Mank: Fact or fiction – did the making of Citizen Kane happen as shown in Netflix film?

Jacob Stolworthy
·5-min read

Mank explores into an enigmatic chapter of Hollywood by telling the story behind the creation of Citizen Kane.

Directed by David Fincher, the film – which was written by his father Jack in the 1990s – stars Gary Oldman as Herman J Mankiewicz, the straight-talking playwright who was hired to create what eventually became one of the most influential films of all time.

As with The Crown, Netflix’s other recent high-profile, much of what is shown is based on fact, but artistic licence has indeed been taken.

Below, we run through the accuracy of the film’s plot points, including Mank’s friendship with Hollywood star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), the inspiration behind the decision to base the character of Charles Foster Kane on the life of William Randolph Hearst, and Mank’s working relationship with director Orson Welles.

Herman J Mankiewicz – his history and his behaviour

As shown in Mank, Mankiewicz was renowned for his reckless actions, perhaps fuelled by his alcoholic and gambling tendencies. Artistic licence is taken in regards to the timing of the flashback scenes that show Mankiewicz working at Paramount in the 1930s.

However, his fraught relationship with the studio bigwigs, who put up with his witty yet scathing putdowns largely due to his impressive skill, is based on fact.

“His behaviour, public and private, was a scandal,” wrote John Houseman. Welles summed it up well by calling him “a perfect monument of self-destruction” who was “the best company in the world” when “the bitterness wasn't focused straight at you”.

In Mank, Mankiewicz sends a telegram to Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross) in 1930 hoping to recruit him, as well as a roster of New York talent, to work for Paramount Pictures as the silent era came to an end.

Mankiewicz himself was a theatre critic and playwright, and was seen as a figure who could help usher in films with dialogue. The memoir of screenwriter Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century, reveals that Mankiewicz sent him such a telegram. He also recruited his brother Joseph L Mankiewicz who, as the film shows, had an even more successful career than Herman throughout the 1930s. That was until Citizen Kane was released in 1941.

The writing of Citizen Kane

The process of being hired to write Citizen Kane happened just like it does in the film. Welles was considered a “boy wonder” thanks to his success on radio, and he hired Mankiewicz in what would become one of the most mystifying working relationships in Hollywood history. Following the release of the film, both men made startling claims about its creation: Mank believes he wrote every single word that was used in the completed film, while Welles told Peter Bogdanovich in an interview that he incorporated moments from a second script he himself had written into the one Mank wrote.

“We’d started to waste too much time haggling. So, after mutual agreements on the story line and character, Mank went off with Houseman and did his version, while I stayed in Hollywood and wrote mine," he said. “At the end, naturally, I was the one who was making the picture, after all –who had to make the decisions. I used what I wanted of Mank’s and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own.”

<p>Orson Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz had conflicting ideas about how ‘Citizen Kane’ was written</p>Getty Images

Orson Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz had conflicting ideas about how ‘Citizen Kane’ was written

Getty Images

William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies

In the film, Mank is shown attending numerous parties held by newspaper magnate Hearst, which is based on complete fact. The only fabrications here seem to be the locations in which they take place. For example, the party scene near the end of the film when Mank offends the guests before vomiting on the floor did happen, albeit somewhere else. The quote, “Don’t worry … the white wine came up with the fish," is said to be based on fact also. These parties are where Mank would have met Hollywood star Marion Davies, with whom he has an unlikely friendship in the film. Hearst is presented as her controlling protégé. However, Mank’s wife, Sara, always claimed the friendship was based more on pity than respect. The film implies the opposite.

The politics

Novelist Upton Sinclair was a Democrat socialist who ran for governorship in Santa Monica in 1933. Sinclair's political plans terrified the state's right-wing business leaders and studio bosses, including Hearst and 20th Century Pictures' Joseph Schneck, who all united in an attempt to ruin his chances of success.

In retaliation to his growing support, the state chairman of the Republican Party, Louis B Mayer, suggested he would move MGM to Florida if he won the election. One scene in Mank shows him asking his employees to donate their salary to his opposition, Frank Merriam, and this astonishingly actually happened. However, instead of asking his staff, he alerted them to the fact their donations would be automatically removed from their pay.

<p>The real-life Marion Davies, who is played by Amanda Seyfried in 'Mank’</p>Getty Images

The real-life Marion Davies, who is played by Amanda Seyfried in 'Mank’

Getty Images

It is Mank’s involvement in this that is somewhat fabricated. Greg Mitchell's book The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, claims that many writers wrote an open letter in which they refused to donate, but fails to namecheck Mank.

We do get an idea of his political leanings, though, via the anecdote about him quietly “saving an entire village” from fascists. The grandiosity of the statement might be a stretch, but Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s biography, The Brothers Mankiewicz, notes that he did sponsor many individuals and found them work without making his actions public.

Mank is released on Netflix on Friday (4 December). Read our review here.

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