A new Netflix film, Mank, directed by David Fincher, focuses attention on the career of Herman J. Mankiewicz. Citizen Kane, for which he wrote the screenplay (and earned the film’s only Academy Award), is now considered THE great American film classic but it was a box office failure at the time and William Randolph Hearst (on whom Kane was based) did everything in his considerable power to destroy Mankiewicz’s career. David Stewart examines the legacy of “Mank” and speaks with his biographer Sydney Ladensohn Stern for PKM
“Who was Rosebud?” asks an editor to reporters in a dark, smoke-filled projection room. A racing horse? A girl? Was it even a person? The question of Rosebud’s existence is the focal point for Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ iconic 1941 film about the life and death of media mogul Charles Foster Kane. Sitting in the back of the room amongst the plumes of cigarette smoke, piercing light, and shadows photographed by Gregg Toland was the man who knew all about Rosebud, Herman J. Mankiewicz.
He doesn’t take center stage like Orson Welles’ Kane, but Herman Mankiewicz (‘Mank’ to his friends) was the man behind the story of Citizen Kane, at least the first draft of the screenplay. Now, the story of the Citizen Kane scribe is the focus of David Fincher’s latest film, Mank, which hit theaters on Nov. 13 and premieres on Netflix Dec. 4. Gary Oldman portrays the fast-living screenwriter whose friendship with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), later became the creative templates for Charles Foster Kane and his tortured opera-singer wife, Susan Alexander, in Citizen Kane. Although Herman received his—and the Citizen Kane’s—only Academy Award for best screenplay, his career in Hollywood was finished in the eyes of the angry Hearst, who issued a tabloid-style attack in 1943 on Mankiewicz, dragging his name through the dirt until his death in 1953, at only 55 years of age.
The delayed-adulation Citizen Kane received after Mankiewicz’s death is ironic considering he never thought of himself as a Hollywood screenwriter. According to his son, Frank, he thought of himself as “a New York writer temporarily exiled to Hollywood” where he stayed for 28 years. Herman left his seat at New York’s Algonquin Round Table to take his family, literary prowess, and heavy drinking out West. During the Twenties and Thirties, Mankiewicz worked with the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and contributed to the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz, yet movies didn’t hold sway to a man who revered the planks of Broadway theaters over the soundstages of MGM studio. His younger brother, Joseph Mankiewicz, would outlast him as the successful writer/director of Golden Era classics like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa.
In her dual biography The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics, Sydney Ladensohn Stern spent a decade covering the lives and legacy of Herman and Joe Mankiewicz, including Herman’s involvement with Citizen Kane. Speaking from her Manhattan apartment, Stern recalled stumbling upon Herman and Joe by happenstance. “I had interviewed Frank for my Gloria Steinem biography, so I knew about Herman to some extent. After reading separate books on these brothers, I thought the whole is greater than the sum of its parts leading me to tackle the two together in one book. Herman led me to Joe. Herman’s taken over in its afterlife…it just shows you never know where your work is going to take you and how it’s going to be received in the world.”
Although Joe was 12 years younger than Herman, he had a passion for film more than his older brother. Stern believes Joe was looking at Herman’s drinking and writing habits as cautionary examples for what not to do in Hollywood’s studio system. “Herman had a lot of self-destructive tendencies,” Stern said, “but I don’t think it drove him the way Joe later acknowledged that sibling rivalry drove him. It transmuted over the years with this father-figure adoration and admiration into some competitiveness.”
Sons of German immigrants, Herman and Joe Mankiewicz relied on their father, Franz (aka Pop) Mankiewicz, for praise, something that was hard to come by. “They wanted to please him. Although there was the meanness, the drinking, and the authoritarian cruelty, he could be very warm, engaging, and loveable.” However, Pop’s predilection for alcohol would be the fuel and saltpeter of Herman’s creative output. As the phrase ‘Rosebud’ appeared on his typewriter, childhood memories of a stolen bicycle or a racehorse he actually won would run circles around Herman’s mind.
