Herman J. Mankiewicz, the Prohibition-era newspaperman, Algonquin Round Table bon vivant, Hollywood producer, and subject of David Fincher’s movie Mank, is largely remembered for two pieces of writing—a 1926 telegram urging his drinking buddy Ben Hecht to join him in Hollywood, where “millions” were “to be grabbed” and “your only competition is idiots,” and the first draft of the screenplay that became Orson Welles’s first movie, Citizen Kane (1941).
Kane, the prismatic biography of a press lord transparently based on William Randolph Hearst, which has come to be popularly regarded as the greatest of Hollywood movies, is only one way in which Mankiewicz helped to shape American media. He was a Berlin correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily and, albeit briefly, The New Yorker’s first drama critic. He worked as a press agent for the theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt and the heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey; once in Hollywood, he produced two Marx Brothers movies, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, for Paramount and dashed off Hollywood’s first anti-Nazi screenplay, The Mad Dog of Europe, only months into Hitler’s regime. (The film was never produced.) Working for Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick at MGM, he contributed to several notable movies—Dinner at Eight, San Francisco—and even supplied the idea that The Wizard of Oz should begin in black and white and burst into color with Dorothy’s arrival in Oz.
He mentored his younger brother, the writer-director-producer Joseph Mankiewicz, who over a long career wrote more than forty screenplays and produced more than twenty films. Herman and his wife, Shulamith Sara Aaronson, had three children: the screenwriter Don Mankiewicz; the journalist Frank Mankiewicz, who became the head of National Public Radio; and the novelist Johanna Mankiewicz Davis. But unlike his distinguished relatives (including his father, Franz Mankiewicz, a German-Jewish immigrant who attended Columbia University as an adult at the same time as teenaged Herman, and became a university professor), Herman was also a self-destructive scamp, as notorious for his boozing and gambling as for the caustic wisecracks that would long outlive him.
The critic Alexander Woollcott, an Algonquin crony, thought Mankiewicz “the funniest man in New York.” Hecht, otherwise contemptuous of the “Algonquin school of wags,” called him “the Voltaire of Central Park West”: “Never have I known a man with so quick an eye and ear—and tongue, for the strut of fools.” Recruited by MGM in 1925 (the first film he worked on was a Lon Chaney vehicle, The Road to Mandalay), Mankiewicz lived even larger in Hollywood—“a promising young writer, albeit a writer who drank too much and gambled away funds his family needed to live,” as Sydney Ladensohn Stern describes him in her joint biography of Herman and Joseph, The Brothers Mankiewicz.
Still, he found time to collaborate with Anita Loos in adapting her best seller Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the screen (the 1928 Paramount silent film—he was wooed away from MGM shortly after arriving in Los Angeles) and to write intertitles for several of Joseph von Sternberg’s silent films as well as the film version of the Broadway warhorse Abie’s Irish Rose. At least for a while, Mankiewicz was Paramount’s best-paid writer, even as a good deal of his energy was spent socializing. In those glory days, he played tennis with Greta Garbo and gambled with his boss at Paramount, B.P. Schulberg. He and his wife threw costume parties for the Hollywood elite. And they were entertained by Hearst and his consort, the actress Marion Davies, up the coast from Los Angeles at Hearst’s fabulously, if not insanely, excessive castle in San Simeon, California, the model for Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu.
Not everyone was impressed. Groucho Marx, who knew Mankiewicz from his Algonquin days—and who, along with his brother Harpo, attended seders chez Mank—remembered him as “an irritating drunk” with little interest in movies. Herman regarded the Marx Brothers as impossible to handle. The young S.J. Perelman, who arrived in Hollywood in 1930 to write for the Marx Brothers under Mankiewicz’s supervision, recalled him as “a large, Teutonic individual with an abrasive tongue [whose] fondness for cards and good living kept him in a state of perpetual peonage.” Granting his brilliance (“a sort of Johnsonian figure in the [film] industry”), Perelman in his memoir includes a vividly appalling comic portrait: having consumed a gargantuan midday meal at a celebrated German restaurant, Mankiewicz lumbers back to his office for a nap, only to be interrupted by Perelman and another neophyte writer seeking illumination as to the psychology of the Marx Brothers’ characters in Monkey Business. Mankiewicz explains that “one of them is a guinea, another a mute who picks up spit, and the third an old Hebe with a cigar,” and then dismisses his younger contemporaries with a “poisonous smile” and a curt “Beat it!”
While still in his early thirties, Mankiewicz was a legend, a showboat, a nasty wit, and a habitual roisterer, as shameless as he was outrageous. Perhaps his most famous crack was delivered after vomiting up his meal at a swanky dinner party: he assured his host, the producer Arthur Hornblow, that “the white wine came up with the fish.” This bon mot and many others appear in Pauline Kael’s controversial essay “Raising Kane,” originally published in 1971 in The New Yorker. Kael’s piece, instrumental in reviving Mankiewicz’s reputation, made the case that, having proposed Citizen Kane’s subject and multiple-viewpoint structure and written a massive first draft of the script, Mankiewicz was its primary author.
Kael’s lively if somewhat specious argument was largely debunked by Robert L. Carringer in his meticulously researched book The Making of Citizen Kane (1984), in which he calls it “singularly one-sided.” Nevertheless, “Raising Kane”—along with Richard Meryman’s 1978 Mankiewicz biography (which acknowledges Kael as a source)—serves as the basis for Fincher’s movie. It makes for a better story.*
Mank has many impressive qualities, first among them Gary Oldman, who plays Mankiewicz with a steely twinkle and a reedy quaver that suggests an old radio broadcast—one of the numerous period details in which the movie excels, even as it fudges facts and simplifies its subject’s contrarian nature. Oldman has enjoyed a long and colorful career, playing Lee Harvey Oswald for Oliver Stone and Dracula for Francis Ford Coppola, capped with an Oscar for his impersonation of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017). Still, his Mank rivals his early turn as a more dimwitted self-destroyer, the Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986).
Mank begins in the aftermath of Mankiewicz’s 1939 car accident. Fired from MGM and fleeing his creditors, he embarked on a cross-country drive in the company of a young screenwriter who totaled the car on the outskirts of Albuquerque. The crash is actually shown as a flashback. The first scene has a small fleet of automobiles arrive at the desert ranch where Mankiewicz has gone to recuperate, dry out, and, hired at $1,000 a week, knock out a script for the twenty-four-year-old Orson Welles. Welles’s sometime producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) opens the door for Mank to hobble in, accompanied by a stoical German nurse (Monika Gossmann), a prim British secretary (Lily Collins), and a cabinet filled with booze (which turns out to be bottled Seconal).
Mank can be difficult for the uninitiated to follow without a scorecard. The film is interspersed with lengthy flashbacks, not quite in the manner of Kane, that illuminate Mank’s Hollywood career, showcase his antics, and establish his integrity in satirizing Hearst, particularly as, in 1940, various people—notably Herman’s brother Joe (Tom Pelfrey) and Davies (played with comic radiance by Amanda Seyfried)—appear at the ranch and, in the parlance of detective fiction, attempt to sugar him off the case.
The first flashback has him staggering home drunk to his infinitely tolerant, preternaturally wise wife (the British actress Tuppence Middleton), who unconvincingly advises him, “Go to sleep, meshuggeneh.” Mankiewicz met Sara, a middle-class Jewish girl from Baltimore, in 1918, when he was twenty. They married two years later and remained together for the rest of his life, despite his alcoholism, compulsive gambling, and what Sara in the movie calls his “silly platonic affairs.” A strong-willed woman, albeit characterized by one of her grandsons as “a classic enabler,” she was the butt of one of her husband’s most famous jokes (a running gag in the movie as it was in life). When an acquaintance would inquire after Sara, Mankiewicz would feign ignorance, forcing his interlocutor to clarify, “Sara—your wife,” to which Mank would respond, “Oh, you mean Poor Sara.”
Poor Sara largely recedes from the narrative, except as an intermittent reality principle, as Mank is visited by the satanic Orson Welles (another British actor, Tom Burke) and begins dictating his script, originally titled American. Mank’s uptight, judgmental secretary turns out to be secretly starstruck. “You knew him?” she breathlessly asks when the name Hearst comes up, precipitating a flashback to Paramount Pictures circa 1930. In a scene that might have been cribbed from Fellini Satyricon, Mank flips coins for absurdly large bets with Eddie Cantor, while a gaggle of famous writers (identified as George S. Kaufman, Hecht, and Perelman) give dictation to a sour secretary, topless save for a set of pasties. There’s a mad flurry of name-dropping—“Selznick!” “Joe Sternberg?”—as a young Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross) stares goggle-eyed at the waggish writers pitching a ridiculous horror film to their clueless producer. Hallucinations ensue as the ever-inebriated Mank wanders around San Simeon, where a western is being shot. He meets and insults the studio boss Louis B. Mayer (the movie’s villain, played by Arliss Howard) but is a flirtatious hit with Marion Davies, who is thrilled to meet him and to introduce him to Hearst (Charles Dance). “Pops likes you,” she later confides.
Non-Hollywood politics make their appearance in a flashback to Mayer’s birthday party, hosted by Hearst at San Simeon on July 4, 1933. The scene excoriates the refusal of Hollywood’s heavily Jewish elite to grasp the danger posed by Germany’s new dictator; instead they voice panicky concern about the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair, soon to run as a socialist for governor of California. Meanwhile, back at the ranch in 1940, the German nurse informs the disapproving British secretary that the obnoxious Mank, who has mocked the secretary’s husband, an RAF pilot, is a secret hero, having sponsored her German-Jewish family and others for American visas: “Our entire village he brought here.”
Mankiewicz’s actual politics, contrarian as they were, could perhaps be better treated in a documentary, a vehicle less likely to glide over nuance. Like most German-Americans, Jewish or Gentile, he was an opponent of World War I, although he enlisted. He despised Republican presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover and supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—until he didn’t. Having spent the year between high school and college working in a Pennsylvania coal mine, he considered himself a strong supporter of labor unions; nonetheless, he ridiculed the Screen Writers Guild—and then joined the rival company union, the Screen Playwrights. (To get part of the movie’s subtext it is helpful to know that young Joe was among the founders and first officials of the Screen Writers Guild, which, at least in its rules, supported Herman in his conflict with Welles over the screenwriting credit for Kane.)
Most significantly, Herman was, for a brief time, Hollywood’s preeminent premature antifascist. The major anomaly in Mankiewicz’s screenwriting career was The Mad Dog of Europe, a convoluted family drama written hurriedly in the spring of 1933 to dramatize the Nazi persecution of assimilated German Jews. “For the first time in years,” Stern writes, “Herman abandoned humor, irony, sophistication, and his theatrical aspirations to write passionately and from the heart—in the medium he had been deriding for the last six years.”
Mankiewicz planned to produce the movie independently, along with his friend the agent and producer Sam Jaffe. Jaffe even took out a full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter announcing “the most valuable motion picture property I have ever possessed” and warning rival filmmakers to “respect my priority rights.” He need not have worried. Will Hays, the former postmaster general entrusted with enforcing Hollywood’s moral standards, accused Jaffe and Mankiewicz of besmirching the industry with their exploitative fearmongering. Mankiewicz abandoned the project and had his name taken off the screenplay (which did not stop the Nazis from refusing to show any movie on which he had a credit).
Thereafter, as noted in Mank, Mankiewicz sponsored German-Jewish refugees and contributed to various anti-Nazi relief campaigns. On the other hand, and unlike the prominent filmmakers associated with the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, he loudly opposed American involvement in the European situation. Indeed, according to Stern, “his public pronouncements [were] frequently repugnant,” he supported the isolationists Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy, both anti-Semites, and “was so offensive on one occasion that Ernst Lubitsch ordered him out of his house.” When France was occupied, Mankiewicz went so far as to declare that Hitler was right—Jews did have too much power. Then, after Pearl Harbor, he tried to enlist.
Almost none of this figures in Mank. Rather, the movie advances a new theory linking Mankiewicz’s politics, namely his supposed identification with Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign, to the origins of Citizen Kane.
