He was the genius behind the boy genius, the hard-boiled newspaperman and hard-bitten alcoholic screenwriter whose co-authorship of Citizen Kane was overshadowed by Orson Welles’s multi-hyphenate talent. But Herman Jacob Mankiewicz was a figure of consequence in Hollywood’s golden age—and something very like the conscience of the film that stands by common consent at the pinnacle of American cinema.
It’s that bittersweet legacy that David Fincher aims to explore—and restore—in Mank, his elegiac new biopic out in limited theatrical release, and dropping on Netflix December 4. With a riveting Gary Oldman in the title role, the film, shot in richly saturated black-and-white, is a rueful love letter to the movies—and to Citizen Kane itself.
But unlike RKO 281, the 1999 HBO made-for-television procedural about the creation of Citizen Kane—and the furor that its too-close-for comfort depiction of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies occasioned in Hollywood—Mank leaves Welles on the periphery. This film centers on broader, deeper themes: the compromising price of creativity, the toll of addiction, and the fine and often frightening line between illusion and reality, in politics and in art.
Mank was a longtime passion project for Fincher, one that first germinated more than two decades ago but for one reason or another never got made. The screenplay is by his father, Jack, a veteran journalist who died in 2003, and that parentage shows in its fine-grained evocation of a Who Was Who of 1930s-era Hollywood, from the moguls Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and David O. Selznick to Mankiewicz’s fellow “schmucks with Underwoods” (as Jack Warner derisively dismissed screenwriters) George S. Kaufman, Ben Hecht, and Mank’s own prolific younger brother, Joe.
In a recent conversation with Fincher on CBS’s Sunday Morning, the Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz described his grandfather, who died at 55 in 1953, as “someone just about everybody would have wanted to be around,” and that seems true enough. In the depths of the Depression, Herman was not only a peerless wit, but he may have been the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, working on classics such as Dinner at Eight, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and It’s a Wonderful World. (The Finchers paraphrase his immortal, mordant advice to would-be screen scribes: There are millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots.)
But Mankiewicz also had a singular gift for self-sabotage. He was fired from The Wizard of Oz after making the crucial contribution that the film should begin in black-and-white to emphasize the unrelenting grayness of Kansas, and Mank includes a presumably imagined but delicious reflection of the kind of bons mots that got him into trouble with the powers that be: “Even the dog’s name is awful!” a drunken Herman tells his long-suffering wife, Sara, after his dismissal from the film. “Sounds like a Japanese houseboy!”
In the depths of the Depression, Herman may have been the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood.
It’s at this career low point that Mank is commissioned by Welles, the 24-year-old enfant terrible of radio and stage, as an uncredited hack-for-hire to help write his first movie—which turns out to be a film à clef about Hearst. Mankiewicz had known the publishing titan intimately through his friendship with Davies, until Mank’s drunken misbehavior led to his banishment from Hearst’s castle at San Simeon. Laid up with a broken leg in a desert guest ranch in Victorville, California—and kept sober, after a fashion at first, with a stash of Seconal-laced hooch supplied by Welles—Mankiewicz betrays the old friendship and repays the snub, with a raft of telling details that only an insider could know.
The cruelest cut is his portrayal of Susan Alexander—the Davies counterpart in Citizen Kane—as a no-talent singer with a weakness for drink and jigsaw puzzles. Davies (intelligently and radiantly portrayed here by Amanda Seyfried) shared those last two passions, but was actually a gifted comedienne. One of the film’s most poignant moments is an invented encounter in which even Davies praises Mank’s script but tells him how much it will hurt Hearst. He can’t let himself care. In the end, realizing that the draft he has bled out is his best work, Mankiewicz demands screen credit, prompting a violent rupture with Welles. The two go on to win Citizen Kane’s only Oscar, for best screenplay, but their friendship is never the same.
This gestational saga is juxtaposed against flashbacks that recount Mayer and Hearst’s vicious campaign against the socialist Upton Sinclair, the Democratic nominee for governor of California in 1934, which featured phony anti-Sinclair newsreels churned out by MGM. These “fake news” polemics not only presage the mock “March of Time” newsreel narrative that famously begins Citizen Kane, but eerily foreshadow the Internet deepfakes of our own Trumpian age.
Indeed, Mank is full of inside jokes—even jokes inside inside jokes—intended to make it feel like a found artifact from the 1940s, including a deliberately tinny soundtrack, the audible clicks of reel changes, and such shimmering film artifices as rear-projection shots and matte-painted backgrounds, together with the striking deep-focus cinematography that Gregg Toland pioneered in Citizen Kane (emulated here by Erik Messerschmidt).
But at the heart of the film is a sadness, a mourning, for the loss of youthful innocence, of idealism, of love, of control of one’s own story—the themes that animate Citizen Kane itself. In Fincher’s case, one can’t help but wonder if he’s mourning the fleeting moment in which commercial Hollywood managed to produce such a singular artistic masterpiece. “I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination,” Mankiewicz says of Welles when his draft script is done, in what serves as a crystallization of the screenwriter’s plight. “Where he takes it, that’s his job.” Mank ends with a freeze-frame on the real Mankiewicz’s post–Citizen Kane description of his steadily fading career. “I seem to have become more and more a rat in a trap of my own construction,” he wrote to a friend, “a trap I regularly repair when there seems to be danger of an opening that will enable me to escape.”
Todd S. Purdum is the author of several books, most recently Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution