Starring David Fincher’s most recent film, Mank, it tells the story of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) and how he put together Citizen Kane’s first draft. Even if you haven’t actually seen it, you know that Kane is generally considered the greatest film of all time, is still a unique achievement almost 80 years after its release, has been endlessly parodied and has ensured that we can never hear the word “rosebud” without thinking of a specific object.
As shown in “Mank”, which lands on Netflix on December 4, the prodigy Orson Welles (Tom Burke) hires Mankiewicz – who is simply called “Mank” in the industry, as the title suggests – to write the screenplay for Welles’ directorial debut. What Mankiewicz comes up with is an extensive yet intimate character study, which is at the same time an indictment of power in America, based (according to conventional wisdom) on the life of real newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Welles knew Hearst by hearsay, but Mankiewicz knew him personally. Together, author and director draw inspiration from him to bring the fictional media mogul Charles Foster Kane to life on the big screen.
In Fincher’s film, Mankiewicz hovers between scenes in which he works tirelessly on the screenplay at a ranch in Victorville, California, and flashbacks to the time when the screenwriter wrote for the Hollywood studio system and exchanged bon mots with Hearst (Charles Dance) and his inner circle, including actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Over the course of two hours, we will see how these experiences flow into Mankiewicz’s script for Kane.
Whether people see it as a worthy companion to Citizen Kane or not, Mank will certainly be a serious Oscar contender next year. It is shot in crisp black and white, with a contemporary tone and full of rich performances that capture important figures in Hollywood history. However, the script of the film – attributed to Fincher’s late father Jack – is best enjoyed if you have a sense of who the actors are and how they relate to each other. That’s why we have compiled this primer on all the key characters in Mank.
Herman Mankiewicz (Played by Gary Oldman)
Herman Mankiewicz was described by his grandson, TCM presenter Ben Mankiewicz, as “the smartest and funniest man in the room” in a recent post on CBS Sunday Morning. (“Also the drunkenest,” the younger Mankiewicz added).
The New York-based journalist was called to Hollywood in 1926 and became one of the highest paid screenwriters at Paramount Pictures and later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. By 1936, many of the films he wrote for were no longer attributed to him. In addition to Kane, Mankiewicz worked on 60 other films, including The Wizard of Oz, The Man of the World, Dinner at Eight, The Pride of the Yankees and The Pride of St. Louis.
During his time on the West Coast, Mankiewicz made good friends with his fellow screenwriter Charles Lederer, the nephew of Marion Davies, Hearst’s lover. Mankiewicz was invited several times to Hearst’s castle in San Simeon and found Hearst to be “a resourceful, calculating, Machiavellian figure,” as Richard Meryman wrote in 1978 in his book Mank.
In 1939, after Mankiewicz broke his leg in a terrible car accident, Welles visited him in the hospital with the suggestion of writing “Citizen Kane,” according to Slate. Mankiewicz, whose career was in danger because of his alcohol and gambling problems, agreed and initially signed his loan as a screenwriter.
According to The New Yorker, the battle for the right script loan for Kane began in 1940, but Mankiewicz apparently realized that the script was worthy of his name and turned to the Screen Writers Guild. He later withdrew his appointment, but the RKO finally gave Mankiewicz the recognition as a screenwriter. Mankiewicz and Welles shared the Oscar for Kane’s screenplay, the only Oscar that the iconic film won.
In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, published in 2004, David Thomson said of the screenplay: “No one can now deny Herman Mankiewicz credit for the germ, form and pointed language of the script.
Despite the Oscar he won for Kane, Mankiewicz never worked with Welles again. He continued to write films, however, and his career flourished in the wake of Kane, although he never reached the high points of the film. Mankiewicz died in 1953 of uremic poisoning and kidney failure. He was 55 years old.
William Randolph Hearst (Played by Charles Dance)
Hearst, the newspaper magnate who built up an immense media empire at the beginning of the 20th century, is widely regarded as the inspiration for the titular character of Citizen Kane. Per Britannica, he entered the media world in the 1890s and became a competitive publisher who owned several newspapers in the United States until 1925. During his rise to power, he had a brief political career, but his real influence came from his nearly 30 newspapers and a number of magazines, as well as from various production companies and radio stations, which he also owned. According to Meryman’s Mank, Hearst had been in the media business for over 30 years when he met Mankiewicz in the early 1930s.
According to Slate, Mankiewicz and his wife were guests at the opulent Hearst Castle several times. Hearst is said to have enjoyed Mankiewicz’s presence and conversation until Mankiewicz’s alcoholism made him an unwelcome guest at Hearst’s estate.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker recently remarked: “There is now little doubt that Mankiewicz’s connection to Hearst provided the essential substance for the film; it also almost destroyed the film before it could be released. After Hearst heard that aspects of the film resembled parts of his life, he allegedly banned his newspapers from running ads for Kane and tried to portray Welles as a Communist, to name just a few of Hearst’s alleged attempts at sabotage.
