellate. At least you’re writing again.
None of it sings. None of it. Not a note.
You’re not writing an opera.
But I am writing an opera.
It’s for you.
Herman, it’s Joe.
Hey, hey, kid. What’s up?
Checking in. How are you getting around?
Haven’t seen a sunrise yet.
You’ve never seen a sunrise.
Sara said you wanted this number.
Just to hear your voice.
Oh. She said you had some work you wanted to talk about.
Ah. I was thinking about that old play, The Wild Man of Borneo, the one you wrote in the Ice Age.
One never remembers one’s disasters. It’s considered gauche.
A play is never a disaster till the movies say it is.
I brought it to my people at the studio. We want W.C. Fields. We want you to adapt.
I’m kind of on something right now.
I can get you paid for the play and the adaptation.
Sounds great. But I’ll have to think about it.
You know how these things have their moment.
So this isn’t an offer. It’s a subtle ultimatum.
[sighs] Nobody could ever tell you what to do.
Did Sara put you up to this?
Not at all, but I know how things are. I can tell by her voice.
And how bad is that, baby brother?
How bad? I went to a party last night where Scott Fitzgerald referred to you as a ruined man.
That’s how bad things can get.
That’s good. I may use that.
[sighs] Please, stop, Joey. Just tell me what’s on your mind.
[sighs] I hear you’re hunting dangerous game. Word on the street is radio’s golden boy wants to go toe-to-toe with Willie Hearst, and you’re helping in the kitchen.
“And?” Herman, “And?”
How stupid of me. I thought I was rejecting a humiliating handout, when all the time, I was nixing a respectable bribe.
And I’m sorry I ever cared. [hangs up]
[Fraulein Freda] Come on.
INT. SAN SIMEON ASSEMBLY ROOM – NIGHT – 1933 (FLASHBACK)
[Hearst] Marion and I are pleased you all could come stay for the weekend. I hope the train ride wasn’t too arduous. And tonight, we’re celebrating our great friend’s birthday in our little hillside home. Charlie.
[all] ♪ Happy birthday to you ♪
♪ Happy birthday to you ♪
♪ Happy birthday, dear Louis ♪
♪ Happy birthday to you ♪
[man] Happy birthday!
Louis, you should be joyous. You don’t look a day over 48.
I feel 35.
Mr. Hearst, Marion, all of you, my heart is full to bursting. I can’t express in words…
[muttering] Please don’t try.
W. R., nothing is more precious to me than your friendship and sage advice. I am blessed to call you my friend. God bless William Randolph Hearst.
[softly] God bless us, everyone.
A very happy birthday, Louis. Our country should be flattered you picked its birth date as your own. The rest of us have to be satisfied with the one we happen to be born on.
Here’s to your rich Canadian imagination.
[all] Rich Canadian imagination!
Here’s to banks reopening.
And to freedom.
I believe you’ve met our distinguished guest, Mr. Rexford Tugwell. Now, Rex is special assistant to President Roosevelt, and we’re all interested in what you might share with us. We all wanna welcome the Thalbergs back from Irving’s long convalescence in Europe.
Thank you, W.R.
[Hearst] Good to see you, Irving.
Thank you, Mr. Hearst.
[plays flourish on piano] Anybody seen anything good lately?
I just saw 42nd Street. It blew my wig!
You can take the girl outta Bed-Stuy.
When was that?
Over the weekend. You were in D.C. I went to the pictures in Santa Barbara.
We have a fine screening room here.
[Mayer] Warner’s picture? Why waste money on that?
Next time, I’ll go with you.
[Marion] Of course. I am bonkers about Movietone News. I love Lowell Thomas’s voice.
Oh, is he single?
I sat across from him at the Brown Derby once. He bought me a drink.
[actress] Not technically. But I made sure to run into him in the parking lot after. I asked him, “Do you need a lift?”
You didn’t! What did he say?
I’ll never tell.
There’s a point to this, dear?
Well, yes, they showed that Hitler giving a speech, kissing babies. He is creepers!
Lederhosen and suspenders. Terrifying.
No, it’s the mustache that’s the horror.
[Hearst] Don’t be alarmed, Marion. He won’t be around for long. The Germans are a thoughtful, considerate people. Enough about Nazis. Irving, tell us about your travels. Where were you?
[inhales sharply] Uh… Berlin, in fact.
But it was quite interesting.
Thugs in brown shirts goose-stepping past our hotel all night, screaming anti-Semitic slogans. I was terrified the whole time.
This Hitler sounds like an utter drip. Shouldn’t the United States do something, Mr. Tugwell?
We are weighing all options.
Can’t last. Who in the world takes a lunatic like that seriously?
Well, the last time I looked, 40 million Germans.
Mank! You’re always so wonderfully contrary.
“Chase & Sanborn’s der coffee.” [in German accent] “Can 40 million Nazis all be wrong?”
I just read they’ve opened their first concentration camps and started burning books. What’s next? Movies?
Is that true, Irving?
Ah, Hitler, schmitler! You don’t turn your back on a market as big as Germany.
Please. It’s upsetting enough Marion had to endure the man in newsreel.
What’s a concentration camp?
It was fascinating. Those people adore him. I’m probably talking nonsense.
You’re the first tonight that isn’t.
[Selznick] Speaking of socialists, how about Upton Sinclair’s book?
He wants to turn private enterprise over to the state of California.
There’s one we won’t be optioning. Eh, Irving?
Well, it’s selling like crazy. Walter Winchell says Sinclair may run for governor next election.
That rat Bolshevik belongs right up there with Hitler on the list of people not to be taken seriously.
There’s a world of difference between communism and socialism.
[Mayer] They both want something for nothing.
Like a workforce for free?
Half, and only in the interim.
I think it’s safe to assume none of us here would welcome a crusading socialist as California’s political savior. Certainly not FDR. Am I right, Rex?
Off the record, President says the man bears watching. Especially now that Republicans seem bent on running Frank Merriam again.
Sinclair’s run twice before and got, what, 2% of the vote?
Good people, the man is an author.
As was Thomas Jefferson.
Ha! Come now, Mank. Upton Sinclair as Thomas Jefferson?
No, you’re right, W.R. Jefferson never got federal laws passed to ban oil monopolies, or railroad trusts, or cleaned up the stockyards.
He’s an angry scribe, a provocateur.
Because he provokes thought.
You always side with the writer, Mank. Poor souls surviving a depression on five grand a week.
L.B. is not wrong.
[Mank] Irving, you’re a literate man. You know the difference between communism and socialism. In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty.
Thank you, Mr. Mankiewicz.
Upton just wants you to apportion some of your Christmas bonus, Irving, to the people who clean your house.
Now that’s why I always want Mank around.
[chuckles] Me too.
Upton, Mank? Nobody’s asking to hear you sing “The Internationale.”
[plays “The Internationale”]
The Communist national anthem, darling.
I would. Do you sing?
No one should have to hear me sing. Isn’t that right, Sara?
If at all possible.
[Mayer] As Republican state chairman-elect, I’m telling you, nothing’s going to happen here. The people who count in California won’t let it. All this talk is so much pissing in the wind.
I heard Pops on the phone helping to pick the president’s cabinet like casting a movie. They can stop a guy like Sinclair. Couldn’t you, Pops? Pardon.
[unsettling music playing]
I don’t know what I’m saying.
Hello, Tokyo? London, you there? Ah, nerts!
[Mank] What is that?
[Marion] Oh, Pops’s radio-phones. Never ever be out of touch with your empire.
No, no. What’s “nerts”?
Nerts is Brooklynese for “nuts.”
What did I do that was so terrible? I shouldn’t have said that thing about the cabinet in front of Tugwell, but since when does anybody care what I have to say? Those things just pop out of my mouth, and the moment they do, I feel like…
Like you got caught, jambes en l’air.
[gasps] No! Well, do you always just say whatever you think? Hmm.
[Mank] You’re blushing.
Are too. I can see it even in the dark.
Well, what can I tell you, Mank? Marion Douras… went to convent school.
Where’s a gossip columnist around this castle when you need one?
I hate shop talk. I never know what’s going on. The one thing you never ever talk about is Upton Sinclair.
I noted. The moment he’s mentioned, the evening turns.
It’s sort of a sore subject.
Really? Do tell.
[Marion] I don’t even know who this Mr. Sinclair is, but he wrote about us for a book. I used to quote it word for word. “I saw our richest newspaper publisher keep his movie mistress in a private city of palaces and cathedrals, furnished with shiploads of junk imported from Europe and surrounded by vast acres reserved for use by zebras and giraffes, telling in jest that he had spent six million dollars to make his lady’s reputation and using his newspapers to celebrate her change of hats.”
It must be hard to be on the receiving end of that.
People think because you’re on the cover of Modern Screen, they know you.
Ah, nerts! What do I have to complain about? I live in a fishbowl, but anything I want is mine. If I could, I’d share with everyone. You know that, Mank. This Upton doesn’t know a thing about the real…
[shouting] Nobody but nobody makes a monkey out of William Randolph Hearst!
I understand why Mayer loathes him.
Sinclair caught him with his pants down.
[inhales sharply] Yikes!
He wrote that Mayer took a bribe to look the other way so a rival could buy MGM.
Over my head?
No, over mine. You’d need a degree in larceny.
Isn’t bribery a crime?
That’s what Sinclair said. The little sausage might have gone to jail.
[Mank] The hypocrisy. “Mayn gantze mishpokhe. My mishpokhe.”
[Marion] I don’t speak a lot of Jewish.
[laughs] Really? “My mishpokhe. My family.” Everything he does is for family, except when it comes to selling his last name to a competitor in the middle of the night.
Wow. He would do that to his own studio?
He doesn’t own MGM any more than Sam Goldwyn. They just run it for the moneyboys back East. And jail is not something an animal like Mayer is likely to forget.
Irving must be clean. He looks like he shaves three times a day.
Well, there’s clean, and there’s clean. Irving bought one of Sinclair’s novels. Sinclair demanded a guarantee that not one word could be changed, in writing, on the back of the purchase check.
[gasps] He didn’t want notes from Irving Thalberg?
When Thalberg refused, Sinclair took his money and ran off to Mexico and financed a picture about the Russian Revolution.
Now, that’s sticking the old neck out.
Oh. I’m sorry. Instinct!
My fault. I’ve been a little sixes and sevens recently. Tell me something, Mank. The truth. Could you see me playing Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Marie Antoinette? Irving’s bought ’em both, you know, because of Pops. What do you think? And honestly.
I see you more as Dulcinea.
Dulcinea. From the Spanish, for sweetness.
“Her hair, gold. Her cheeks, roses.”
“Her lips, coral.”
“Her neck, alabaster. Her bosom, marble.”
“Ivory, her hands, and her whiteness, snow.”
You wrote that?
No. A fella named Cervantes. [clears throat] “There are meters of accent and meters of tone, but the best of all meters is to meet her alone.”
Ah, a poem with a message.
That’s just the first verse. The last… “There are letters of accent and letters of tone, but the best of all letters is to let her alone.”
Now, those I wrote.
[Marion sighs happily]
[coyotes howling in the distance]
Do come in. Jesus! What is that?
Sunlight. It’s nearly noon.
Mother of God! Where did the night go?
Your support device is here.
Oh, good. Send it in.
As is Mr. Houseman. What would you like me to do?
Well, send him in too. [coughs] Uh, put it over there, please. You’re early.
I thought we should talk.
[Mank] Why are you wearing a coat?
I always wear a coat.
Must be 108 degrees.
We’re at a Rubicon moment, Mank.
It’s not the work. That’s everything we hoped it would be.
[Mank] Enough room there?
Oh, it should be.
[sighs] I’m sorry, John.
You’ve only written ninety pages.
[Houseman] In my expert opinion, you’re hardly out of the first act. I mean, how do you hope to be done in 14… 13 days? We gave him our solemn word we would deliver.
I don’t think he’s going to take it well. Not very well at all.
You said 90 days. Welles said 60. I’m doing the very best I can.
