David Fincher’s film perpetuates the myth that the director had no role in writing “Citizen Kane.”
By Alex RossApril 2, 2021
Hollywood has a peculiar neurosis on the subject of Orson Welles. Once or twice a decade, the industry attempts to conjure his flamboyant, chaotic personality onscreen, with results that have ranged from the marginally plausible to the ludicrous. The impersonations include Liev Schreiber in “RKO 281” (1999), Angus Macfadyen in “Cradle Will Rock” (1999), Christian McKay in “Me and Orson Welles” (2009), and Tom Burke in “Mank” (2020), which recently gathered ten Oscar nominations. With a personage as inimitable as Welles, you tend to fixate on the shortcomings of the imitation—particularly the impossibility of capturing the impish grandeur of the voice. (Vincent D’Onofrio comes closest with his charming cameo in “Ed Wood,” his voice dubbed by Maurice LaMarche.) The deeper problem is that these movies perpetuate dubious biographical clichés about Welles, characterizing him variously as a tyrant, a charlatan, or a drunk. The critic Joseph McBride has analyzed the subgenre in terms of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence: directors are “so intimidated by the influence of Welles that they feel they have to tear him down.” They may also hold an abiding grudge against a filmmaker who never found a place within the Hollywood system and therefore never had to compromise with it.
Some such anxiety seems to afflict David Fincher, the director of “Mank.” He has made his name with a series of finely crafted genre pictures that radiate an artistic aura without breaking the confines of mass-market entertainment. “Mank,” which dramatizes the origins of “Citizen Kane,” may be his most artistically ambitious work to date: it is filmed in black and white, and its script, by the director’s late father, Jack, is devoid of conventional action. Its dishevelled, soused hero is the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who is seen fashioning the character of Kane from his memories of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Welles pops up in the guise of a petty devil, first badgering Mankiewicz and then trying to deny him credit. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, is given the final word, echoing the screenwriter’s quip about what he would have said if he had been on hand to accept the Original Screenplay Oscar for “Kane,” which he and Welles won, in 1942: “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.”
In interviews, Fincher has displayed a simmering resentment of Welles, which he appears to have inherited from his father. The maker of “Kane” may have been a “fucking genius,” Fincher says, but he was also a “showman,” a blend of “monumental talent and crass immaturity” with a case of “delusional hubris.” In particular, Fincher has attacked Welles for having allegedly claimed that “there’s nothing you can’t learn about cinematography in an afternoon.” As Gabriel Paletz points out on Wellesnet.com, this is a distortion of a remark that the great cinematographer Gregg Toland made during the making of “Kane.” When the neophyte Welles was flailing early in the shoot, Toland administered a crash course in film technique, saying, “In a couple of days I can teach you everything that matters.” Welles told the story in a rare fit of humility. “It’s impossible to say how much I owe to Gregg,” he said. Fincher’s mangling of the anecdote perhaps says more about his own internal conflicts as a lavishly supported star director than it does about the outsider Welles.
Filmmakers have every right to rework history for dramatic ends. It’s useful to note, though, where “Mank” sticks to the record and where it goes its own way. One subplot concerns Upton Sinclair’s radical campaign for the governorship of California, in 1934. At M-G-M, Irving Thalberg helped to make anti-Sinclair propaganda, including newsreels that staged scenes of hobos invading the state. As “Mank” tells it, Mankiewicz felt sympathy toward Sinclair but inadvertently inspired the M-G-M effort with an offhand remark to Thalberg. Greg Mitchell, the author of a history of the Sinclair campaign, sees no evidence that Mankiewicz was ever involved, or that he supported the candidate. On the other hand, Mankiewicz’s younger brother, Joseph, the future maker of “All About Eve,” did write anti-Sinclair radio dramas—a fact that goes oddly unmentioned in “Mank.” The Sinclair scenes seem designed to endow Mankiewicz with a political conscience, motivating the anticapitalist slant of “Kane.” You’d never know that Welles was the one with the burning left-wing convictions—that he crusaded on behalf of the New Deal and denounced police violence against Black people.
The biggest distortion in “Mank” is its endorsement of the discredited but somehow indestructible tale that Welles had nothing to do with the writing of “Kane.” That view got a huge boost from Pauline Kael’s profoundly flawed article “Raising Kane,” which this magazine published in 1971. Robert L. Carringer corrected the record in his book “The Making of Citizen Kane, ” from 1985, reconstructing a complex back-and-forth between the two men. They discussed the scenario at length before the writing began, and Welles probably mentioned a device he had used in his unproduced screenplay “Smiler with a Knife”: a “March of Time” newsreel summarizing the life of the central character. Mankiewicz, working with John Houseman, emerged with an overstuffed script that nonetheless contained the film’s core dramatic structure and much of its brilliant dialogue. (“Mank” reduces the cosmopolitan Houseman to a fussy twit who says things like “Tell the story you know.”) Welles set about cutting, telescoping, rewriting, and adding new material. The two men then spent weeks hashing out a final draft. As my colleague Richard Brody puts it: “Mankiewicz’s work was fundamental, and Welles’s revisions were transformative.”
To see the final stage of the transformation unfolding, you can again visit Wellesnet.com, where an annotated screenplay documents differences between the final script—the “Third Revised Final” script, to be precise—and the movie itself. This is the work of the cultural historian Harlan Lebo, who has written not one but two books about “Kane.” To read through the changes is to receive a master class in the art of creatively brutal editing—an art that Welles practiced throughout his life, beginning with his schoolboy adaptations of Shakespeare. On one page, an exchange between Kane and his first wife, Emily, snaps into focus:
The repetition of “think” gives Kane’s response its nasty punch. The same attention to the music of speech is evident in revisions to a monologue by Kane’s disillusioned friend Jedediah Leland:
An added stress on the words “never” and “suppose” gives the passage a slashing rhythm, and the ponderous line “Charlie lived on power and the excitement of using it” is struck out.
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In the midst of filming, Welles apparently invented a new series of scenes giving glimpses of Kane’s fractious relationship with his guardian, Mr. Thatcher. It includes one of the deftest cuts in cinematic history—a jump of seventeen years in the middle of a sentence.
What emerges here is the headlong tempo of “Kane”—its sense of hurtling across the entire landscape of a life. Without that final stage of revision, Lebo argues, the Mankiewicz-Welles screenplay might have fallen flat: “Their work, together or separately, created a relatively routine script that would not have made a great film as written.” Of course, Welles had a lively company of actors and advisers around him, and not all of the new ideas may have been his. The process was intensely collaborative from start to finish. “Mank,” like Kael’s “Raising Kane” essay, substitutes one form of auteurism for another.
All that said, Mankiewicz did write the majority of the script, as Carringer establishes. In the climactic scene of “Mank,” Welles tries to persuade Mankiewicz to remain anonymous, as his original contract required. The confrontation is invented, but it has an element of truth. R.K.O. and the press made much of the fact that Welles was a quadruple threat, as actor, director, producer, and writer. The “boy wonder” was happy to play along: when stories about “Kane” began to appear, in the summer of 1940, he often led journalists to believe that he was the sole author of the script, and, at least twice, he said so outright. But Mankiewicz promptly lost the high ground by demanding that he should receive sole credit. By October, 1940, Welles had backtracked, telling a reporter, accurately enough, that Mankiewicz and Houseman had turned in a bloated first draft and that he had reworked it. The final credit tells the story in a minimum of words: “Original Screen Play: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles.”
Fincher, in an interview with Mark Harris for New York, offers one potentially keen insight: “I think the reason the [“Citizen Kane”] script is so good is that Herman went into it going, Whew, thank God my name’s not on it. I’ll work again. He took the gloves off, and he did his best work.” Alas, we don’t see that psychology spelled out, nor do we catch any glimpse of the real dynamic with Welles. Instead, Mankiewicz comes across as a sort of hapless transcriber of events, attending Hearst parties and cobbling together a narrative from scraps of real life. When, in the final showdown with Welles, the director flies into a rage and hurls a liquor cabinet across the room, Mankiewicz picks up his pen, saying, “That’s just what we need when Susan leaves Kane. An act of purging violence.” This Mankiewicz seems incapable of imagining anything from scratch. He writes what he knows and nothing more.
The ultimate irony is that “Mank” feels not unlike the initial draft of “Kane,” copies of which can be found in Welles’s archives in Indiana and Michigan. It’s atmospheric, richly detailed, full of tart zingers, meandering, amorphous, and inert. It could have used a drastic reworking by a writer-director like Orson Welles, if such a person were to be found.
Alex Ross has been the magazine’s music critic since 1996. His latest book is “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music.”