It was early 1971 when The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote her 50,000 word book-length essay on the 1941 American classic Citizen Kane. She begins the essay calling the film, “perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened.”
It is not surprising that Kael would want to write about the film- which follows the life of media-mogul Charles Foster Kane, played by Orson Welles- three decades after its release. Sight and Sound magazine’s decennial poll of film critics and scholars acclaimed it the greatest film ever made in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992, and finally in 2002.
But what is surprising is the central claim of her essay: that Heman J. Mankiewicz, credited as co-writer of Citizen Kane was the central creative force of the film, and not Orson Welles, credited as director, producer, writer, and lead actor. This caused a sensation in the cinema circles- many critics were riled up, defending Welles’ contributions- there were arguments and counter-arguments trying to fortify and destroy Kael’s central claim. (Welles even considered suing Kael for libel)
And it is this central claim that acclaimed director David Fincher uses as muse to plot Mank, a black-and-white biographical drama of Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his battle with Welles for screenplay credit. It is based on a script written by David Fincher’s father Jack Fincher. The original draft of it was written just before David Fincher set off to direct his first film.
His latest, Mank, releases on Netflix on December 4.
What’s So Good About Citizen Kane?
In 1946, Georges Sadoul, a French cinema historian, described Citizen Kane as “an encyclopedia of old techniques”. That statement, though meant to denigrate the film, captures the allure of it even today.
The 114 minute film, about the life of Kane (itself based on the life of real life publishing baron William Randolph Hearst), is told through multiple perspectives- that of a newspaper editor attempting his obituary, Kane’s own diary entries, a close associate, and a closer friend. It did this through deep focus, extreme closeups, sharp silhouettes, and clinical articulation of space, often punctuated by chaos. I often found myself straining to make sense of the overlapping dialogue- such as the one where Kane is introducing his ex-guardian to his associate while continuing a conversation with his angry ex-guardian, and answering a query of the associate.
This was also, strikingly, one of the first films to have ceilings on the film set, using muslin cloth ceilings to mask the mics, while also making it easier to actually believe the scene was shot in a room, and not in a set of a room- a nod to realism.
Pauline Kael states that its success is “the result of Welles’ discovery of – and delight in – the fun of making movies”. One of the enduring strengths of the film is its fluid genre: It begins with eerie footage of lonely landscapes, before going into a surrealist newsreel outlining Kane’s life as an obit, then swerves to melodrama, a political drama outlining his failed bid for Governor, a Dickensian detour in a flashback to his childhood, and finally, a story of unfulfilled love – all of this tethered by a detective story- of a journalist trying to uncover who “Rosebud” -the last word of Charles Foster Kane- was. Welles was only 25 when the film released.
The Revival Of Citizen Kane
Like most iconic films that have generated a cult status over decades since their release, Citizen Kane, while receiving glowing reviews, was a box office failure. It was nominated for 9 Academy Awards and won one- for Original Screenplay. But Welles was booed at that year’s Oscar ceremony by those loyal to the publishing baron Hearst, angered by the references to and shoddy portrayal of him.
Post-World War 2, when the film released in Europe, it was panned by critics like Jean Paul Sartre who thought the flashback trope too nostalgic, “The film is in the past tense, whereas we all know that cinema has got to be in the present tense.”
However, its cult status was resuscitated by French critic André Bazin who, in an impromptu speech delivered at the Colisée Theatre and later in a written piece, attempted to change public perception of the film. He succeeded. This was followed by an American revival of the film in 1956 when it appeared on television and was re-released in theaters to celebrate Welles’s return to the New York stage. And we are still talking about the film today.
The Battle For The Writing Credit
Mank’s trailer begins with Orson Welles visiting a sick Heman Mankiewicz, “I think it’s time we talked.”
The animosity between the two, at face value, was about getting credit. Welles was accused of overshadowing Mankiewicz’s contribution as a writer. When Mankiewicz signed the contract, the terms stated that he would receive no credit for this work, since he was hired as a script doctor. Closer to the film’s release however, Mankiewicz back-tracked, threatening to put out full-page advertisements in trade papers, exposing the culture of not crediting writers. This was eventually resolved when the studio awarded him credit. The official credit reads, “Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles”
The animosity remained, souring over the 12 remaining years of Mankiewicz’s life.
Fincher feared a one-sided narrative, like that of Kael, as he notes in his interview with Mark Harris for Vulture. His father’s first draft, “[about] a great writer obliterated from memory by this showboating megalomaniac” was, to his shock, too anti-Welles. It required a re-orienting of perspective, “[W]hen I read his first draft, I thought, This is kind of a takedown of Welles…The first draft just felt like revenge.”
As Fincher noted in another interview with Mankiewicz’s grandson, the film is not about the credit, but the collaboration, “I was interested in watching how these extremely different personalities collided with one another for one moment in time and made something that we still talk about today.”
The Auteur Theory
What this straight forward story masks is the importance of a writer. Pauline Kael’s article reads almost as a defense of not just Mankiewicz, a writer, but the writer. Her claim was dismissed by The Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, known for introducing America to the “auteur theory” that originated among French directors who saw themselves as sole authors of their film. Incidentally, it was Sarris whose 1956 essay “Citizen Kane: The American Baroque” lent credibility to the film among American scholars and critics.
In Sarris’ opinion, Welles fit this idea of an auteur. Welles himself would have agreed, for he has been quoted saying, “Theatre is a collective experience; cinema is the work of a single person.” Kael strongly disagreed, and somewhere it is this dialectic that should frame our understanding of the controversy and its characters.
Tell The Story You Know
At one point in the Mank trailer Welles tells Mankiewicz, “What is it the writer says? Tell the story you know.” Battling alcoholism through his precarious employment, Mankiewicz was himself, first, a theater critic. Once, he fell asleep over his typewriter before finishing a review failing a deadline. This became a scene in Citizen Kane.
Mankiewicz, after finding all the doors of employment in New York closed to him, flocked to the other end of the continent, finding employment, fame, and controversy in California.
What is interesting is that Fincher himself is a director who works with scriptwriters, and thus understands the push-and-pull in the relationship of bringing words written by someone else to a celluloid piece attached to your name. In the interview with Mark Harris, he outlines this relationship, one of respect, but also symbiotism, “Look, nobody has more respect for writers than I do. You’re in the foxhole with them and they’re in the foxhole with you….I’m not a writer. I don’t take credit for things that I don’t do. Listen, I’m the offspring of a writer. I can’t. I’ve watched somebody put a blank piece of paper in a 1928 Underwood and sit there for 45 minutes. I know how lonely that is.”
Mank is scheduled to have a limited theatrical release on November 13 before beginning to stream on Netflix on December 4.