We are surely to be axed.
Not just yet.
I’ve never been fired.
I’ve never not been fired.
I don’t get fired.
It’s not as unpleasant as you might imagine. You worry too much, John. What do you do for pleasure?
Hello? Yes, he’s here.
[man speaks indistinctly on phone]
[softly] It’s Orson.
[inhales sharply] Will you talk?
[Rita] He’d like to speak with Mr. Houseman.
[Houseman] Me? Orson.
[Orson speaking indistinctly]
I came early to see where we were with, uh… No, not at all. Everything’s going absolutely according… Well, that’s difficult to say exactly. Yep. Yes, I know the clock… Well, as I’ve told you, it’s quite unique. In fact, I would venture to say, one of the most… Yes, well, it will absolutely need your marvelous… He’s on the mend, working tirelessly.
[Houseman] Of course. When? I’m on my way. Yes. Hang on. He’s right here.
He wants to see me right away. Wouldn’t tell me why.
Perhaps he will you.
[Welles laughs] Tell me what’s up, Mank.
He’s getting on my nerves.
I sensed that. I told him I had to see him at once. Hopefully, I can think of a reason before he gets here. I’ve finished my test for Heart of Darkness. I’m turning my full attention to our little project.
[Mank] “Let there be light.”
[Welles] Tell me what to expect.
I thought you’d want to be surprised.
Ha. You’re always surprising. That’s why you were my only choice. No one else is Mankiewicz. I can almost hear the finish line.
We’re about to turn a corner.
Unto the breach!
Slim, you may tote those lovely highland beauties to the kitchen. Fraulein Freda, empty the Mickeys and start replacing their contents, raus schnell.
Thank you, Slim. You may go.
Mr. Mankiewicz, please don’t ask us to help you in this sad deception.
My dear Mrs. Alexander, Charlie Lederer and I went to a great deal of trouble to engineer this sad deception. My deadline is two weeks away and I intend–
It could mean our jobs.
I do my best thinking before I fall asleep. And I am sick and tired of having my evenings end with the abrupt sensation of being struck on the head with a croquet mallet.
A way to put it.
I’m not asking you to help.
I’m telling you.
[scoffs] I’m sorry. I won’t be bullied. You’ll have my resignation in the morning. I know Freda’s been sneaking you nightcaps from the cabinet. If she continues to cooperate in this cheap ruse, I’ll have to report the both of you.
Ja, Herr Mank?
Please do as I instructed.
Ja, Herr Mank.
Freda, you mustn’t let him intimidate you like that.
I am not intimidated, Frau Alexander.
[Fraulein Freda sighs]
Herr Mank sponsored my family’s entry into this country. He’s responsible for us getting safely out of Germany, legally and financially.
Our entire village, he brought here.
Over 100 people. Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, will not allow his films to be shown in the Fatherland.
I didn’t realize.
He wrote a picture about the Nazis, which no studio anywhere will dare make. I assume if he wishes to drink, he’s a grown man, a good man, and should be treated as such. Nicht wahr?
To Mank-town. Or is it Mank-ville?
[sighs] Dear Freda. What’s German for blabbermouth?
Either you demonstrate you can handle this, or we will all end up getting sacked.
There’s nothing like a vote of confidence from one’s peers.
To Mank-berg. Prosit.
Mank-heim. Bottoms up.
EXT. MGM STUDIOS – DAY – 1934 (FLASHBACK)
Hey, Mank, you remember me?
[chuckles] Oh, my God. Of course I remember you, C.C.
C.C. for Central Casting. How you been, Mank?
[C.C.] What happened? The goddamn Depression happened. I ain’t had so much as a walk-on since Tugboat Annie. Listen. I hate to, you know…
Uh, yeah. Ed, lend me a buck.
Uh, me and Grady here been thinking of bummin’ east to Miami. I heard it from someone who knows, the Hollywood studios are movin’ to Florida.
Who told you that?
Oh, I can’t say. Somebody in the know. In certain echelons, it’s common knowledge.
Well, people in certain echelons don’t usually trust me with sensitive information. But the studios aren’t moving anywhere. That’s just company-town propaganda.
Believe what you want, but say, you think you could spare…
[C.C.] Bless you, Mank.
[Joe] The bastard reneged. You were there. Yes, he reinstated salaries, but he never gave back the money he promised.
Come on, Mank. We need guys like you to keep people like Mayer honest.
I’d refer you, for that, to the power of prayer.
The Writers Guild doesn’t have to hit the bricks for the $2,500-a-week guy. We’re doing it for the $250-a-week guy.
Joe, all the $250-a-week writers I know are getting $2,500. Stop crying for your just deserts, or they’re liable to give them to you. Then we’ll all be working for 75 bucks a week.
I don’t know if you’ve ever walked a picket line. You might have to.
And Dave Chasen will cater. “Junior writers only paid $750 a week.” If that happens, you’d better run before real folk with real troubles stone you to death.
Hermie, the guild’s in its infancy. It needs you.
[Mank] You’re telling me. What writer failed to notice the Screen Writers Guild needs an apostrophe? As Groucho always said, “Never belong to any club that would have someone like you for a member.”
[Joe groans, sighs] And look at him. The most miserable bastard on God’s green earth.
I’d tell him you said that, only he’d think you were brownnosing.
Close the door.
Inez, you are not to let the Brothers Marx wait in my office. Ever. They’ve been grilling hot dogs again. Sit down.
[Mank exhales] You wanted to see me?
Not that I care, but why aren’t you contributing to MGM’s anti-Sinclair fund?
Well, call me old-fashioned, Irving, but I don’t like being told which side of a fight I’m already on.
How’s it gonna look if the GOP chairman himself can’t get unanimous support from his own studio?
[Mank chuckles] You’re serious.
I was taught by my parents to be straightforward, to ask simply for what I want, and expect that I may have to elucidate my position.
Well, I was encouraged by mine to use my imagination, but I taught myself to avoid the consequences.
It’s ten bucks, Mank. You piss that away between hopeless bets. I hate to think what L.B. might do if he knew you were the only holdout.
I am, and he doesn’t?
And we’re not gonna tell him. I could let you go for this.
It is a hanging offense.
I’ll add the appropriate amount to your gambling debt and forget we ever had this conversation.
You do that. And the brand-spanking-new Writers Guild might find it very interesting, not to mention the newspapers.
I’m not sure the guild intends to cover games of chance. And you won’t go to the press, because in California, that means Hearst.
Irving, you are the shrewdest executive in this town. Why are you acting like some dumb ward heeler? You don’t need my donation. You don’t need anybody’s. You have everything it takes right here.
[sighs] Meaning you can make the world swear King Kong is ten stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40. Yet you can’t convince starving voters that a turncoat socialist is a menace to everything Californians hold dear? You’re barely trying.
[man 1 on speaker] Millions of Californians are being taxed out of their homes, yet the Depression is one of abundance. Fruit rots on the ground and vegetables are dumped into the ocean because there are no markets for them.
[man 2] Aimee Semple McPherson says you’re a godless commie, Upton.
[Sinclair] Too often, sir, the religion of Jesus is used by the ruling classes to keep themselves in power and the poor ever poorer. And that, my friends, is a sin and an error. And I say with Thomas Jefferson, “Truth has nothing to fear from error where reason is left free to combat it.”
[Sinclair] My friends, income in this country is going to be redistributed by one of two methods, legal enactment or violent revolution. We haven’t much longer to exercise our choice. Thank you all for coming.
[man 3] Tell us about Hollywood! Are the studios moving to Florida like they’ve been saying?
[Sinclair] Absurd, sir. If they were serious, why have the brothers Warner broken ground on an additional 100,000 square feet of sound stages? While MGM has the most contracts with stars in their history.
Well, he may not get Mayer’s vote…
[Sinclair] Jobs will be here…
…but he gets mine.
[Sinclair] …in California. Thank you all for coming.
[crowd applauding and cheering]
[Houseman] Well, I have seen some miracles in my day, but I have over 200 pages in 13 days. I never would’ve thought it possible.
To support devices.
[exhales] It’s good, Mank. Damn good.
I have it on highest authority it’s the best thing he’s ever done.
[Houseman] As a moving picture, it’s more than good. I’m at a loss to even express how wealth and influence can crush a man. It’s Lear. The dark night of the soul. And I was completely mistaken. The shifting point of view is revolutionary. I never thought one could care so much about a sled.
It’s kind of you to say.
[laughing] “But,” again.
It’s 327 pages. An embarrassment of riches. When the Dog-Faced Boy gets here, there will be plenty of branches to prune.
“A far too long screenplay for the ages.” John Houseman. [chuckles] I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination. Where he takes it, that’s his job.
I was, uh, looking to get you paid. I don’t know if you were aware or not. You signed your rights to the Mercury. You agreed not to take screen credit.
I needed the work.
You may want to reconsider.
All I currently want is a real shower, a cocktail, and my Sara to wake up to.
Are you certain?
It worked out.
Mank, if I may be so bold, why Hearst? Lord knows, outside his own blonde Betty Boop, you were always his favorite dinner partner.
John, are you familiar with the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey?
EXT. WILSHIRE BLVD – DAY – 1934 (FLASHBACK)
[peppy music playing over radio]
[melancholy music playing]
[peppy music resumes]
[indistinct chatter over radio]
[reporter] Today, our roving reporter is visiting Mrs. Elsie Hammontree of Azusa. Elsie, would you mind telling the folks at home why you’re voting Republican?
[Elsie] Young man, I’m a widow, and this little home may not be much, but it’s all I have left. And I intend to protect it.
Poor old woman.
[reporter] Would you mind telling folks why you’re voting for Frank Merriam?
[Elsie] Well, I’m voting for Frank Merriam because I wanna keep our way of life…
I know that voice.
It is familiar.
That’s Maude Anderson.
[Elsie] I don’t know much…
It is. Aunt Bertha from Lonely Trails.
Well, she’s no widow. And she’s absurdly rich. That “poor old woman” has got enough oil wells south of El Segundo to buy us both, Schnutz.
[upbeat jazz music playing]
I’d know that whiskey gargle anywhere. [chuckles]
[Mank] Well, well. Looks like you found work, C.C.
Don’t nose it around, but yeah, just in the nick.
MGM. They cleaned out the Washington and Culver gates like a dose of Ex-Lax. Grady gets a speaking part. They told us to come dressed as we are. I don’t know who thought of it, but it keeps a lot of us off the streets.
Don’t forget to vote.
[Kaufman] He’s confused with Sinclair Lewis. So many hicks think he wrote Elmer Gantry, it’s cost him the Dust Bowl vote. I’m in.
Poor sap. Not only has he got no money, he’s an idealist, for Christ’s sakes. Talk about political handicaps. I’m out.
[Perelman] Times says he’ll lose by 200,000.
It’s amazing what $10 million against him bought.
That’s what he gets for surrounding himself with amateurs. They not only charge admission to rallies, they pass a plate once the suckers are inside. Call.
He’s the most famous schlub after FDR, Hitler, and Mussolini. That oughta count for something. Hiya, Shell, sit in.
[Hecht] The bookies know. Soon as old Maude’s radio spots started running, the odds went from 7-5 for to 2-1 against.
Could you effete political snobs please shut up and play?
Mank, can I talk to you?
I’ll see you guys and bump you two big ones.
What, now, Shelly? [sighs] It better be. That’s the first good hand I’ve had all day.
I didn’t know he knew what a good hand looked like.
[Mank] I’m out.
[reporter on film] Mind telling who you favor in this election?
[man 1] I’m going to vote for Frank Merriam.
[reporter] Tell us your principal reason.
Well, I want Merriam because I want a job. If you drive all the capital out of the country, who’s gonna pay us?
[reporter] You think Merriam would be safest for all of us?
[man 1] Absolutely. It’s no time to trade horses in the middle of a stream.
[reporter] Mr. Butler, are you voting in the coming election?
[Butler] I am.
[reporter] Who would you vote for?
I’m sure that I’m gonna vote for Mr. Sinclair.
