The real Herman Mankiewicz, resurrected by Gary Oldman in David Fincher’s long-awaited biopic Mank, was full of contradictions. He was a cautionary tale and an aspirational one—a hopeless alcoholic with a gambling problem who was also the Oscar-winning mastermind (with Orson Welles) behind Citizen Kane, which has been called one of the greatest screenplays of all time. (His creative struggle to write the script, while recovering from a car accident and being forced to withdraw from alcohol, is re-created in Mank.) As Hollywood’s top writer of the ’30s, he was also ashamed of making a living off movies, which he considered to be unsophisticated escapism. The contradictions spilled out of him onto the page.
According to one story, as punishment for some sort of typical Mank misbehavior—not delivering a script, being late, drinking too much—the studio assigned him a movie that it knew Mank would detest—one centering on a dog as the lead. Mank—who had failed as a playwright before pivoting to Hollywood, and considered even human-starring movies to be lowbrow—wrote out a treatment that would be payback to the studio’s payback.
“The story began with the dog picking up a baby by the neck and carrying the baby into a burning house,” recalled Mankiewicz’s grandson Ben Mankiewicz, with a laugh. “They were like, ‘Jesus, fine. Whatever.’” Though Mankiewicz can’t confirm that story is accurate—“it’s probably not true because it’s too good a story”—it fits with his grandfather’s modus operandi of defiance. “He loved turning expectation upside down…I think you can see a lot of that in Citizen Kane.”
Of course, Mank had such low expectations for Citizen Kane—and was in such desperate need for money—that, as depicted in the film, he agreed to write the screenplay for Orson Welles for $10,000 and no credit. He was essentially held hostage through the writing process—he was immobile, after a car accident, and holed up in Victorville with a secretary and a friend who kept him on track and away from alcohol. Afterward, Mank was as surprised as anyone to realize that he had written something he could actually be proud of.
“After all this shame and his 10 years in Hollywood, he realizes that he’s written something great and he wants credit,” recalled Mankiewicz. “He knows he’s written something that matters, something that is a story worth telling, and in a picture worth seeing. And he’s like, I need credit…. I don’t know if mattered to anybody to get the 10 grand back. But it mattered to him, and he was certainly willing to sacrifice the money for the acknowledgment that he had written something that mattered, something that he was proud of, which had not happened much.”
Mankiewicz was born after his grandfather died in 1953. So seeing Gary Oldman bring Mank to life in Fincher’s film was an experience the TCM host described as surreal, emotional, and “out of body.” In celebration of the film’s December 4 release on Netflix, Mankiewicz reflects on the film’s accuracies, his grandfather’s relationship with Marion Davies, and Mank’s greatest regret about Citizen Kane.
How the film’s representation of Mank compares to Mankiewicz’s understanding of his grandfather:
“It fully comports with my image of my grandfather, as relayed by mostly my father, but also my mother, the few years that she got to spend with him—that he was the smartest person in the room, the funniest person in the room…even when he had been drinking, which was often,” said Mankiewicz. “He was never mean. Ever. My father really admired him—even though, of course, he wished that he hadn’t self-destructed in the way that he did.”
Mankiewicz said that his grandfather’s shame likely stemmed from his relationship with and his desire to please his own father—“a stern, disapproving, German-speaking immigrant.”
The one integral Citizen Kane supporting character absent from Mank:
In real life, Mank holed up in Victorville with his secretary and an actor-producer friend named John Houseman, whose main job was reportedly to keep Mank focused and away from alcohol. “Houseman was critical in keeping Herman in the right frame of mind and pushing him to finish the script,” said Mankiewicz.
Mankiewicz said he had a conversation with Fincher—before interviewing him for CBS’s Sunday Morning—during which Fincher confessed that he understood Houseman’s importance in the culmination of the Citizen Kane script. Fincher excluded him from Mank, though, because he, per Mankiewicz, “didn’t want to cloud the story.”
Asked where else the film veered away from real life, Mankiewicz said, “There were inaccuracies in the film, but they’re not worth pointing out.”
Mank’s San Simeon hijinks with Marion Davies:
“What I knew from my dad was that my grandfather had a very close relationship with her. Hearst kept the house dry, but there was a secret bar, as it was described to me—and Marion and Herman would sneak away during Hearst’s screenings and have a drink and talk. And then everybody…” Mankiewicz cut himself off here, issuing a disclaimer. “It’s a great story, so I’m sure it’s not true—because all great Hollywood stories are made up. But there are elements of truth to a lot of them.”
Mank’s marriage and emotional affairs:
Mankiewicz was happy that Fincher and actor Tuppence Middleton represented Sara Mankiewicz as the strong woman her family remembers her being. “She was this incredibly smart, clever, independent wife who always defended Herman,” Mankiewicz said. “Occasionally, she’d try and straighten him out. But she was there to support him.”
Mankiewicz pointed out one scene in the film where Sara tells Mank that she’s done with his drinking, chronic gambling, and platonic affairs. “He did get very close to women,” acknowledged Mankiewicz. “He understood women the way so many men at that time didn’t, because he tried to. He cared about it. And we see that in his relationship with Marion Davies, which felt completely accurate, even if some scenes almost certainly didn’t exist. But they captured the essence of their relationship really well.”
Mank’s biggest Citizen Kane regret:
“I was told by my father that, by far, his biggest regret was that people would think Susan Alexander Kane [was based] on Marion Davies,” said Mankiewicz. “It’s obviously understandable that they would, and it was sort of naive of him [to think they wouldn’t].”
The Susan character, Mankiewicz said, was just as much inspired by Gladys Wallis, the real-life wife of magnate Samuel Insull. Insull allegedly backed the building of the Chicago Civic Opera House in tribute to his actor wife, Gladys. One story goes that when Mankiewicz was still working as a critic, he reviewed a Broadway production starring Gladys. Mank’s biographer Richard Meryman wrote that the writer “was outraged by the spectacle of a 56-year-old millionairess playing a gleeful 18-year-old, the whole production bought for her like a trinket by a man Herman knew to be an unscrupulous manipulator.” (Mank’s review reportedly began, “Miss Gladys Wallis, an aging, hopelessly incompetent amateur, opened last night in…”)
How Mank’s family reconciled his demons with his talent:
“I don’t think there was any need to reconcile,” said Mankiewicz. “He was an incredibly talented writer who carried a burden of wanting to impress his father, as so many of us do…. So that fueled Herman…he wanted to impress his father, but felt shame in the manner in which he impressed him…. Fincher described it as constantly pushing a rock up a hill and then pushing the rock back down so he can push it back up the hill again. And I think that’s right. [My family understands that] this guy was plagued by his demons, which certainly became too large a barrier to continue his success.”
“I feel enormous sympathy for him, and my father did as well,” said Mankiewicz. “It might’ve been different if he’d been cruel. But he wasn’t cruel. He was absent too much because of the vices, but not cruel, and clearly loved his family. Which comes across in the movie.”
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