Waged under the slogan “End Poverty in California,” Sinclair’s crusade was opposed by official Hollywood, which actively supported his Republican opponent, Governor Frank Merriam. Greg Mitchell’s definitive history, Campaign of the Century (1991), locates the origin of “media politics” in Hollywood’s mobilization against Sinclair. The studios, including MGM, as shown in the movie, tithed their employees and, among other forms of support for Merriam, produced fake newsreels to discredit Sinclair. The episode is dramatized when Mankiewicz, in a showdown with his boss, Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), refuses to donate to the Merriam campaign, instead sarcastically suggesting that Thalberg use the magic of the movies to produce anti-Sinclair propaganda. He is subsequently distraught when he sees his idea come to fruition.
A few stars, among them Fredric March and (briefly) James Cagney, and a larger number of writers, notably Mankiewicz’s Algonquin colleague Dorothy Parker, supported Sinclair; in the movie, however, Mank stands alone, favoring Sinclair because the Hollywood establishment, Mayer, and Hearst so heartily loathe him. Fincher’s Mank seems to blame Hearst—the subject of an extended, corrosive attack in Sinclair’s 1919 tract on American journalism, The Brass Check—for Mayer’s acrimony, although Mayer, a past chairman of the California Republican Party, needed no prodding.
In one of Mank’s set pieces (a flashback to 1934 intercut with a 1940 scene in which Charles Lederer suggests that Marion Davies has been slandered in the script for Citizen Kane), Mankiewicz is invited to Mayer’s election night party. With Sara helplessly looking on, he makes a fool of himself betting double or nothing on a Sinclair victory. Worse follows. The scene is a setup for the high point of Oldman’s performance and the movie itself. This flashback is from 1937, by which time Mankiewicz was close to persona non grata. He drunkenly crashes a costume banquet at San Simeon to pitch his idea for an updated version of Don Quixote, with Davies playing Dulcinea and Mayer a ludicrous Sancho Panza to Hearst’s corrupt Quixote. Most of the guests have already run for cover when Mank empties the room by throwing up (which provides an occasion to use the line about the white wine coming up with the fish).
Meant to suggest an ur Citizen Kane, this imagined scenario positions the actual Kane as Mank’s revenge on Hearst. Perhaps it was; Mankiewicz had toyed with the idea of writing a play about Hearst as early as the mid-1920s, but in any case, the scenario that became Kane took form during the meetings with Welles that began in 1939. Welles then edited Mankiewicz’s unwieldy screenplay into a manageable length for shooting. According to The Brothers Mankiewicz, Mank was present on the set (and even given a cameo amid a crowd of newspapermen). Presumably he was pleased with the project, although he was reportedly startled by Welles’s unconventional technique, which was already being promoted as a sensation. “Even before its release,” Stern writes, “Citizen Kane resurrected Herman from the professional dead.”
Paradoxically, this publicity fueled the battle over the writing credit, which preoccupies much of Mank’s final scenes. The catalyst, occurring while Citizen Kane was in production, was an item in Louella Parsons’s gossip column quoting Welles to the effect that he had written the movie alone, which prompted Mankiewicz to take action—including a threat to have Welles’s credit taken away by the Screen Writers Guild. Mank ends with Mankiewicz’s Cheshire Cat smile of triumph at the grudgingly shared Oscar for best screenplay (the only one the film would win).
Citizen Kane was the climax of Mankiewicz’s career. Afterward he found work and got solo credits, most notably for Christmas Holiday, a first-rate noir with an unlikely title, directed by the German-Jewish refugee Robert Siodmak. But even post-Kane, Mank remained Mank. In March 1943 he drunkenly plowed his car head-on into a station wagon driven by his neighbor Ira Gershwin’s wife, Lee. Incredibly, the collision occurred in front of Marion Davies’s bungalow; Hearst was inside hobnobbing with the publisher of the New York Journal-American, which, along with the rest of the Hearst press, gave the accident maximum coverage. There were two trials. At one, Welles testified as a character witness.
Mankiewicz was involved in several other ambitious projects, including one to be directed by the young Nicholas Ray, arguably Hollywood’s preeminent post-Wellesian director. (Houseman, who made the match, drove cross-country with the pair, whom he described as “two of the most violently self-destructive men I have ever known.”) Perhaps looking for another Kane, Mankiewicz developed a screenplay on the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. His last completed picture, however, was The Pride of St. Louis (1952), an innocuous biopic of the Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean; he died the following year, age fifty-five. Meanwhile, as detailed by Stern, his brother Joe, whose All About Eve (1950) was something of an instant classic, ascended to the Hollywood stratosphere. (His comeuppance came with the disaster of Cleopatra in 1963.)