[reporter] You must have a good reason to vote for Mr. Sinclair.
Mr. Sinclair’s got something new. He got that EPIC Plan. I feel as though it’s time we should try something new out again. I need prosperity.
[man 2] Well, first of all, I’m an American, and I believe that Mr. Merriam will support all the foundations and principles that this country has stood for in the past 150 years. I have a job now, and I wanna keep it. My wife and I love California, and we’d like to stay. But in case we should have to leave, I’d like to have at least a couple dollars.
[reporter] Mrs. Hammontree, tell the folks why you’re voting for Frank Merriam.
Well, I’m voting for Frank Merriam because I wanna keep our way of life.
[reporter] You don’t believe a Democrat wouldn’t protect your way of life?
[scoffs] Why, that man’s a socialist. I don’t know much about politics, but I do know this. If Upton Sinclair wins this election, private ownership in California won’t amount to a hill o’ beans.
[in faux Russian accent] Well, we need complete rejuvenation of our system, so I vote for Comrade Upton. His system work in Russia, why not here?
[director] Cut. Do it again.
What’d you think?
Truthfully, Shelly, if the performances were any better, you’d be ashamed of yourself.
Only half of ’em were actors.
It’s got that raw newsreel feel, hasn’t it?
But it isn’t news and it isn’t real.
I wasn’t looking for an ethical debate Manky.
When did they cook this up?
At a meeting in production. They were passing around a pamphlet Sinclair wrote called “Ending Poverty in…”
“America’s unemployed will invade the Golden State.”
Mayer was giddy to use it against him.
Yeah, I bet he was. [sighs] It’s enough to persuade me that a writer is more of a menace to an unsuspecting public than a party hack.
Manky– [spills drink, inhales sharply]
If it’s bothering you, Shelly, why get involved?
They gave me a chance to direct. You don’t think anyone old enough to vote is gonna buy this shit?
Only the ones who believe King Kong is ten stories tall or Mary Pickford a virgin at 40.
Thanks, Cedric. These are fine.
I’ve just watched our Sinclair films.
Ah. What did you think?
With all due respect to Shelly, King Kong they ain’t. Though I do think footage of invading hobos has a certain xenophobic power when front-paged in the Times and backed by those tacky billboards.
Shelly got a chance to direct, and I canceled your $12,000 gambling debt. I’d call that a fair return on a one-minute lecture for uninspired studio chieftains.
Your director’s been stricken with a bout of conscience.
I’m sure he’ll tell me himself.
Don’t do this, Irving.
When I was just a boy passing out socialist leaflets in the Bronx, a couple Tammany goons came to show me the error of my ways. And one of them crushed my testicles until I volunteered to distribute my wares into the East River. That’s politics. I didn’t invent it, I don’t apologize for it.
Mayer’s not paying for this. He never pays for anything. Willie? Marion might be interested.
Well, you’re gonna have to hurry. Mayer’s over there now giving her the company kiss-off. Oh, haven’t you heard? She’s taking her playpen to Warner Bros. Permanently.
I wouldn’t let her do Marie Antoinette. Goldwyn’s right for once. [mimics Goldwyn] “A comedienne in that role is to laugh.” Besides, her pictures haven’t made a dime in a decade.
I know what I am, Mank. When I come to work, I don’t consider it slumming. I don’t use humor to keep myself above the fray. And I go to the mat for what I believe in. I haven’t the time to do otherwise. But you, sir, how formidable people like you might be if they actually gave at the office. Close the door.
[camera flashbulbs crackling]
[photographer] Oh, that’s a beautiful shot right there.
Mank! Are you okay?
No, that almost killed me. Where’s Willie?
Cairo, I think.
Can you phone him?
I don’t phone him, he phones me.
When’s he due back?
After November 6th. I’m joining him in Europe next week.
Marion, I need a favor. It’s just a little joke on Willie.
Sure, Mank, anything.
I want you to go back and tell Mayer Willie wants the phony Sinclair films pulled.
Which phony Sinclair films?
There isn’t time to explain. I just need you to tell him that.
Oh, I couldn’t, not even as a joke.
[Mank] Why not?
You know I don’t lie.
And that’s why he’d believe you. [chuckles] Marion, please, you’re not in convent school anymore.
I’m sorry. I… I know it’s silly, but–
But what? Why not?
Promise you won’t laugh.
I promise I won’t laugh.
I already made my exit.
It’s an ash-throated flycatcher
Congratulations! Best kind.
What can I say? She’s my aunt.
Oh, it’s not about her, it’s about him.
Or rather, it’s him, but it’s not her.
It isn’t? The lonely showgirl, trapped in a castle, doing jigsaw puzzles.
It’s more, her as people who don’t know her imagine her to be.
I see. It’s her as they imagine her, but it’s him as you knew him.
Damn it, Charlie.
You asked me out here. I was honored to come and read your latest. Is this a test?
A test? Of what?
Oh, come now.
Or just your way of avoiding responsibility?
What do you mean?
Are you hoping I might absolve you of such a personal betrayal? I won’t give you that.
Are you going to say anything?
[sighs] I have to think about it.
‘Cause I haven’t made up my mind how she might react.
What does instinct tell you?
[Lederer] It’s mighty strong medicine for a lifetime of starry-eyed self-absorption. It’s one of those cures that could be worse than the disease. But you, of all people, should know about that.
[car driving away]
He took the script?
Will he show it to her?
[Mank] I don’t know.
[Rita] Do you want him to?
I don’t know.
[fast jazz drumbeat playing]
EXT. TROCADERO NIGHTCLUB – ELECTION EVE – NIGHT – 1934 (FLASHBACK)
[upbeat jazz music playing]
Sinclair is yesterday’s fishwrap. Never stood a chance.
Make up your mind. Are we home licking our wounds or here making the best of it?
We’re making the best of it.
Good evening. Name?
Sorry, what was that?
M-A-N-K-I-E-W-I-C, and outta nowhere, a Z.
Ends of the earth. Clean exit.
Oh, terribly sorry. Table one. Right this way.
If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
[camera flashbulbs crackling]
Good grief. Look who’s here. How about that?
[Mayer] What a loyal friend you are.
I never thought we would see Mank.
I’m surprised. I would’ve imagined you in pajamas by now.
Mank, turns out we have the same dentist on Camden.
Sara, we have to plan a day of shopping and catch up.
Herman, I met your brother. He’s a chip off the old block. Quite handsome.
I can’t tell you how much it means. I’m touched you’d come. [voice breaking] Thank you.
Why do I love you?
What’s everyone else having?
[sound fades out]
[upbeat jazz music continues playing]
[radio announcer echoing]
[Mayer] What a great night. Great result.
I’ll drink to that.
You see, if you just give people what they need to know in an emotional way, you can expect they’ll do the right thing.
I think what you mean, “If you keep telling people something untrue, loud and long enough, they’re apt to believe it.”
That’s not what he was saying.
What’s going on here? Are we quoting Goebbels?
I’d like to debate that with L.B.
I’d like to see that.
Mank. Have another.
[Mank] It’s early. Every vote counts. Maybe the informed of California were late leaving work. The last I heard, Irving, it’s still a democracy.
Of the people.
By the people.
What are you two talking about?
[Mank] I tell you what, how about… double or nothin’?
[Mayer] What’s he saying?
You really will bet on anything. Keep your money. I’m happy enough just to nail that utopian son of a bitch to the wall.
I told you. Your obligation was canceled out of gratitude.
Wait a minute. What? He wants to wager double or nothin’ on a debt he doesn’t even owe us?
It’s a matter of principle, L.B. You wouldn’t understand.
I understand plenty. I’ll take that bet.
Okay, Mank, you’re on. Twenty-four grand or nothing.
Excuse me. I’m going to throw up.
[distorted radio announcer delivering election results]
[unsettling music playing]
[distorted election report continues]
[romantic music playing]
I needed some air.
Why do you love me?
Excuse me, friends. [clears throat] The final, incomplete, count for tonight is… Upton Sinclair, the lousy Bolshevik…
…728,653. Frank Merriam…
…the good Republican, 948,814.
[all cheering loudly]
My friends! My friends! Everybody get up and sing with me! Sing with me! Everybody, up and sing!
♪ O beautiful for spacious skies ♪
It was a team effort. Thanks.
♪ For amber waves of grain ♪
♪ For purple mountain majesties… ♪
Uh, Mr. Mankiewicz, I’m so sorry to bother you, but there’s a telephone call for you. Right back this way.
♪ America… ♪
Mank, it’s Shelly.
[slurring] He lost, Mank.
[Mank] Yeah, it’s been a bad night.
It’s my fault.
Oh, easy, fella, you only voted once.
He was just on the radio. He said the phony newsreels cost him the election.
That shows how naive he is. FDR cost him the election by staying on the sidelines. Sleep it off.
I’m not at home.
Where are you? Let me call you a cab.
Never mind. I’ll take the Pasadena Freeway. Nobody’d be on it election night.
[operator] How may I direct your call?
Shell, is that you?
It’s Herman Mankiewicz. Where is he?
[wife] I don’t know. I’m so worried. He left here very upset, and he’s got a pistol with him.
Don’t worry, Fay. I’ll find him.
I’m Eve. Fay was his first.
I’ll find him.
Is Houseman coming back? I never thought I’d miss him.
He and the wunderkind are cutting the first draft. A form of creative vivisection. Vital organs are exposed, nothing is learned, the patient dies on the table.
What have we here? Why, it’s a puffed-up, sharp-tailed, red-ruffled magpie.
How do you like the Mojave?
God’s answer for drunks and reprobates. Perfect place to dry out.
How’s that working?
It didn’t take. Cheers.
L’chaim. Why are you doing this, Herm?
Posterity, my ass.
From the original Latin.
Don’t patronize me. My Latin grades were better than yours.
Bibamus, moriendum est.
I read your little script.
News travels fast.
Even without the title page, you don’t need to be Philip Marlowe to know who wrote it.
[grunts] Have at it.
It’s very… complicated.
Well, thanks for coming out.
Herman, this is me.
You pick a fight with Willie, you are finished. Mayer can’t save you. Nobody can. Especially the boy genius from New York.
You’re far too political, Joe.
Self-preservation is not politics. Him, I get. But what did Marion ever do to deserve this?
It’s not her! You know better than anyone, not all characters are headliners. Some are secondary.
Well, that’s why I’m here. On behalf of the secondary characters. I thought you’d wanna know there’s a rumor in town you’re out to get Hearst because they dropped you from L.B.’s payroll, that they didn’t want you around anymore.
Don’t believe everything you hear at Schwab’s.
Hey, you made yourself court jester. Someone had to say it. People are speculating Rosebud is W.R.’s pet name for Marion’s genitalia. Now, I know you’d never stoop to that.
Only because I hadn’t heard.
[Mank] Charlie tells me you’re up for Thalberg’s old job.
[Joe] Not anymore.
Did I bollix that?
Don’t flatter yourself, Herman. I did it all alone.
Now, there’s a first.
I exposed myself, not entirely metaphorically, in court.
Somebody was bitching about Mervyn LeRoy running over budget on Wizard of Oz.
Goddamn movie again.
I said, “Le Roy s’amuse.” I was then forced to spend the next 20 minutes having to explain that “Le Roy” is “le roi” in French and means “the king.” Or to be specific, François I, and his royal habit of s’amus-ing himself by diddling all the ladies of his court.
You know, Pop was right. You should’ve been a professor.
Nobody knew what the fuck I was talking about. They say I was passed over because I’m not a team player. But I know better. It was the goddamn French pun that did me in.
I’m washed up, Joe. [exhales] Have been for years.
It’s the best thing you’ve ever written.
[car driving away]
A rare bird, that.
EXT. MGM STUDIOS – ELECTION EVE – NIGHT – 1934 (FLASHBACK)
You can’t do it that way.
Kill yourself. I’ve tried. It takes years.
I was tired of doing inserts and pick-up shots.
You’re not the first person to trade integrity for a chance in the big chair.