During the Great Depression, Hearst’s empire (independent of Kane) began to fail, but experienced a resurgence during World War II. David Nasaw’s 2000 book The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst also notes that he focused on philanthropy in his later years. Hearst developed an irregular heartbeat in 1947, and doctors urged him to stop his work and seek medical attention, forcing him to leave San Simeon for Beverly Hills. He died in 1951 at the age of 88 from a heart attack and a stroke.
Orson Welles (Played by Tom Burke)
In 1939, Orson Welles signed a high-profile contract with RKO Pictures, which gave him remarkably much creative freedom, especially for an up-and-coming upstart in the 1920s. Welles emerged from his legendary 1938 radio show “War of the Worlds”, in which, as you know, some listeners were convinced that the space invaders had actually landed in New Jersey. For his first full-length feature film, the young author took a picture of a powerful man, similar to Hearst, and turned to Mankiewicz to work out the script in time.
Welles and Mankiewicz apparently had an agreement at the beginning of the work that Welles would get credit for the script according to The Hollywood Reporter. But the dynamic between the two seemed to become tense as the creative process progressed, as Mankiewicz allegedly tried to enlist the Writers Guild to recognize him as the sole author of the film. Mankiewicz finally received recognition for the film (highest invoice credit, via Welles) from RKO Pictures in early 1941.
Mankiewicz’s malice towards Welles, according to Barton Waley’s 2005 book, Orson Welles, intensified for the rest of his life: The Man Who Was Magical. Ultimately, however, Welles noticed the influence Mankiewicz had on the film. Decades after shooting Kane, he said (about Harlan Lebo’s book Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey from 2016): “Without Mank, it would have been a completely different picture. It suits my self-esteem to think that it would have been almost as good, but I would never have gotten to Citizen Kane the way it was without Herman.
Many feel that Welles reached his peak with Kane; at least he never made a film with as much authoritative control as The New Yorker noted. Yet he continued to star in dozens of films and worked for decades as a director and screenwriter. In 1985, Welles suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 70.
Marion Davies (Played by Amanda Seyfried)
At the beginning of Mank, Mankiewicz casually mentions that he knew Marion Davies very well. In real life they were friends, introduced by Davies’ nephew, the screenwriter Charles Lederer.
Davies became Hearst’s mistress after he saw her dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies in New York in 1917, according to the New York Times. The following year, the newspaper mogul founded Cosmopolitan Pictures to produce her films and kept them under a close, exclusive contract. Hearst used his media empire to promote Davies’ career and reportedly spent $7 million.
Slate notes that Mank describes Mankiewicz’s friendship with Davies fairly accurately, as they were “connected through their shared alcoholism. Mankiewicz’s wife, Sara, apparently insisted that her husband’s main sympathy was for the actress.
Many film audiences and historians believe that Charles Foster Kane’s screen lover, Susan Alexander, was inspired by Davies. According to You Must Remember This host Karina Longworth, Davies claimed that she and Welles never really saw Citizen Kane.
Throughout her career, Davies appeared in over 50 films, including Lights of Old Broadway (1925), Blondie of the Follies (1932) and Peg O’ My Heart (1933). However, her film career began to fade later in the 1930s, at about the same time as Hearst’s media empire.
During the Depression, Davies Hearst had to borrow $1 million to get him out of trouble, according to the New York Times. And after her acting career was long over, Davies dedicated her time to helping an ailing Hearst. She married not long after Hearst’s death and then focused on real estate investment and philanthropy. Later in life, Davies was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1961 at the age of 64 of malignant osteomyelitis (cancer of the jaw).
Joe Mankiewicz (Played by Tom Pelphrey)
“For many years (Joe) idolized (Joe) Herman,” a biographer of the Mankiewicz brothers, Sydney Ladensohn Stern, recently told Texas Public Radio.
But Joe’s career would ultimately eclipse that of his brother. Joe went to Hollywood in 1929 when Herman secured him a contract with Paramount Pictures, via The New York Times. Eventually, Joe became a far more important figure in Hollywood than Herman, who was 11 years older than him. He was a scriptwriter at Paramount, a producer at MGM and finally directed Twentieth Century Fox. The younger Mankiewicz worked on dozens of films throughout his career and won four Academy Awards for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950).
In an interview with TPR, Stern explained that the relationship between Joe and Herman was “complicated.
“Joe was in competition with Herman, although he admired him. (But) I don’t think Herman was particularly competitive with Joe. When Joe exceeded him, he certainly had mixed feelings, but he was always, even proud of him.
In 1951, Life published an article that showed a drastic difference between the two, 10 years after Herman’s success with Kane. “Somewhere along the way,” the article (about the Los Angeles Review of Books) said, “the two brothers passed each other, one going up, the other down.
After Herman’s death, according to the New York Times, Joe continued writing and directing until 1972. He died of heart failure in 1993, days before his 84th birthday.
