On Netflix, Mank is answering one of the most conscientious questions among fans of classic Hollywood cinema: Who exactly wrote Citizen Kane?
Herman Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman in Mank) and director Orson Welles (Tom Burke) wrote the screenplay for what many consider to be the greatest movie ever made.
However, exactly how much Mank and how much Welles is has been the source of many books and many discussions among film lovers for years.
Mank approaches the question in a fairly unbiased way, observing Mankiewicz during the drafting of the script and Welles during the editing. The film also claims that the original deal was that Welles would get full credit for the script, only that Mank would resign after writing the script and realizing how good it was.
If this is the case, then it was a smart move on his part – in 1942 he won the Oscar for best original script, the only Oscar the film received, and the only one Mankiewicz won in his 30-year career as a screenwriter.
The fact that the film is so revered and yet only won the screenplay Oscar could explain why the question of who wrote the film is so controversial. Opinions range from the critic Pauline Kael and Mankiewicz’s son Frank, who argued that the script was entirely Mank, to the historian Harlan Lebo, who in his book Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey explained that Welles got his contractual credit by significantly reworking the script.
Among those who made the latter argument was Citizen Kane’s composer Bernard Herrmann, who in 1972 told Sight & Sound magazine: “The greatest thing that ever happened to Herman Mankiewicz was that he met Welles and not the other way around. Had Welles not created Kane, he would have made other equally remarkable pictures. Mankiewicz’s credits show no other remarkable scripts. His only moment in the sun was when he met Orson Welles.”
Lebo’s report contains significant evidence. The journalist based his argumentation on two scripts for the film, which are in the New York MoMA and the University of Michigan respectively. It shows that Welles fundamentally changed the script of Citizen Kane, including new scenes and some of the best lines of the film. For example, the line in which Kane (played by Welles) Bernstein (Everett Sloane) says, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have become a really great man,” seems to have been written by the director.
The scripts dug up by Lebo even showed differences of opinion between Mankiewicz and Welles, the change in the latter being the one that ended up in the film. For example, a note after a change written by Welles’ assistant Kathryn Trosper Popper reads: “Welles: Loves it. Mank: It stinks!”
The most iconic element of the film, however, seems to come from Mankiewicz: “Rosebud”, the last words of Citizen Kane, whose meaning the different characters seek throughout the film (there are no spoilers here for an 80-year-old film). Actually, it was an element of the film that Welles hated, and he called it, as is well known, a “Freudian dollar book gag”.
However, the mystery surrounding this line seems to have given Mank the idea. His son claimed it was named after a bicycle from his childhood that the writer owned, while others claim it was taken from a horse named Old Rosebud, which the writer won big at the Kentucky Derby around the same time he was working on the Kane script.
Mank can now be seen on Netflix.