Thalberg said this was your idea.
Sometimes my asides are too clever by half. Go home to Fay.
Look at what we did. We can’t un-ring this bell.
We have to be vigilant.
In regards to?
People sitting in the dark, willingly checking their disbelief at the door. We have a huge responsibility.
I got it.
[sighs] No, Shelly. [Mank sighs] I’m so sorry.
First, you get the tremors, and your muscles begin to fail. Pretty soon, you can’t get out of a chair. Then smiling, speaking, everything goes. And it keeps going till…
You could always produce.
[Mank sighs] Give me the gun, Shelly.
Take ’em, Mank. Go on home. I’ll be fine.
[unsettling music playing]
Is he with you?
He… He wouldn’t come.
[sighs] Please tell me you got the gun.
[bullet falls to floor]
[Eve] Oh, my God!
He had a whole box. [breathing shakily]
You have another visitor.
[Marion] Drink it fast. In this heat, it’ll flash to sugar.
Why the wine and dine, Marion? Good cop, bad cop?
How do you mean, Mank?
First Joe, now you. Can’t you just tell me what’s on your mind?
[sighs] Well, I read the script.
It’s very grand, Mank, in its own way, and very much you. I would’ve loved to play me ten years ago.
It was never meant to be you.
For myself, I don’t care, Mank. Really, I don’t. But I beg you, don’t kick Pops when he’s down.
[peppy music playing on car radio]
I haven’t told a soul this, but I had to loan him a million dollars just to save San Simeon.
You hocked your jewels?
[scoffs] Of course not. Just some real estate. He bought me most of it anyway.
Willie sent you.
Didn’t have to. That surprises you?
You’re the most observant man I know.
Then you deserve better.
That’s very sweet.
I always wanted better. Mama Rose too. She made sure her daughters learned to sing and dance. We were never gonna end up in Brooklyn. I was only 16 when I was cast in Stop! Look! Listen!
[chuckling] That’s some title.
[Marion] Willie came to the show. Same seat every night. And all the other girls said to watch out. He was too old for me and too interested.
Come, now, he wasn’t your only admirer.
The thing you got so right in your script… was how lonely he’d been as a boy. When my own mother heard he was one of the richest men in America, she said, “Kick a little higher.” He has always been so kind to me. I love the old guy, Mank. Maybe I didn’t always, back when he was my social security. But now, there are things about us together… that no one could possibly… Am I persuading you at all?
I hope, if this gets made, you’ll forgive me.
And I hope, if it doesn’t, you’ll forgive me.
INT. TEMPLE – WILSHIRE BLVD – DAY – 1936 (FLASHBACK)
[rabbi] He was a modest man. His name never appeared on the marquee with the great stars, producers, and directors who worked alongside him.
But he loved moving pictures more than he loved anything. And he left his impeccable taste, his incredible attention to detail, on every frame he touched. It is not for us to say why he was taken from us so unexpectedly. Behind, he leaves his memory.
The memory of a great man, a talented man, a man of unblemished integrity. Irving G. Thalberg.
Mank. I haven’t seen you since, what was it, Jack Gilbert’s funeral.
Well, I haven’t seen you since Shelly Metcalf’s.
Has it been that long? How you been, Mank?
I thought you were still at MGM.
Well, look, come see me at International. Let’s work something out.
I did come see you. You gave me the same invitation after Shelly’s funeral. I couldn’t get past your secretary’s secretary.
Is that right? Good to see you, Mank.
One moment, please.
Mank. Mank! It’s Orson. It’s Orson.
[Mank] Hmm. Hello.
[Welles] Mank, I’ve just finished your first draft and I must say I’m pleased and impressed.
Are ya? Good news.
It’ll need work, of course. But there are no problems that can’t be solved together.
Well, I’m delighted to hear it.
Houseman’s bringing my notes. Think about ’em. Meantime, I’ll run everything through my typewriter.
Everything will thank you.
I understand you’re in touch with your Hollywood crowd?
Oh, good old Houseman.
So perhaps you’ve heard. None of the theater chains will touch us. It looks like RKO will have to sue for restraint of trade. They’ll countersue, of course. If you own that lovely home of yours, it might be a good idea to put it in Poor Sara’s name. You still there, Mank?
Oh, yes. Where else would I be?
I’ve saved the best for last. Guess who phoned with an offer to buy out RKO’s investment and shelve the picture permanently?
Mank, I’m surprised. Would Othello snoop on Desdemona when he has Iago?
Ah, Mayer. What did RKO say?
No dice, for now, but they’re on their uppers. Whether they–
You’d better drive up.
I plan to, just as soon as I’m done–
Today, if possible.
Dear Jove, did I say something I shouldn’t have? I hope you haven’t lost your nerve.
Nerve’s about all I’ve got left.
INT. SAN SIMEON DINING HALL – NIGHT – 1937 (FLASHBACK)
[Hearst] What a year you’ve had, Louis. How have you weathered it?
Despite everything, the MGM ship, I’m happy to say, is full steam ahead. We’re on track with this recent slate for our most successful year ever.
Well, that’s great news.
[man 1] Would you like to go lay down?
[Mank slurring] I think I’d rather stay upright.
[man 1] Perhaps we can find you a costume.
[Mank] Well, why would I need a cos… [Mank clears throat] Hello, everyone. Better late than never.
[woman] Mank! Where’s Sara?
Uh, caring for clan Mankiewicz.
[man 2] And what train did you take?
[Mank] Glendale. I missed my stop. Got a taxi from Morro Bay.
I’m confused. I thought the invitation called for circus attire, not flea circus.
I was cornered by a man who sold vacuum cleaners. A show of hands, who knows what a vacuum cleaner is?
[Hearst] Martin, would you set a place for Mr. Mankiewicz, somewhere where he might get some air?
[Martin] Follow me this way, sir.
[Hearst] And offer him some coffee.
[Mayer] Yeah. Mr. Monkeywitz could use some coffee.
[chair being pulled out]
[Hearst] And how’s Marie Antoinette coming together?
[Mayer] Previews have been a struggle for general audiences. We made some trims, but I should’ve known. Versailles, all those costumes and wigs. You can’t tell those stories without overhauling them for a modern audience.
[Hearst] How’s the performance of your leading lady?
[Mayer] The picture depends upon her. Norma put her heart and soul into it. I should’ve insisted she take some time. It’s a lot to deal with, a loss like that.
[Hearst] Marion would’ve made it her own.
[Mayer] Marion would’ve been perfection.
[Mank] Marion Antoinette.
[Mayer] But it was Irving’s picture.
[Mayer] I’m not interested in educating our customers. You want to send a message? Call Western Union.
[Mayer] Literary pictures. “Let them get cake.” Who needs to see that?
Joanna, come along. I’ll show you those horses we talked about. [grunts]
She’s very pretty.
Also, very bright, bullheaded, and British. Are you here to try your luck, too, Schnutz?
[Sara] At what?
Changing my mind.
I never had much success with that, Herman. In the end, you’ll do what you need to.
Charlie’s been here, Joe’s been, Marion’s been. For one reason or another, all of them want me to walk away. You care to hear what I’ve decided?
[Mank] After 20 years of connubial bliss, blind loyalty can get a little suffocating.
Okay. Here goes. [muttering] God knows I’ve rehearsed it enough. I’ve raised your kids kosher and all but by myself. I’ve put up with your suicidal drinking, your compulsive gambling, your silly platonic affairs. You owe me, Herman. So Joe says he can’t promise, but he thinks if you make nice with Mayer, you can have your old job back. Is that what you want me to say? I know what your answer’ll be, so don’t ask me to give you Poor Sara’s seal of approval.
Why do you put up with me, Schnutz? My movie star looks or my diplomat’s charm?
I suppose because being married to you, Herman, I’m never bored. Exhausted, yes. Exasperated, usually. But having devoted so much, I have to stick around to see how it all turns out. And whatever you decide, please be mindful of those who care about you most. I’m going riding. Haven’t seen a horse’s face in years.
[Mank chuckles softly]
Oh, and one last thing, Herman. I don’t want nobody calling me Poor Sara no more.
I’ve got a great idea for a picture, Louis. A picture I just know you’re gonna love. [echoing] It’s a modern-day version of Quixote. Now, I know none of you read, but you know what it’s about. A deluded old nobleman who tilts at windmills. So how might we update this story?
Do you want me to get–
How about we make our Quixote… a newspaperman? Who else could make a living tilting at windmills? But that’s not enough. No, he wants more than readership. He wants more than adulation. He wants love. So, he runs for public office, and because he’s notably rich, he wins. No, wait, wait a minute. Notably rich and powerful can’t win over an audience unless notably rich and powerful sees the error of his ways in the final reel. Notably rich and powerful and making no goddamn excuses for it is only admirable in real life. Isn’t that right, Louis? [grunts] So what do we do? Anybody? We give him ideals. Ideals that any dirt-poor, depression-weary audience can identify with. Our Quixote is against crooked trusts. He’s for the eight-hour workday, fair income tax, better schools. Why, he’s even for government ownership of railroads. [chuckles] You know what we call those people?
No, our Quixote, he’s a two-fisted muckraker. In fact, someone predicts that he will one day win the presidency and bring about, get this… [laughing] …a socialist revolution.
What a bunch of bullshit!
Is it? Tell him, Willie. Tell him. Upton Sinclair used exactly those words to describe a young William Randolph Hearst.
You miserable bastard!
How do you do? Our Quixote, he hungers, he thirsts, he lusts for voters to love him. Love him enough to make him president. But they won’t, and they don’t. How do you suppose that could happen? Could it be because, in their hearts, they know that he values power over people? Disillusioned in Congress, he authors not one single piece of legislation in two terms. Can you believe that? That’ll take some writing. Placed in nomination for president, but it’s too radical for the boys in the back. His bid goes nowhere, but we’re doing something. We’re building sympathy. Rejected, he flees to lotusland, where his faithful troll, Sancho, has prepared a mythical kingdom for…
Wait a minute. I forgot the love interest. Her name… Dulcinea. Funny, adventurous, smarter than she acts. Ah, she’s a… she’s a showgirl, beneath his social stratum, but that’s okay, because true love on the big screens, we all know, is blind. And she… Yeah, she loves him too. So he takes her away to his mythical kingdom. Can I get a bicarb? Now, along comes nemesis. That’s Greek for any guy in a black hat. Nemesis runs for governor and he’s a shoo-in to win. Why? Because he’s exactly what our Don used to be. An idealist, you get it? And not only that, nemesis is the same guy who once predicted our Quixote would one day preside over a socialist revolution. Our Quixote looks into the mirror of his youth and decides to break this glass, a maddening reminder of who he once was. Assisted by his faithful Sancho, and armed with all the black magic at his command, he does just this. Destroying in the process not one man… but two.
Well, what do you think, Louis? Hmm? You think it’ll play?
[guests groan and clamor]
[Mank sighs, chuckling] Don’t worry, folks. Uh, the white wine came up with the fish.
Who the fuck do you think you are, Mankiewicz? You’re nothin’ but a court jester. And let me let you in on a little secret. Do you have any idea who pays half your salary? He pays half your fucking salary. Him, you fucking ingrate. You didn’t know that, did ya? You wanna know why? Because he likes the way you talk. Not the way you write, the way you talk. Don’t that chap your ass?
[Rita] Please, follow me.
[Welles] It’s very quaint. Rise and shine, hombre. Shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. Before we buckle down, I gather you have something to get off your chest?
As a matter of fact, I do.
[Welles] Frankly, I think what I said upset you. I know your health’s not what it might be. I understand that comes first.
[Welles] This studio fuss, this lawsuit. God only knows what pressure’s yet to come. At your age, you’d be justified in wanting out.
I’m 43, but that’s very understanding.
Mayer’s buyout was rejected. So, the fat’s only starting to hit the fire. Now, I talked to RKO, and I’ll tell you what they’re ready to do. In recognition of the outstanding work you’ve done so far, they’re prepared to relieve you of the rewrite and still honor your full pay, plus $10,000. How’s that?