Mank is no documentary but a semifactual yarn—an opportunity to burnish the legend. The story of Mankiewicz and Welles is not simply a conflict between two larger-than-life individuals; it validates on a personal level the struggle of Hollywood writers for credit on the screen.
With Mank, Fincher has directed a movie written by his own father, the late journalist Jack Fincher, sometime in the 1990s, around the time his son broke into production. The younger Fincher, now fifty-eight, is among the most successful Hollywood filmmakers and indeed a pure product of the system. Having apprenticed to George Lucas and established himself as a director-producer of music videos, he took on a troubled, high-profile project, the third installment of the Alien franchise, wrestled it into release, and moved on to a series of psychological thrillers, notably Seven, Fight Club, and his strongest movie, Zodiac, an epic, obsessive procedural about the unsolved mystery of the Zodiac Killer. All studies in male pathology, they were followed by The Social Network (2010), a box office as well as critical success. In its unflattering portrayal of the rise of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network was often compared to Citizen Kane, not least because Zuckerberg made his first billion around the same age as Welles made his precocious masterpiece.
Kane may or may not be the greatest movie ever made in Hollywood, but it was surely the most audacious. Welles, who arrived in Hollywood already a celebrity, played—and drew attention to—the role of filmmaker. (Citizen Kane, as the critic Andrew Sarris put it, “infected the American cinema with the virus of artistic ambition.”)
Hollywood in 1940 was an insular place. Welles was a feared outsider; Mankiewicz was an insider who had been kicked out. Although it is evidence of the desperation felt by both men, the battle over Kane’s credit is, in the final analysis, a tempest in a teapot. Welles was a self-aggrandizing overreacher; Mankiewicz was a self-loathing underachiever who better than anyone knew the contempt with which studios regarded writers. Citizen Kane was a collaboration between a twenty-four-year-old upstart and a forty-three-year-old has-been, each convinced of his own genius, but it was not an equal collaboration. Welles took movies (as well as himself) far more seriously than Mankiewicz did, at least after The Mad Dog of Europe was crushed by the system. Mankiewicz long dreamed of something like Citizen Kane. It took Welles to make it possible. On the other hand, Mankiewicz knew how to write a screenplay. Welles did not, and, although he learned, he would not have as strong a narrative scaffolding until he began adapting Shakespeare for the screen.
Citizen Kane can be seen as a spirited expression of youth revolt (mocking arch-reactionary bugaboo Hearst) or a satire of Hollywood, reveling in the eponymous mogul’s megalomaniacal bad taste. Most significantly, it embodies the way that motion pictures can change the world. Its crucial device, attributable to either Mankiewicz or Welles, is the brilliantly contrived fake newsreel. Not the screenplay but the sight of the shaft of light as the newsreel runs out of the projector marked the end of classic, invisible cinema. Implicit in Citizen Kane is the idea that the camera lies, cinema fictionalizes, and history is something manufactured according to the needs of the present. The movie’s signal achievement was its attempt to represent the communications system of the mid-twentieth century.
Mank, by contrast, is a nostalgic celebration of Hollywood’s imagined Golden Age—doubly so in that a sizeable part of the audience will watch it on their laptops. It’s an example of the mode the French called le cinéma rétro. The preeminent American instance is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)—a film noir set in the late 1930s that impossibly simulates (and improves on) the noir’s period style. Chinatown is the noir that should have been made in 1941 if only Hollywood had had the guts. Mank is a similar pastiche with kindred aspirations, only it isn’t a critique but a corrective: a sequel to Citizen Kane as it might have been made in 1942, cleverly constructed to have a happy, or at least a Hollywood, ending.
Soon after “Raising Kane” was published it became known that Kael had herself taken undeserved credit for much of her research, which drew heavily on the work of Howard Suber, an assistant professor in the motion picture department at UCLA who for several years had been teaching a graduate seminar on Kane. According to her biographer Brian Kellow, Kael paid Suber $375 for his research and promised him a credit, which was not given. ↩