David Fincher’s new film Mank follows the rocky, boozy road to the great cinematic masterpiece that is 1941’s Citizen Kane. Though it’s a troubled male-genius narrative centered on Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the oft-forgotten screenwriter who fought to claim cowriting credit on the film, the person whose legacy was forever cemented by Citizen Kane is, of course, its director and star Orson Welles. And though Welles has plenty to be proud of when it comes to Kane, there is one regret about it that followed him for the rest of his life.
In 1982, just three years before his death, Welles reflected on Marion Davies, the Hollywood actor who allegedly inspired Citizen Kane’s talentless blonde opera singer, Susan Alexander Kane. “It seemed to me to be something of a dirty trick and still strikes me as something of a dirty trick,” a regretful Welles said. “What we did to her.” Welles also wrote the foreword to Davies’s posthumously published 1975 memoir, The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst, in which he tried to set the record straight.
Though Charles Foster Kane was indisputably based largely on Davies’s partner, William Randolph Hearst, the truth about Marion and Susan is much more complicated. Fincher gets at that in his film, showing Davies—as portrayed by a top-of-her-game Amanda Seyfried—as she truly was. A rare Hollywood star who successfully made the transition from silent film to talkies, Marion Davies was also a canny producer, dry-wit, universally beloved hostess, and, by all accounts, a clever businesswoman. But thanks in large part to Citizen Kane, Davies has long been misremembered.
Below, get to know the real Marion Davies—who, thanks to Mank, is getting another crack at the legacy she deserves.
THE ZIEGFELD GIRL
Long before she met Hearst, Marion Davies had a head for business and branding. Born in New York as Marion Cecilia Elizabeth Brooklyn Douras, Marion and her sisters changed their name to the anglicized Davies after seeing it splashed across a billboard advertisement. (Her mausoleum in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery reads “Douras.”) Davies pursued a career as a model, showgirl, and ultimately joined the Ziegfeld Follies. But she had an early passion for motion pictures and wrote her own script for what would be her first feature film, 1917’s Runaway Romany, which was directed by her brother-in-law George Lederer. In Mank, it’s George’s son, Charles (Joseph Cross), who reintroduces Herman to his aunt Marion.
Publishing giant William Randolph Hearst (portrayed in Mank by Charles Dance) was already in his late 50s when he first set his sights on a teenaged Davies while she was appearing in the Follies. He quickly formed Cosmopolitan Pictures, signed Davies to an exclusive contract, and began an affair with her that would last the rest of his life. Hearst was married and would remain so—but while he was puritanical about the love lives of others (he reportedly wouldn’t let unmarried couples share a room when they came to stay at his sprawling Hearst castle), he unashamedly and publicly shared his life with Davies.
THE HOLLYWOOD STAR
Hearst took a controlling, suffocating interest in Davies’s film career—and here, according to most, is where it all went wrong for the gifted performer. “Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen,” Welles wrote in the foreword to her memoir. “She would have been a star if Hearst had never happened.” In fact, Marion Davies was a star for a time, appearing in films opposite the likes of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Leslie Howard.
Clark Gable and Marion Davies in Cain and Mabel (1936).
by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images.
In order to speed along Davies’s ascent, Hearst entered into a distribution deal with Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), offering the latter’s studio chief Louis B. Mayer (played by Arliss Howard in Mank) the full strength of his media empire in exchange for roles for Davies, but he and Davies disagreed on what kind of parts she should play. She fancied herself a comedian; he preferred her in more serious and dramatic roles. Still, the MGM deal, combined with Davies’s inherent talent and Hearst’s full-court media blitz, shot several Davies films to the top of the box-office charts in 1922 and 1923.