That’s more than generous. But I don’t intend to walk.
All right. What’s bothering you, then?
You’re not going to like this, Orson. [sighs] I want credit.
It’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
Jack, get me some Cuban cigars.
Do what you can, Jack.
Oh, stay, Houseman. You’ll miss the third act complicator.
Get going, Jack. Muy pronto.
I believe that means right away.
[tense music playing]
[Mank] What I said was more in sorrow than in anger, Willie.
Are you familiar with the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey? Now, the organ grinder’s monkey is tiny in stature, and having been taken from the wild, he’s naturally overwhelmed by the enormous world around him. But every morning, a sweet elderly woman dresses him in a fine suit of clothes. She fits him with a red velvet vest adorned with pearl buttons and a handsome red fez with a silk tassel. She slips on brocade shoes that curl at the toe, and he’s paired with a fine gilt music box on an exquisite gold chain fastened to his neck and his neck alone. Whenever he ventures into the city to perform, he thinks, “What a powerful fellow I must be.” “Look how patiently everyone waits just to watch me dance.”
“And wherever I go,” he thinks, “this music box must follow, and with it, this poor downtrodden man.” “And if I chose not to dance, this sorry street peddler would starve, and every time I do decide to dance, every time… he must play.” “Whether he wishes to or not.” You’ve had a bit too much to drink, Herman. I’ll get Raymond to drive you to the station. Goodbye.
Put aside gratitude, Mank. That you’ve done your best work was no accident. I removed any distraction, eliminated every excuse, your family, your cronies, liquor. I gave you a second chance.
And for that, I cannot thank you enough.
But with credit for a risky undertaking must go the weight of real responsibility. Given your current health, I wonder if you’re up to it.
Frankly, I wonder, too, but we’ll find out.
You may never work in this town again, Mank!
[laughing] Orson, please…
Then you force me to remind you! We have a contract that you understood and agreed to! If you fight this, it will go to what your new guild calls arbitration, and you, my friend, will lose script, money, and assuming such a thing still exists in Hollywood, the respect of those who honor their word.
How can I put this nicely? I may be a loose cannon, but you, my friend, are an outsider. They’re exasperated by me, and I’ve earned it, but you, a self-anointed savior-hyphenate, they’re just waiting to loathe you.
Remind me never again to work with a washed-up alcoholic!
Duly noted. Nelson Algren, please copy.
All right! No doubt you’ll get your credit. But ask yourself, “Who’s producing this picture?” “Directing it? Starring in it?”
That’s just what we need when Susan leaves Kane. An act of purging violence.
[kicking glass shards]
[Rita] Mank! Mank, where are you? Mank, come quick!
[car engine starts]
He’s alive! Ian’s alive! He fetched up on the Orkneys!
The Orkney Islands, you idiot. Oh, Mank, are you ever serious?
Only about something funny.
INT. BILTMORE HOTEL – FEBRUARY – NIGHT – 1942
[clears throat] And the winner of the best original screenplay is… Herman J. Mankiewicz…
…and Orson Welles for Citizen Kane.
[reporter] This is the first nomination and first win for Mr. Mankiewicz and Mr. Welles. Neither were able to attend tonight. Accepting for both is the president of RKO Radio Pictures, Mr. George Schaefer.
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – 1942
“IT’S ALL TRUE” – RADIO PRESS CONFERENCE
[reporter] Excuse me, Mr. Welles.
[real Orson Welles] Good morning gentlemen.
[reporter] Good morning, Mr. Welles. You missed a big night.
[real Orson Welles] I was unable to attend the Academy Awards because I’m here in Rio making a marvelous motion picture.
[reporter] Kane was nominated in nine categories, including best actor. Aren’t you disappointed that it only won one Oscar?
[real Orson Welles] Well, that, my good man, is Hollywood.
[reporter] Anything you’d like to say to your coauthor, Mr. Mankiewicz?
[real Orson Welles] I do have a brief message. You may tell him from me… Mank, you can kiss my half!
You ask me what my acceptance speech might have been. Well, here goes. I am very happy to accept this award in the manner in which the screenplay was written, which is to say, in the absence of Orson Welles. How’s that?
[reporter] How come he shares credit?
[sighs] Well, that, my friend, is the magic of the movies.
[reporter] Hold up the Oscar, Mank. Big smile.
[camera shutter clicks]
[dulcet music playing]
[Herman Mankiewicz would die 11 years later of complications from alcoholism. He would never work with Orson Welles nor write an original screenplay, or fight for screen credit – again.]
[He confided in a friend, “I seem to have become more and more a rat in a trap of my own construction, a trap I regularly repair whenever there seems to be danger of an opening that will enable me to escape”. He was 55.]
[slow piano music playing]
THE KANE EVENT
Everything is Orson? Well, maybe not. David Fincher’s Mank explores the origins of Welles’ magnum opus, bringing his own Hollywood experience to bear on a 30-years in-the-making black-and-white masterpiece that feels like it could have been found on a shelf next to Citizen Kane. Total Film meets Fincher and cast to talk Hollywood past and present.
by Matt Maytum
Even with a heavyweight like David Fincher behind it, it’s hard to imagine a film like Mank getting made anywhere else than Netflix. A period film, shot in black-and-white, looking and sounding like it could’ve come from the ’30s: a textbook Hard Sell. “Unless you’re making a tentpole movie that has a Happy Meal component to it, no one’s interested,” says Fincher, who was trying to drum up interest from studios as far back as 1997, as soon as his writer father Jack Fincher (a journalist and author) had finished the script.
A passion project for Fincher Sr. and Jr., David suggested the retired Jack write a screenplay about the film he introduced him to as a teen: Orson Welles’ seminal 1941 debut, Citizen Kane. Well, not about Citizen Kane, per se, but about its creation, and specifically the input of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, aka Mank. Over the years, it’s been contested just how much input boy wonder Welles had in the landmark film’s screenplay. Critic Pauline Kael brought the suggestion to mainstream attention in her 1971 essay, Raising Kane (director Peter Bogdanovich later countered with his own piece, The Kane Mutiny).
Throw into the mix of studio politics, real-world politics, and alcoholism, and you’ve got a package almost designed to repel backers. Jack Fincher’s screenplay had been gathering dust for over two decades, having initially been ready to shop around in 1997; Jack died in 2003. Then an opportunity presented itself. Fincher has fostered a long-standing relationship with Netflix, having worked with the streaming giant on House Of Cards, Love, Death & Robots and Mindhunter. When Fincher found himself in the position of not having the headspace for the third season of the latter, Netflix execs Cindy Holland and Ted Sarandos asked him what he wanted to do.
“I said, ‘I might want to make a movie,’” recalls Fincher, talking to Total Film in October 2020. “‘I have this movie on the shelf that I’ve always wanted to make, but it might be too weird and inside baseball.’ So I sent it to them, and they were like, ‘We would make this movie.’
‘In mono and black-and-white?’
And I said, ‘OK!’”
Netflix’s offer came with a caveat, explains Fincher. “We were very lucky to have really, really incredible support from Netflix, with them saying, ‘Look, this is obviously not a four-quadrant movie. Just make sure it’s good.’ So those were our walking papers. That’s what we were expected to do. And it’s a weird thing, when you’ve thought about something for [so long]…” He pauses. “My wife, well, my producer [Ceán Chaffin has been Fincher’s wife and producing partner since the mid-’90s], said, ‘You’ve been thinking about this for 30 years, and it’s not helping you…’”
Fincher wasn’t too precious with his father’s script. After getting the thumbs-up from Netflix, he was surprised when he was revisited the screenplay. “You go, ‘Oh, wow, great! We’re finally going to go make this movie.’ And then you open the script back up again, and you think, ‘Wow, a lot of this is very naïve.’”
Jack Fincher didn’t have the industry experience his son has accrued over the past three decades, on the likes of Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, and The Social Network. “My dad’s vision of Hollywood was more informed by Singin’ In The Rain than by Sweet Smell Of Success,” laughs Fincher. “It was very much an outsider’s view of the dream factory.” Fincher Jr. knows just how much of a nightmare the inside can be, having had an unhappy experience as a twentysomething first-time director on Alien3.
Some of the film’s themes, however, had only become more relevant in recent years. “It’s a strange thing,” marvels Fincher, “because when we first tried to get the movie made, people were like, ‘This is so quaint, this idea of people having righteous indignation over falsified newsreels.’ And then, 25 years later, we’re going, ‘Ah, fake news, fake news…’ [My father] was fairly righteous about his convictions, and oddly, it was 20 years after the last time we tried to get it made that it started to seem prescient.”
Working with producer Eric Roth, Fincher reshaped elements of the script to align with their working knowledge of Hollywood. Such as the fact that Mank himself – taken out to Victorville, California, at Welles’ behest – had nothing to hide behind. Working in a ranch, with no distractions and a secretary on hand to lend support, Mank was out of excuses. It’s probably similar to how it feels when you finally get the go-ahead to make your passion project after 30 years…
Mank begins in Victorville in 1940 when Mankiewicz starts on the screenplay (with the working title American), a script Orson Welles didn’t want him to retain any credit for. But it then flits seamlessly throughout the 1930s, highlighting the screenwriter’s role in Hollywood, his famous pals, run-ins with studio bigwigs Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, his political conscience and more, all of which played a part in fashioning the script.
Mank isn’t just aesthetically similar to Citizen Kane; it shares a similar looping structure that goes back and forth over a period of time, orbiting around a magnetic character. In Kane, it was Charles Foster Kane, the (sort-of) fictional newspaper mogul, whose dying word, “Rosebud”, might just unlock the secret to a conflicted, divisive character. Here it’s Mank himself, whose screenplay is inspired by his acquaintance with William Randolph Hearst, the press baron who inspired the character of Kane.
Mank himself is a bundle of contradictions. A sparkling wit, who speaks almost exclusively in Wildean aphorisms, he’s as sharp as a tack with the talent to burn: and burn it he frequently does. “Mank fits right into that peg: classic drunk, alcoholic, egomaniac with low self-esteem,” says star Gary Oldman. “He’s an alcoholic. He has gambling problems. He’s an incredible writer, raconteur. I mean, it’s such a delicious cocktail of all these elements.”
More than the film Citizen Kane (which Fincher doesn’t commit to as the greatest American film ever made, though he puts it in the top five), it’s the character of Mank that kept Fincher hooked. “It’s the character of a guy who just can’t help but tell you what he thinks… and how problematic that can be in lotus land,” laughs Fincher, who has a similar propensity for candor.
Not that Fincher relates to Mank any more than any of his previous protagonists (or antagonists). “I relate to Mark Zuckerberg as the character in The Social Network,” shrugs Fincher. “I relate to Lisbeth Salander and I relate to Mikael Blomkvist [in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo]. I relate to all of the characters that I take the responsibility for having to wrangle. In most cases, [when directing] what you’re assessing on any second-by-second basis is behaviour. You’re invariably going to be holding up a moment in a scene or a performance, [thinking] ‘Yeah, that’s how my mom would have responded,’ or ‘Yeah, that’s how my best friend would be in that situation,’ and ‘He’s similar in terms of personality type.’ And [I relate to] villains. And antagonists. There’s parts of [Se7en’s] John Doe in me.”
Holding the story of Mank in his head for so many years, and then pitching it ad nauseam to actors, producers, and even drivers, Fincher refined the premise down to its essence. “It’s about a brilliant wordsmith who finally understands the value and importance of his voice,” is as concise as he chiseled it down to.
For Oldman, it’s not necessarily important that viewers are familiar with the background elements. “I saw the script as a sort of an honorarium, a prayer to the era, the people in the era, the culture,” says Oldman. “You could know Mankiewicz, you could know Orson Welles, you could have seen Citizen Kane or not. I don’t think ultimately it matters. When I first read the script, I was excited and I thought, ‘You don’t have to know all the players going in. And if you do, it’s fun; if you don’t, then you’re going to discover along the way.’”
Oldman’s actually considerably older than Mankiewicz was at the time of the events depicted, but it works because the years (and the lifestyle) had been unkind to the screenwriter. “Mank was, you know, fairly desiccated,” laughs Fincher. “To my mind, there are pictures of Mankiewicz and Orson Welles where Orson looks around 30 – and I know he’s 24 – and Mankiewicz looks 58 [he was 43 when he wrote Kane], To my mind, Gary looks about 55 or 58. We thought, ‘If you’re smoking and drinking that much, you might have that kind of wear and tear.’”
Oldman won an Oscar two years ago for his prosthetics-laden portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. But in Mank, there was to be no special makeup. Like the writer holed up in Victorville, there’s nothing to hide behind. “I didn’t particularly want all the fireworks with this,” explains Oldman. “When I first looked at a picture of Mank, I said, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t look anything like him.’ David was very emphatic and he just said – and these are his exact words – ‘I want you more naked than you’ve ever been. I don’t want prosthetics, I don’t want a false nose, I don’t want any of that.’”
“I know Gary really well,” adds Fincher, “and I know that he is incredibly charming, and that he is a great raconteur, and that he chooses his words wisely and carefully, and that he doesn’t have a whole lot of patience for bullshit. He’s all of those things. And you’re making a movie about a generational wit. You need someone that will prise the words in the specific order that they’re being organised in. And you might as well have a generational actor.”
Fincher is renowned for his intense perfectionism. When it comes to prising words in a specific order, there’s no one in the business more meticulous. Oldman has numerous wordy monologues, in various degrees of drunkenness, including a showstopping eight-minute dinner table scene that’s one of the year’s finest.
“It was exhausting in the beginning, I think, for him,” admits Fincher. “Because I’m fairly didactic about, ‘These are the things that the scene needs to accomplish for me, and we will continue to play, to look for ways to underline these ideas that are as subtle as we can make them.’ It’s a hard thing to say to actors, ‘I want a cohesive, great performance in the master [shot]. And then I want a cohesive, great performance in the alternate master. And then I want a cohesive, great performance in the over-the-shoulder. And I want a cohesive, great performance in his over-the-shoulder on to you. And then I want the singles.’ Because I don’t want to cut a scene based on where you are at personally on Tuesday. I don’t think I could go into the edit room knowing that I was going to have to cut around somebody who didn’t deliver. Part of it is you cast really great people and get the fuck out of the way!”
Charles Dance, who plays Hearst in the film, remembers the aforementioned dinner scene, which takes place in Hearst Castle, in San Simeon. “We did take after take after take after take,” he recalls. “And [Oldman] said to David at one point, ‘David, I’ve done this scene a hundred fucking times.’ And Fincher said, ‘Yeah, I know, but this is 101. Reset!”’
“It was definitely hard,” says Amanda Seyfried, who plays Marion Davies, the screen star (and Hearst’s mistress) who was the inspiration for Kane’s opera singer Susan Alexander. “But at the same time, it’s like theatre in that you have the luxury of really nailing the tone and the emotion. It does feel like Groundhog Day, in a way, but that’s how he captures things that most people don’t.”
“It never feels extreme,” says Tuppence Middleton, who plays Mank’s wife, ‘Poor’ Sara. “I don’t know what my maximum take was at any point, but what’s interesting is that you don’t realise them going past. Because it’s quite quick. It’s really quick and precise. He’s very precise with his notes.”
“At the end of the day, even if you’re exhausted, you’re creatively so fulfilled,” adds Lily Collins, who plays Mank’s secretary, Rita Alexander. “And you’re really proud because, as an actor – at least for myself – I felt like at the end of the day I’d tried everything. Because he was so open to ideas that I might have.”
When it came to completing the cast, you might think it’d be hard to find an actor capable of channelling Orson Welles at his most confident and self-possessed. Not so, says Fincher. “The reality of it is, it was easy, because I was having dinner with Steven Soderbergh and Jules Asner. I said, ‘It looks like we’re going to finally get to make Mank.’ He said, ‘OK, well, Tom Burke’s going to play Welles.’ I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Great.’” Fincher chuckles. “And that’s what happened.”
Though this Welles is a peripheral presence, appearing only occasionally and often shrouded in shadow, he’s a domineering figure. Burke – best known for Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir – nails the physicality and the brassy baritone. “He’s a badass,” says Fincher. “He committed himself to it.”
“I always thought I could play him in the back of my head,” says Burke. “I’d seen The Third Man when I was very young, probably about the age that David saw Citizen Kane [12 or 13]. My dad took me to see The Third Man at the BFI, and I’ve seen it several times at the cinema with him. It’s become a bit of a thing. I had a friend at drama school who knew a lot about Welles. And actually, Christian McKay [who played Welles in Me And Orson Welles] was in the year above me. When I was at RADA, everyone was banging on about how much Christian looked like him. But I think I just thought, ‘I think I could…’ ”
It’s not just Mank himself who gets brought out into the spotlight in this film. Fincher also wanted to repair some of the reputational damage Marion Davies suffered as a result of her ‘portrayal’ in Citizen Kane. “I felt a little bit of a responsibility to reclaim a little bit of Marion Davies from Susan Alexander,” he says. “And at the same time, I didn’t feel that to reclaim Hearst and Marion, that we had to denigrate Welles. That’s not my intention. I think Welles was a fucking genius. But at 24, having been 27 and directed my first movie, there’s just a lot of shit you don’t know! He was a consummate showman. He was good. And he understood what the director’s job was. I honestly think that when Welles says, ‘In an afternoon, one can learn anything that one needs to about cinematography… ’ you can get away with that when you’re standing three feet to the left of Gregg Toland. It’s really nice to have Gregg Toland around when you’re putting that philosophy into action.”
SOUND E VISION
“Black-and-white engages a different part of your brain than colour,” says Fincher. “To my way of thinking, the beauty of black-and-white is that it engages you in a formal way that is beyond beauty. It’s more substantial to me. I don’t know why that is. It engages the analytical mind in a different way.”
When it came to concocting the unique look and sound of Mank, the guiding principle was “for the entire experience to feel like it was on a shelf in an archive next to a Citizen Kane reel; it just happened to be found and dusted off and put on a film projector and experienced,” says sound designer Ren Klyce. “Even though we have now fantastic sound and capabilities, David wanted it to not be fantastic. He wanted it to be distorted, monaural, and of the period, with the limitations of the technology of the late 1930s and ’40s.”
In order to get the finish just right, everything was captured in pristine quality, with top-level modern kit. Then it could be aged and distorted exactly how the director wanted. After experimenting with a colour camera and post-converting, and a native monochrome camera, “It took us all of 30 seconds to pick the black-and-white camera,” says cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt of opting for the Red Monstro 8K Monochrome. “It was such a substantial difference. There was a tonal depth to the image – almost three-dimensionality – that was just absent in the colour version. The colour version, by comparison, felt quite dull actually. It lacked that kind of glossy lustre that we felt we really wanted.”
While authenticity is key, more important was making sure that it was a pleasant viewing experience for a modern audience. Digital (Fincher’s preferred medium for decades) offers more control. “Film can be beautiful, and it has fantastic characteristics to it,” says Messerschmidt. “It is a terrible medium to work with if you’re interested in consistency or a reliable result. There’s lots of happy accidents that happen, and it can be spectacular. But for every spectacular moment, there are 10 disappointing ones, in my experience.”
When it comes to the flaws seen in the picture, including the ‘cigarette burns’ that would traditionally flag a reel change, “we felt it was something that we really wanted to art-direct,” says Messerschmidt. The aspect ratio (2.2:1, if you’re asking) doesn’t match Kane’s – there’s a degree of flexibility when it’s required, for the filmmakers, or the audience. “It’s a homage,” says Messerschmidt. “It’s not meant to mimic. We want people to be sucked into the time period, and not be distracted by it.”
The same approach was taken with the sound: record in the best possible fidelity, before it’s painstakingly degraded. The sound was given a ‘patina’ by Klyce, with each individual element able to be tweaked as needed. Klyce also had some unusual methods to get period authenticity into the sound, including playing recorded dialogue through an old-timey phone and re-recording it. “We would tape it through an amplifier, and then [play it] from the amplifier to the telephone, and then we’d put a microphone up to the earpiece, and then re-record the voice coming through the old-fashioned telephone,” explains Klyce. “And then we would take that sound and put it into the film.”
As with the visuals, it’s important that the sound design not become a distraction or a novelty. If there’s one fact that’ll make you want to view Mank with the best-quality speakers available to you, it’s this. “One of the last nuances that Fincher wanted to add to the soundtrack was that after we patina-ed it, he wanted it to then feel like you’re in a large theatre from days gone by with the big echo-y room,” explains Klyce. “So we ended up taking the entire patina mix, and playing it in a large room, and then capturing that reverb.”
The soundtrack is also blessed with a period-flavoured score from The Social Network Oscar-winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Mixing a big-band sound with orchestral arrangements, it evokes the work of Kane composer Bernard Herrmann. “When I first heard the stuff they were playing with,” says Fincher, “I just felt, ‘Oh my God, this is so singular. It’s its own thing.’”
KANE AND GAIN
If Mankiewicz was known for his honesty, Fincher is also one of the straightest shooters around. He declines to call Mank his most personal project or overanalyse its place in his career. “These things take years to make,” he sighs. “You can’t think about them in ways like, ‘Wait, how does this look coming after Gone Girl?’ If I took the time to think that way, I’d never get anything done. When somebody [greenlights your movie], you don’t go, ‘OK, but where does this land in terms of [my filmography]? OK, at least it doesn’t have the word ‘Girl’ in the title.’ I can’t think in those terms.”
He’s also not exactly bullish on the film’s prospects. “I don’t know that there’s a broad audience [for Mank],” he considers. “Let’s just hope that there’s a deep audience over time,” he laughs. He’s grateful that Netflix doesn’t put the same pressure on the opening weekends as the traditional distributors do, and that the film will live on in the service’s library. He also jokes that “it’s not particularly a smart business plan to make a love letter to another movie that’s on [rival streaming service] HBO Max… But, listen, if we only did the stuff that was smart, there’d probably only be Marvel and Star Wars and Jurassic Park movies.”
One thing which will no doubt attract more eyeballs to Mank is the almost-inevitable awards attention that it’s sure to attract, in categories across the board. Even the prospect of his late father being nominated isn’t enough to turn him slushy. “I hate to be this guy, but I look at it this way: he got his movie made,” laughs Fincher. “There’s not a lot of members of the WGA who can say that. So I am happy I got it off… I feel like [nominations for him] would be kind of wasted. To me, it’d be wasted glory.”
The whole awards conversation is anathema to Fincher, who douses it with his trademark cynicism and wit. “Look, the only reason we have these kind of conversations is because of the lack of imagination on behalf of the people who have behaviourally modified the audience’s expectations… There’s really only two seasons for movies. There’s ‘spandex summer’ and there’s ‘affliction winter’. You’re making your movie for one of two seasons. And if you miss, you’ll fall into one of those other two seasons, which are nominally dumping grounds. Does that make sense?” Of course: there’s no director working today with a shrewder grasp on the industry’s machinations. “I’m not really just a jaded fuck,” he concludes. “I’m an informed, jaded fuck.”
Total Film, December 2020
Mank flips the script on ‘Citizen Kane’
Who wrote Citizen Kane? A director revives the debate
by Sonia Rao
One of the greatest films ever made also generated a great controversy. In 1971, the film critic Pauline Kael wrote a 50,000-word essay revisiting the debate over who wrote 1941’s Citizen Kane, officially credited to screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and the film’s director, Orson Welles. The bold essay was published in back-to-back issues of the New Yorker.
Chief among Kael’s claims was that Mankiewicz was the principal author of Citizen Kane, an argument countering the auteur-ist stance that Welles — also the director, producer and star — was responsible for most of the work. Mankiewicz would have agreed with Kael. Though neither he nor Welles attended the Academy Awards, where the film won best screenplay, he said his acceptance speech would have been, “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’s absence because the script was written in Mr. Welles’s absence.”