For Herman, he didn’t know where Citizen Kane was going to take him, much less his next advance to cover his drinking and gambling debts. In the Spring of 1940, he temporarily exiled himself from his drinking and philandering around Beverly Hills by writing the first 300-page draft of Citizen Kane at Kemper Campbell Ranch in Victorville, 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles. As Mankiewicz pondered over the characters to fill Welles’ debut film, his mind drifted back to his evenings at San Simeon, the home of William Randolph Hearst and the inspiration of Xanadu, Kane’s Florida estate. Like Xanadu, Hearst’s San Simeon estate was half the size of Rhode Island with a public zoo of exotic animals and enough land to make Mar-A-Lago look like a sandtrap. Beyond the revelry and booze-soaked badinage reminiscent of his days around the Algonquin Round Table, Herman grew fond of Marion Davies, a former chorus girl and aspiring actress whom Hearst spotted and attempted to make into a star.
Marion was not just a chorus girl and Hearst’s arm-candy, she had the caustic wit and comedic presence of Buster Keaton in films like The Patsy. Her aspirations of playing comedic leading roles were continually crushed by Hearst who typecast her as an alluring ingénue. As Stern notes, “Hearst was trying to put a quart into a pint pot. He was trying to make her more dignified.”
Marion’s presence was translated onto Herman’s typewriter as the shrill Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife, and the opera-star “stuck with the raspberries” from critics as Kane forces her to sing for his amusement and, ultimately, her tragic downfall as an alcoholic lounge act. “The sad theme in Marion Davies’s life was that Hearst was too helpful; he tried to do something for which he wasn’t suited, and she didn’t have the strength in the relationship to push back.”
Hearst’s San Simeon estate was half the size of Rhode Island with a public zoo of exotic animals and enough land to make Mar-A-Lago look like a sandtrap.
Orson Welles came close to public scandal during a lecture tour in Buffalo, New York. In an interview before his death, Welles recalled a police officer approaching him at a restaurant after the release of Citizen Kane, telling him not to return to his hotel room. According to Welles, an underaged girl was waiting for him back in his room with police officers and photographers in hiding nearby (If only Rudy Giuliani knew of this anecdote before reaching into his pants in Borat 2). He didn’t return to his hotel room that night dodging a career-ending bullet. In May 1941, Citizen Kane opened for only one month on a limited release before it died at the box office—further evidence of Hearst’s influence over Hollywood.
The glow of Herman’s Oscar faded shortly after it fell into his hands. On March 11, 1943, after having a few drinks at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills, Herman got into a head-on collision on Benedict Canyon with Lee Gershwin, the wife of composer Ira Gershwin. Although Herman and Gershwin were safe, save for some banged knees and a head cut that required three stitches for Lee, Herman’s car crashed outside the bungalow of Marion Davies. Marion wasn’t alone in the house; William Randolph Hearst was there seizing the opportunity to immortalize Herman as a belligerent drunk as soon as he looked out his window. Two weeks after Herman’s accident, Hearst’s Examiner and Herald-Press ran articles citing in extravagant details of Herman’s drunken behavior towards the police. Hearst’s anti-Herman campaign influenced the California legal system to try Herman in both criminal and civil court. After the media circus died down, Herman finished his drinks one night at Romanoff’s exiting the restaurant announcing to patrons, “Tell Ms. Gershwin to stay the hell off the street for the next twenty minutes. Herman Mankiewicz is on his way home.”
Almost 80 years after the release of Citizen Kane, the story of its origins is akin to an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. With a script written by his father, Jack, before his death in 2003, David Fincher gives Herman his day in the sun in his latest film.
“Directing is a collaborative art,” Stern said. “But in the end, it is the director’s vision. There are thousands of decisions every day that was the director’s. When we look at movies, the screenplay is there but it’s flat; I think of the script as two-dimensional versus three or four-dimensional. Herman didn’t even want to produce, much less direct despite having his opinions about things. From what I know, he loved what Welles was doing; he was fascinated by what Welles was doing. Then again, how could you not be stunned by Citizen Kane?”