Louis B. Mayer (Played by Arliss Howard)
Sometime early in Mankiewicz, Mankiewicz says of Mayer: “If I ever get the electric chair, I want him to sit on my lap”. This joke reflected the bad relationship that Mayer and Mankiewicz had in real life.
In September 1939, while working for MGM, Mankiewicz begged Mayer for an advance after he had lost his money gambling, according to the aforementioned Life article. Mayer agreed, but only if Mankiewicz gave up gambling. The following day Mayer caught the scriptwriter gambling again; Mankiewicz allegedly left MGM immediately.
Mayer’s biographer, Scott Eyman, noted this in his 2005 book “Lion of Hollywood”: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer that Mayer was often compared to Hearst, with whom he was friends. Hearst (who Mayer affectionately called his son), financed the studio manager’s films, while MGM films received rave reviews in the Hearst newspapers. It was a smart and profitable relationship.
The New Yorker recently noticed that Mayer and other studio heads tried to bribe RKO boss George Schaefer to buy the negative from Kane and destroy it. Schaefer refused, but Mayer was able to convince the studios, which owned the majority of the “first-rate film houses in the big cities”, not to shoot the film. As a result, Kane had not made a big impression at the box office. But this obviously did not stop him from living far beyond his first release.
Mayer was famous for filling his studio with “more stars than there are in the sky” and dominated Hollywood for decades. Some of the films that came out of his studio under his supervision are Ben-Hur (1925), Fury (1936), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone With the Wind (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1941) and An American in Paris (1951). Perhaps his greatest contribution to the world of cinema is the MGM film musicals, Eyman noted, which gained popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. After the Second World War, Mayer’s studio began a slow decline, as audiences wanted more sophisticated storylines than the sentimental films MGM offered.
According to the New York Times, Mayer left the studio in 1951 and died of leukemia in 1957, leaving a lasting legacy. The Golden Age of Hollywood would not have been the same without Mayer. As Eyman probably put it: “Louis B. Mayer defined MGM, just as MGM defined Hollywood and Hollywood defined America”.
Irving Thalberg (Played by Ferdinand Kingsley)
Another child prodigy, Irving Thalberg, was a producer in the early years of Hollywood. At the young age of 20 he was hired as production manager at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Three years later, Thalberg met with studio boss Louis B. Mayer. After their meeting, according to Karina Longworth, Mayer called Thalberg’s lawyer and said “Tell him if he works for me, I will take care of him as if he were my own son”. He then hired Thalberg as vice president and production manager at a film company that eventually became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Thalberg was bright, very successful and a workaholic who suffered a heart attack at a very young age, according to an article published in The Hollywood Reporter in 1933. His health had been very poor in the past, and doctors told him that according to Britannica he would not make it past the age of 30. Nevertheless, he worked long days and mingled with the stars all night.
Thalberg and his wife were friends of Hearst and were invited to dinner parties. Hearst insisted that Davies starred in the 1938 film Marie Antoinette, which Thalberg produced according to Slate. The producer resisted and cast his wife, actress Norma Shearer, instead. Hearst responded by withdrawing Davies from MGM and transferring her to Warner Bros. in 1935.
The young producer also tried his hand at politics. As Slate noted, Thalberg produced a series of fake newsreels to overturn the 1934 California gubernatorial election in favor of Republican Frank Merriam and away from author Upton Sinclair, who was running for Democrat. Mank’s story depends in some ways on the staged newsreels: In the film, Mankiewicz discovers that the reels – which feature fake testimony and interviews designed to make Sinclair look like the candidate of lower class people competing for a handout – were put together by Thalberg and funded by Hearst. The way Fincher tells it, seeing what some people will do to stay in power, stays with Mankiewicz and eventually colors his script for Citizen Kane.
Slate points out, however, that while Thalberg did indeed produce such material, it is not clear whether Mankiewicz was horrified by the newsreels or whether he was partly moved to write Kane because of the newsreels.
Thalberg died in 1936 after he contracted pneumonia. According to the Los Angeles Times, he was 37 years old.
Rita Alexander (Played by Lily Collins)
In Pauline Kael’s famous 1971 New York essay “Raising Kane” about Citizen Kane’s writing and Mankiewicz’s authorship (which undoubtedly had an influence on Mank himself), it says that Rita Alexander “let Mankiewicz dictate to her from the first to the last paragraph” while the screenwriter was recovering from his car accident in 1939.
Not much is known about Alexander compared to the other main characters in Mankiewicz, but she apparently served Mankiewicz as a kind of inspiration. Barton Waley’s Orson Welles: The Man Who Was Magic, notes that Mankiewicz did her the honor of naming Kane’s lover after her: Susan Alexander Kane. This may not seem very flattering, since Susan Alexander Kane is a tragic alcoholic in Citizen Kane, but, hey, having a character in one of the greatest films of all time named after you should be considered an honor. Think of it as her very own merit.