Mank, the new Netflix film directed by David Fincher, revives this age-old debate. The screenplay is credited to Fincher’s father, Jack, and favors Kael’s telling of events. Anchoring the flashback-filled story are the months Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) spends on a ranch in Victorville, Calif., where he works on a draft while recovering from a car crash. Welles (Tom Burke) appears in the film, but it’s mostly about Mank.
The basic details are uncontested: Mankiewicz suffered terrible injuries in a crash and, while healing, wrote for Welles’s Mercury Theatre radio show. The two men agreed to work on a project inspired by the newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance in Mank), and the film picks up with Mankiewicz heading off to the ranch with Welles’s former collaborator John Houseman (Sam Troughton), secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and a German nurse (Monika Gossmann) hired to look after Mankiewicz’s health.
Mank also includes his decision to sign a contract giving up any writing credit on the Citizen Kane script, an agreement he later went back on by filing a complaint with the Writers Guild.
Kael interviewed both Houseman and Alexander, who took dictation from Mankiewicz and told the critic “that Welles didn’t write (or dictate) one line of the shooting script of Citizen Kane.” Welles might have made suggestions early on and pointed out potential cuts, Kael stated, but Alexander held that she never even met him until after Mankiewicz had finished his first draft. Much of Kael’s essay reads as a defense of screenwriters in the studio system, particularly a portion in which she remarked that “in that period, it was well known that if a producer of a film wanted a screenplay credit, it was almost impossible to prevent him from getting it.”
Kael, highly regarded as a critic, received praise from many peers. In the New York Times review of a 1971 book that contained both “Raising Kane” and the actual film script, Mordecai Richler praised Kael’s essay as a “highly intelligent and entertaining study of a bona-fide film classic.” He also argued that her “excellent case for Mank is in the end more than somewhat vitiated by the publication of the script itself,” describing it as smart but superficial. Welles’s direction therefore deserved all the credit for Citizen Kane being a “miracle,” Richler wrote, something he said “Miss Kael would be the last to deny him.”
But the authorship claims, which director Peter Bogdanovich disputed in a 1972 Esquire article, remained. He spoke to Welles, his friend, who many suspected had contributed more than just an interview to the piece. Regardless, Welles claimed he penned his own draft of the script while Mankiewicz was in Victorville: “At the end, naturally, I was the one who was making the picture, after all — who made the decisions,” he said. “I used what I wanted of Mank and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own.”
Aspects of “Raising Kane” continued to be discredited in the years after it was published, in part by the claim that Kael stole some of the research from an academic, Howard Suber, as well as by the notion that “her piece contained many factual errors of her own, all undetected by New Yorker fact-checkers and all contrived to reinforce her anti-auteurist argument,” as Frank Rich wrote in a 2011 article for the Times.
Film scholar Robert Carringer aimed to settle the matter in his 1985 book “The Making of Citizen Kane” and the preceding 1978 essay ‘The Scripts of Citizen Kane,” which presented a version of events widely accepted today. After evaluating a “virtually complete” set of script records at the RKO archives, he determined that “the full evidence reveals that Welles’s contribution to the Citizen Kane script was not only substantial but definitive.” Kael seemed to base most of the “Raising Kane” argument off an early draft, he stated.
In an interview with Vulture, even Fincher offered a gentle critique of Kael. In response to a question asking him about his response to a line from “Raising Kane” — specifically that “the director should be in control, not because he’s the sole creative intelligence, but because only if he is in control can he liberate and utilize the talents of his coworkers” — he said Kael knew loads more about watching movies than making them. Tons of work goes into the planning, he argued, but much of a film’s vision comes down to the on-set execution.
“The movie business is an incredibly couture boutique storytelling venture,” Fincher said, “and every single designer at the head of his house works in a different way. You are stitching those garments onto bodies up to the last 45 seconds before that person walks that runway.”
The Washington Post, December 7, 2020
The Front Row
Herman Mankiewicz, Pauline Kael, and the Battle Over “Citizen Kane”
by Richard Brody
In 1939, Herman J. Mankiewicz was a forty-two-year-old screenwriter, acclaimed in Hollywood not only for the lines of dialogue he wrote for movies but for the ones he delivered in life. In nearly a decade and a half in the business, he’d found success at Paramount working with Josef von Sternberg and with his friends the Marx Brothers, and at M-G-M writing on “Dinner at Eight” and, briefly, “The Wizard of Oz,” where he had the idea of filming Kansas in bleak black-and-white and Oz in Technicolor. But he was best known as one of the great personalities in the film business. He’d migrated to Hollywood from New York City, where he’d been The New Yorker’s first theatre critic and a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, and he carried that group’s spirit of cynical candor and acerbic bravado to the movie community. In commissaries and at cocktail parties, he was known for his learned insights and his unpredictable politics (he wrote, at great risk, an anti-Hitler script in 1933, yet he was opposed to American involvement in the Second World War, and even called himself an “ultra-Lindbergh”) as well as for the style with which he delivered them. He was also habitually drunk and wildly impolitic, known for the scenes that he made and the insults that he flung. His work habits were notoriously dubious: a compulsive gambler, he spent ample studio time placing bets and listening to horse races; a social whirlwind, he talked the day away in person and by phone. He lampooned and defied his bosses, and got fired from every job he didn’t quit. By the summer of 1939, he was unemployed, which is how he found himself desperately available when a twenty-four-year-old newcomer to Hollywood by the name of Orson Welles offered him a job.
Welles, prolific and precocious, had become a stage star at sixteen, a major theatre director at twenty, and, in 1937, the co-founder (with John Houseman) of the Mercury Theatre company; he’d become a radio star at twenty-three, and become infamous, in 1938, for the radio broadcast “War of the Worlds,” the tale of an invasion from outer space, told in the form of faux news bulletins, which many listeners mistook as real. He’d also made two independent films on the side. The week of his twenty-third birthday, he had been featured on the cover of Time magazine. But whereas Mankiewicz was a Hollywood insider, Welles was despised by the movie industry in advance, resented and derided for his youth, his fame, his intellectualism—and his contractually guaranteed freedom. He had signed a contract with R.K.O. studio to produce, write, direct, and act in two movies, for which he, alone among Hollywood studio filmmakers, would be allowed final cut. He initially brought Mankiewicz on to ghostwrite radio programs, but their collaboration soon shifted, and Welles recruited him as a co-writer of the first film.
Their collaboration, and the film that resulted from it—“Citizen Kane”—was hailed, even before its release, as one of the greatest movies ever made. A drama about a young heir who turns himself into a newspaper mogul and national figure, building and destroying an empire of his own, it became a marker of an aesthetic and generational shift in the history of cinema, and it made Welles—and what Welles represented—the cynosure of world cinema. Welles and Mankiewicz won an Oscar for the screenplay (the only one that the movie earned, though it was nominated in nine categories), but that award itself was the culmination of a bitter dispute, only one of the many that the movie sparked: Mankiewicz’s contract with Welles had explicitly denied him writing credit, yet Mankiewicz, whose career badly needed the jolt, wanted it—and, after a struggle both in the press and behind the scenes, ultimately succeeded in securing it. Yet today, Welles remains legendary, while Mankiewicz, who died in 1953, is unknown to all but the most attentive movie buffs.
This should change with the release, on Friday, of David Fincher’s new film, “Mank,” a bio-pic of the screenwriter’s years in Hollywood, centered on his work on “Citizen Kane” and based on a script by Fincher’s late father, Jack, a journalist to whom Fincher had suggested the subject. The movie, as Fincher put it in a recent interview with Vulture, is an attempt to define the very nature of Mankiewicz’s contribution to “Citizen Kane,” and to the history of cinema—and to dramatize his battle to get credit for it.
Fincher said that the original draft of his father’s script closely followed the argument made in one of the most famous—and likely one of the most controversial—essays ever to appear in The New Yorker: “Raising Kane,” from 1971, by one of the magazine’s film critics at the time, Pauline Kael. The piece, which was published in two parts and ran fifty thousand words long, attempted to make the case that Mankiewicz deserved not joint but sole credit for the “Citizen Kane” script. “Mank” focusses tightly on Mankiewicz’s behind-the-scenes social and studio life in the nineteen-thirties and its connection to his work on “Citizen Kane.” For a more complete understanding of Mankiewicz’s legacy, it’s worth also revisiting his path to writing movies, which he never much respected as an art form, and the battle that Kael ignited with “Raising Kane,” in which, far from merely outlining Mankiewicz’s crucial role in “Citizen Kane” and his fascinating and tragic character, she attempted, misguidedly, to elevate Mankiewicz, the company man malgré lui, over the independent artist Welles.
Mankiewicz was already a member of the Algonquin Round Table set, when, in late 1924, Harold Ross, on the cusp of launching a new magazine called The New Yorker, asked him to be its first drama critic. Mankiewicz was twenty-seven years old at the time—young in years but long in experience. Born in New York, in 1897, and raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he was the son of German-Jewish immigrants; his father was a poor but fiercely striving (and, eventually, publicly recognized) scholar, a cold and harsh figure who imparted high intellectual standards on Herman, who met them brilliantly but unhappily. Herman had graduated from high school at fourteen and entered Columbia at fifteen, after spending a gap year working in a coal mine; he had served in the Marines in the First World War, worked as a reporter in New York, and then, with his new bride, Sara, gone to Germany, in 1920, where he’d quickly made his name, and his legend, as a reckless and wild wit, able to talk himself into jobs and situations that he usually left in ruins. After returning to New York, in 1922, he’d become a drama critic at the Times while aspiring, with little success, to a career as a playwright. When he joined The New Yorker, Ross hoped he could wrangle his Algonquin cohorts as well; when the others demurred, Mankiewicz offered Ross a notable word of consolation: “The half-time help of wits is no better than the full-time help of half-wits.”
Less than a year into his job at The New Yorker, which published its first issue in February of 1925, Mankiewicz received a lucrative invitation to write in Hollywood. He needed the quick payday, not only to help support his family (he and Sara had two young sons) but also to repay his gambling debts. But he had little interest in movies and even less regard for them. According to Sydney Ladensohn Stern, in her 2019 book, “The Brothers Mankiewicz,” he told his son Don, “You can’t have a literature of screenwriting because it would be like a literature of comic books.” Yet he was good at it; for silent films, he deployed his epigrammatic wit to create intertitles, dialogue as well as descriptive passages that needed to be brief enough to fit on the screen and be read quickly, and with his journalistic sensibility, he could both recognize a good story and fit it into a rigid format. He sent a telegram to his friend the reporter Ben Hecht in late 1926, perhaps the most famous and likely the most consequential one ever sent from Hollywood, offering him a job and concluding with the fateful lines “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
Mankiewicz hadn’t hoped to remain in Hollywood very long. Before heading West, he had arranged with Ross to keep his job waiting for him upon his return—or so he thought. In February of 1926, Ross, long dismayed by Mankiewicz’s work habits and, for that matter, with his work, fired him—by telegram—and Mankiewicz, without an immediate alternative, decided to keep working in Hollywood. Mankiewicz, though, not only disdained movies as such but found the very nature of their collaborative and corporate work inimical to his idea of writing; “The producer says to you, ‘Now in reel three the fellow shouldn’t kiss the girl, he should kiss the cow.’ And then the whole picture unravels, and you can’t stand it.” At M-G-M, the industrialized process was less like a writers’ room than a game of exquisite corpse; as Irene Selznick (the studio head Louis B. Mayer’s daughter and the first wife of the producer David O. Selznick), explained, “Sometimes one writer did the outline, someone else did the synopsis, someone did the dialogue, someone did the revision, someone did a complete rewrite.”
