After Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz shared the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1941’s Citizen Kane, the wunderkind Welles sent this letter to his collaborator:
“Dear Mankie, Here’s what I wanted to wire you after the Academy Dinner: ‘You can kiss my half.’
I dare to send it through the mails only now that I find it possible to enclose a ready-made retort. I don’t presume to write your jokes for you, but you ought to like this: ‘Dear Orson, You don’t know your half from a whole in the ground.'”
Clever puns aside, the only slightly disguised pugnacious tone is a true measure of how Welles regarded the flamboyant Mankiewicz. Kane had been nominated for nine Academy Awards — but took home only one, and it was sullied for Welles by a co-recipient. Not exactly what Welles had in mind for his feature film debut.
The tortured working relationship between Welles and Mankiewicz and the subsequent arguments over who wrote what, is the nucleus of David Fincher’s luminous new film, Mank, now streaming on Netflix. The protean Fincher always surprises, never revisits familiar material — Mank is another one of his original creations.
Shot in black-and-white, with technical enhancements, Mank has the look of fine art photography.
One of these enhancements is a process Fincher pioneered called “shot stabilization” — it eliminates imperfections in camera movement, giving the final cut a frame-by-frame polished consistency.
The story structure floats in time, in a compelling fashion similar to Citizen Kane. Although the script, written by Fincher’s late father, Jack, mixes fact and fiction, the subject matter, as it unfolded in the early 1940’s, is suited to big ideas.
Centerstage in the film is the Falstaffian Herman Mankiewicz, former New Yorker and New York Times drama critic, who arrived in Hollywood in 1925 with pecuniary gain on his mind (“in pursuit of a lump sum,” he said). Mankiewicz soon became one of the highest paid screenwriters in Tinseltown, crafting scores of movies, many of them uncredited.
High points included work with the Marx Brothers, but his most illustrious — and unbilled — efforts were for The Wizard of Oz. Mankiewicz wrote the opening scenes in Kansas; it was his suggestion to use black-and-white for those sequences, with color to follow upon the arrival in Oz.
By the fall of 1939, Mankiewicz was flat on his back, both physically and financially. Alcoholism, compulsive gambling, and obstreperous behavior had alienated him from every studio in town — an automobile accident left him in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital with multiple broken bones and a leg in traction.
Among his hospital visitors was Orson Welles, who, in his early 20’s, was trapped in a quiet desperation of his own. The insouciant Welles, celebrated in New York as a radio and Broadway virtuoso, had been given an unprecedented contract by RKO pictures: a four-year, four-picture deal with a $400,000 salary. Welles had an unheard of carte blanche artistic freedom which meant no studio interference. But, time was running short and the word on the street was Welles had no meaningful projects in development. The heat was on for the boy wonder to deliver.
After his stay in the hospital, Mankiewicz began writing scripts for Welles’ Mercury radio broadcasts. Soon, the two began searching for bigger game: by February 1940, armed with ideas about a self-made American millionaire who destroys himself and his career, Mankiewicz, John Houseman (Welles’ longtime assistant), a German nurse, and a secretary, set off for Campbell Ranch in Victorville, California to pound out a shooting script. The desolate ranch — two hours northeast of Hollywood — was selected to keep prying eyes off the work and Mankiewicz ‘s unquenchable thirst under control. Houseman was along to make sure both were accomplished.
For twelve weeks in the Mojave Desert, the screenwriter, bedridden and unhappily sober, dictated late into the night. Houseman organized and edited in the morning hours; finally, a 325-page manuscript titled The American was finished. The fictional character, Charles Foster Kane (a thinly veiled portrait of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst) emerged in novelistic detail, nuanced far beyond Hollywood creations.
Many accounts of what happened to that original script exist, but here is what Welles’ biographer, Simon Callow, wrote: “The screenplay as presented was rich pudding. Welles immediately went to work as editor. He slashed through Mankiewicz’s text just as he slashed through Shakespeare’s…he added none of his own words, preferring to isolate or rearrange someone else’s. His skill …in this department was unparalleled.”
One fact is certain: Mankiewicz initially agreed to accept no billing (some say he was paid $10,000 to do so), but later fought Welles for the co-credit.
Citizen Kane opened on May 1, 1941 at the Palace Theater on Broadway. Rapturously reviewed, Kane was only modestly accepted by the movie-going public.
Today, 80 years later, Citizen Kane ranks atop the American Film Institute’s list of Best Movies — universally, the screenplay is considered a masterpiece.
But, who is the actual author? Pauline Kael, premier American film critic, in her 1971 essay, Raising Kane, resurrected the long forgotten Mankiewicz, writing that he was the true scriptwriter. Film scholar Robert Carringer disagreed—he asserted that Welles had a strong hand in the final production.
Ben Mankiewicz, Herman’s grandson and current host of Turner Classic Movies, has this view: “My grandfather is, by far, most responsible. Welles did a tremendous job of condensing it so you could argue he deserved half the credit, but my grandfather wrote the movie. He did take $10,000 to keep his name off it, then realized he had written the only thing he was proud of and wanted his name on it.”
Fincher is sanguine about the screenwriting debate. “It’s not my interest to make a movie about a posthumous screen credit arbitration,” he stated. “I was interested in making a movie about a man who agreed not to take any credit and who changed his mind. That was interesting to me.”
Whatever the academic debate, Mank is not just interesting — it’s a superlative film by an American Master in the sweet spot of his professional life.