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‘Citizen Kane’ writer led a wild life of genius and self-destruction
When you think of “Citizen Kane,” considered by many critics to be the greatest movie ever made, one name comes to mind: Orson Welles. That towering auteur with a smoldering voice directed and starred in the 1941 film. He wrote it, too.
Or did he?
For many years, experts such as New Yorker critic Pauline Kael have controversially speculated that another man, his co-writer Herman Mankiewicz, was the sole brain behind the “Kane.”
The new Netflix film, David Fincher’s “Mank” starring Gary Oldman, hews to that version of the story, which is still disputed by many others. Herman’s late son, Frank, also thought his dad deserved all the credit in his 2016 memoir “So As I Was Saying . . . : My Somewhat Eventful Life.”
“My father used to quote Rita Alexander, played so wonderfully on the screen by Lily Collins, when asked about how much Welles wrote of the screenplay,” Herman’s grandson and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz told The Post. “Her response was, ‘Not one word.’ ”
“Mank” is the rare Hollywood film about a screenwriter, a job so vital to the movie business, but lacking the glitz, name recognition, control of a dressing room or the director’s chair. Mankiewicz, however, was no normal screenwriter.
During the roaring ’20s in New York, Mankiewicz was the theater critic for the New York Times and would luxuriate in daylong poker games with Ring Lardner and Harpo Marx. By the time he arrived in Hollywood in the late ’20s, he was a notorious wit — and drinker.
When Mankiewicz was writing the script for “Citizen Kane” in 1940, Welles put him up in a ranch house in the Mojave desert to create in peace, but the man’s boozy reputation preceded him. “No pair of internal revenue agents could have been more diligent in their daily inspection of Mank’s room for intoxicants,” producer John Houseman said in Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s book “The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak and Hollywood.”
“He was drunk a lot, but my dad says never mean, ever,” Ben added. “Except maybe to studio moguls.”
Mankiewicz found the perfect arrangement for his blunt honesty that regularly lost him jobs and friends. A pal who respected him, 25-year-old Broadway hotshot Welles, had a two-picture deal with RKO that specified no studio interference. He asked Mank to write a first draft, and the pair decided on a nervy topic — power-publisher William Randolph Hearst.
Mankiewicz knew the guy well. Hearst was the owner of the largest newspaper chain in the country and a former congressman, who hosted notables such as Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Amelia Earhart at his giant San Simeon manse in California, the model for Xanadu in “Kane.”
But it was Mankiewicz who often scored the coveted seat at the dining table right next to the influential host he would soon eviscerate in the Oscar-winning film.
“I don’t know how complimentary it was,” his wife Sara told Stern of the assigned seat. “Because the rest of the party was sometimes quite uninformed, let us say, about all of these things, and Herman was a very astute student of politics and literature.”
Mankiewicz liked Hearst, too, despite his occasional support of European fascists.
“It was impossible not to be completely captivated by him,” Mankiewicz said a decade after “Kane.” “Though you differed violently with what at the moment he stood for politically, which on the other hand, might be the exact opposite the next morning.”
The two eventually had a falling out according to Stern, in part due to Mankiewicz’s alcoholism that enabled Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies.
The stand-in for Hearst in “Citizen Kane” is called Charles Foster Kane, memorably played by Welles. Not only do we see him die of old age at the beginning of the film, but also watch as he goes from brilliant entrepreneur to psychotic hermit. His wife Susan, modeled after Davies, leaves him.
Hearst wasn’t pleased at his depiction, or that of Davies, and after the film screened in Hollywood, he commanded that none of his mighty publications run ads for it. “Citizen Kane” barely squeaked by at the box office, and won just one of its nine 1941 Oscar nominations — Best Screenplay, for Welles and Mankiewicz.
And, to think, Mankiewicz nearly wasn’t named as one the film’s writers. Welles was contractually guaranteed sole credit by RKO, but in the end, Mankiewicz asked and Welles relented, cementing his collaborator’s legacy. Mankiewicz died 12 years later in 1953 at age 55, his career having largely fizzled out.
“Herman blew things up,” Ben said. “He blew things up with studio bosses that cost him his job. He blew up his own finances. He cost himself his career.
“Herman was fighting these demons, this constant shame that he had not fulfilled his potential, and was doing something meaningless,” he added. “And asking for the credit on ‘Kane’ was the moment he realized he’d written something great — something that mattered.”