The job working for Welles was something different—it provided Mankiewicz with his first chance to write a movie without a studio hovering over his shoulder. His role on “Citizen Kane” was the result of some curious twists of fortune: Welles originally hired him to ghostwrite radio shows, while planning to make his first film for R.K.O., an adaptation of “Heart of Darkness.” Welles was going to play both Marlow and Kurtz, as he had done in a radio version of the novel, and his artistic idea was as extreme as anything in “Kane”: Marlow would never be seen, because the camera would follow the explorer’s subjective point of view throughout. The plan fell through because of its budget, and his next project—a mystery about a fascist plot in America, which he asked Mankiewicz to help out on—did, too. Then, in conversation with Mankiewicz, the idea for a project about the life of a powerful person, seen from multiple perspectives, came up. Welles and Mankiewicz ran through several possible subjects (including the gangster John Dillinger) before Mankiewicz suggested the newspaper magnate and politician William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz knew Hearst well—before he wore out his welcome, as he did with just about everyone, he and his wife had been frequent guests at Hearst’s colossal San Simeon compound.
Mankiewicz and Welles’s collaboration on the script—which Mankiewicz originally called “American” (the ultimate title was chosen by the head of R.K.O., George Schaefer)—was a peculiar one. Mankiewicz was in a half-body cast at the time, having broken his leg badly in a car accident (he was a passenger). Welles parked him in a house in the remote town of Victorville, eighty miles from Hollywood, where a nurse took care of him. Welles’s associate John Houseman, at Mankiewicz’s insistence, was present to talk out the story. The secretary Rita Alexander took Mankiewicz’s dictation and typed it up, and Welles periodically visited and often called to consult.
The battle over credit began while the movie was still in production, in the summer of 1940, and sorting out the details is like diving into the Warren Commission report. Mankiewicz, realizing that the script was turning out well, regretted that his deal with Welles specified he’d get no credit for it. Hecht and others in his circle urged him to take the matter public—and to fight for sole credit. For Welles, that would have been a big problem, not least because losing his writing credit might have put him in breach of his R.K.O. contract, which specified that he’d act, write, produce, and direct. Mankiewicz appealed to the Screen Writers Guild, then withdrew his appeal, out of fear of retribution from Hearst. It was R.K.O. that ultimately decided to award him joint credit with Welles. Famously, when the Oscar was announced at the awards ceremony, the cheering at the mention of Mankiewicz’s name obliterated the mention of the second-credited writer, Welles. Neither man was present at the ceremony, but Richard Meryman, in his groundbreaking 1978 biography, “Mank,” cites the speech that Mankiewicz said he would have given: “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’s absence, because the script was written in Mr. Welles’s absence.”
The story of Welles and Mankiewicz’s fraught collaboration was a perfect vessel for Pauline Kael’s preoccupations as a critic. She had made her name with a 1963 piece, “Circles and Squares,” savaging the film critic Andrew Sarris and other proponents of the “auteur theory,” which emphasized the primacy of directors as the creative force in movies. A lover of classic Hollywood movies and their commercial, popular appeal, she believed that the emphasis on directing led critics to overlook the inherently collaborative nature of Hollywood filmmaking, and she portrayed other critics’ principled attention to directors (including many whose work went unduly unacclaimed) as an orthodoxy in need of demolishing. In “Raising Kane,” she argued that much of what’s great about “Citizen Kane” in fact arose not from Welles but from the contributions of Mankiewicz and the rest of the cast and crew, and not from the film’s originality but from its place in, and reflection of, cinematic traditions that passed into it by way of the studio system and its veterans. After “Citizen Kane,” Kael concluded, Welles “was alone, trying to be ‘Orson Welles,’ though ‘Orson Welles’ had stood for the activities of a group.”
When “Raising Kane” was published, the piece outraged Welles himself—who was busily working on movies, including “The Other Side of the Wind”—and caused an outcry among critics who appreciated Welles’s entire œuvre and among historians who knew the fuller story. In October of 1972, in Esquire, the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich rebutted Kael’s findings with his own ten-thousand-word piece, titled “The Kane Mutiny.” In it, Bogdanovich demonstrated that, in reporting her piece, Kael had failed to speak with Welles or anyone who’d worked with him on the script, or, for that matter, with anyone who might have provided a different point of view. Bogdanovich interviewed the screenwriter Charles Lederer, a close friend of Mankiewicz’s, who said that Mankiewicz complained to him about Welles’s many changes to the script. Welles’s secretary from the time, Katherine Trosper, hearing of the charge that Welles wrote nothing of “Citizen Kane,” told Bogdanovich, “Then I’d like to know what was all that stuff I was always typing for Mr. Welles!” Among the other sources Bogdanovich spoke with was a U.C.L.A. professor, Howard Suber, who claimed that Kael had cajoled him—with a promise of a book contract that never materialized—into sharing his copious research on “Citizen Kane” with her, only to use it in her piece, uncredited, while distorting its findings—“After months of investigation I regard the authorship of Kane as a very open question,” he said. Bogdanovich wrote, in 1998, that although he had done “all the legwork, research, and interviews” for the piece, Welles himself—a close friend and associate—“had taken a strong hand in revising and rewriting” it. (In a recent e-mail, Bogdanovich said that there were “bits and pieces that Orson added or subtracted—added, mainly.”)
Subsequently, more impartial, and more crucial, sources for Mankiewicz’s life emerged. Notably, in 1985, the scholar Robert Carringer published a scholarly book about “Citizen Kane” that drew upon newly available studio archives. Carringer concluded that the script bore the work of both writers—Mankiewicz’s work was fundamental, and Welles’s revisions were transformative. Fincher, in making “Mank,” revised his father’s script to soften its anti-Welles bent. The film he made is less interested in litigating the battle between Mankiewicz and Welles than in exploring the relationship between Mankiewicz and Hearst, and how it informed Mankiewicz’s writing of “Citizen Kane.”
There’s little doubt, by now, that Mankiewicz’s Hearst connection provided the essential substance for the film; it also nearly destroyed the film before it could be released. Mankiewicz took it upon himself to provide a copy of the script to Charles Lederer, a friend and screenwriter who also happened to be the nephew of Hearst’s mistress, the actress Marion Davies. It came back to Mankiewicz with markings on passages relating to Hearst. Welles had denied that the movie was based on Hearst’s life; the set had been kept strictly sealed, and the footage wasn’t shown to anyone outside the studio. But then the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper pushed her way into a screening and reported what (rather, who) she thought the movie was about, and Hearst sprang indignantly into action, orchestrating a scurrilous publicity campaign against the movie, and exercising his considerable influence in Hollywood—especially with Louis B. Mayer, the head of M-G-M (who’d fired Mankiewicz, in 1939)—to prevent it from ever being seen.
The pressure that Hearst exerted was fearsome and monstrous. He threatened to divulge salacious information about stars and studio executives, to drum up a nativist campaign against European (mostly Jewish) movie-industry people who’d fled Hitler and found work in Hollywood, and to launch an anti-Semitic campaign against the (mostly Jewish) studio heads. In response, Mayer (who was Jewish) organized a consortium of studio heads to buy the negative of “Citizen Kane” from R.K.O. and destroy it, but Schaefer, R.K.O.’s head, rejected their demand. Hearst also had his newspapers pursue Welles; he charged that Welles was a Communist (he wasn’t); he used his influence with J. Edgar Hoover to have Welles investigated by the F.B.I. Hearst’s movie-gossip columnist Louella Parsons, Meryman writes, contacted the local draft board to try to get Welles drafted. (Later, he inflicted scathing journalistic revenge against Mankiewicz, too, inflating a minor accident caused by Mankiewicz’s drunk driving into a national scandal.) The campaign worked: though “Citizen Kane” wasn’t burned, Mayer got the studios—which also owned most of the first-run movie houses in major cities—to refuse to screen it.
What saved “Citizen Kane” was the fervent critical acclaim it garnered at private screenings held while its release was in doubt. John O’Hara wrote, in Newsweek, that he’d “just seen a picture which he thinks must be the best picture he ever saw”—and warned readers that they might never get to see it. On May 1, 1941, “Citizen Kane” was released in New York, in a single theatre, and was eventually shown nationwide; it did reasonably well in big cities but was a flop—indeed, was often not screened at all—in small-town theatres that booked it. Despite the instant renown that the film earned Welles, its influence on his career was disastrous. Welles was never able to work again in Hollywood with the same freedom. To help Schaefer keep his job (which was threatened by the controversy over “Citizen Kane” and, even more, by its financial losses), Welles renegotiated his contract for his second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” renouncing final cut, and he paid the price—the film was mutilated by the studio, which cut forty-three minutes out of it and had another director reshoot rewritten portions. Welles, in 1946, told Roy Fowler, “I came to Hollywood saying, ‘If they let me do a second picture, I’m lucky.’ They didn’t, and since that time I’ve been trying to get back to the position I was in when I first arrived with a contract to make the picture in my own way without interference.” The only freedom he had, from that point on, came when he financed his own movies with money he earned as an actor.
Before he went to Hollywood, Welles described his work in the theatres as “actor-director,” and he conceived of his filmmaking the same way. In the theatre, he had always been an adaptor of Shakespeare, or Christopher Marlowe, or George Bernard Shaw, and when he made movies he took a similar approach. He adapted Joseph Conrad, Shakespeare, Kafka, Booth Tarkington, several pulp-fiction stories, and even a radio script involving the character Harry Lime (which he’d played in Carol Reed’s film “The Third Man”). Why would he not adapt Herman Mankiewicz, too? There was a difference, though, from a practical perspective, in making use of the raw material of a contemporary who was also a competitor for the honors of the business (whereas the pecking order of Shakespeare and Welles was unambiguous in one direction). During the writing of “Citizen Kane,” Mankiewicz took to calling Welles “Monstro” and lampooned him for his ego; Mankiewicz once quipped, upon seeing Welles pass by at the studio, “There but for the grace of God goes God.”
Yet Welles’s earnest self-regard as an artist was ultimately one of the qualities that distinguished him from the cynical, unfulfilled Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz’s own assessment of the art of screenwriting was overly harsh (there is indeed an art to comic books), but he was right to consider it a lesser activity than writing plays—not because movies are less significant than plays but because screenwriters’ work is a matter of industrial necessity rather than artistic impulse. Kael’s most grievous error, in her polemic, was in failing to recognize that Welles would have been Welles without Mankiewicz; if he had gotten to make “Heart of Darkness,” it would in all likelihood have been as original as “Kane,” and, free from the vengeful wrath of Hearst, he’d likely have been able to make a second film without losing his creative freedom. For that matter, Mankiewicz, without the strictures of Hollywood, would likely have been at his creative heights sooner and longer. The story of Mankiewicz’s movie career, no less than Welles’s, involves the horror built into the glory of Hollywood—the relentless power of commercial institutions to impose its practices and formulas on the art of movies.
In the short term, Mankiewicz fared better after “Citizen Kane.” After the film came out—and after Mankiewicz won his Oscar for it—his career picked up. The most prominent movie he worked on was “The Pride of the Yankees,” the Lou Gehrig bio-pic from 1942; the one great one he wrote was “Christmas Holiday,” from 1944, a film noir starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, which features an intricate flashback structure akin to that of “Citizen Kane,” and which was directed—brilliantly—by Robert Siodmak, one of the great film-noir specialists (and one of the European Jewish filmmakers who’d fled the Nazi regime). Yet Mankiewicz’s bad habits caught up to him again; he was only intermittently reliable, and his health began to fail. As Meryman reports, wartime and postwar Hollywood also became home to a new generation of executives and producers, for whom Mankiewicz’s Round Table roots and journalistic tumult were more a matter of quaint nostalgia than of unquestioned admiration. Mankiewicz, Meryman writes, was lucid about his own calamity at having done movie work only because it paid well: “I came for a few months. I don’t know how it is that you start working at something you don’t like, and before you know it, you’re an old man.” Though Mankiewicz made an indelible mark on the history of cinema, he was held back from the start by his contempt for the movies, and for the studio machinery that dictated how they were made—ironically, the very thing that Kael, in her defense of Mankiewicz, would celebrate. In the end, Mankiewicz was cursed by the fact that he didn’t see the movies as an art at all, while Welles made his far greater mark because he never saw them as anything but.
New Yorker, November 14, 2020