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The Feud at the Center of ‘Citizen Kane’ Is a Classic Hollywood Tale

It’s a story of director versus screenwriter, legend versus fact—and it’s the foundation of David Fincher’s latest film, ‘Mank’

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Herman J. Mankiewicz, a reporter turned critic turned playwright turned screenwriter, helped shape the sound of classic Hollywood movies and lured other New York wits to California to do the same. It’s impossible to deny Mankiewicz’s importance, yet it’s also impossible to talk about him—or to depict him on film—without reigniting the battle fought about him by successive generations of partisans.

The conflict revolves around the question of who deserves credit for writing Citizen Kane, the 1941 masterpiece directed and produced by and starring a 25-year-old wunderkind named Orson Welles, who receives a cowriting credit alongside Mankiewicz. Their shared title card, however, only suggests settled business. Attempts to assign authorship to a film frequently cited as one of the greatest ever made (and often the greatest ever made) both predate Citizen Kane’s release and will likely flare up for as long as anyone cares about Kane—which is to say, as long as anyone cares about movies.

Even diplomatic attempts to address the matter, like David Fincher’s new film Mank, can’t help but get drawn in. The tussle for credit between Welles and Mankiewicz is just one element of Mank, and a late-arriving one at that. While Mankiewicz’s work on the Citizen Kane screenplay provides the framework of Fincher’s latest, the credit spat serves as only one relatively brief chapter in a larger story. Mank is extremely sympathetic to its namesake, depicting his work as the essential element without which Kane would not exist, and finding connection after connection between the screenplay and Mankiewicz’s life. But it’s also nuanced in assigning credit for the finished Citizen Kane, as Fincher has been in interviews promoting the movie. But when those interviews are reduced to headlines like “David Fincher Calls Orson Welles ‘A Showman & A Juggler’ Who Was Ruined By ‘Delusional Hubris,’” much of that nuance burns away and Fincher gets drawn into a conflict he seemingly hoped to avoid. And though that battle began with Mankiewicz and Welles themselves, it later became part of a larger clash between film critics with differing notions of how movies should be watched, and to whom they should be credited.

Mank is a movie about a particular screenwriter but it’s also about screenwriting as a profession, and stories about screenwriting are rarely happy. Mankiewicz was in many ways a professional pioneer, moving to Hollywood in 1926 to write for silent movies, then sticking around for the sound era, which made even better use of his verbal wit. “Unlike others who took seasonal contracts and used their lucrative screenwriting salaries to support what they regarded as their real work Back East,” Robert L. Carringer writes in The Making of Citizen Kane, “Mankiewicz stayed on and worked almost exclusively in films.” In a telegram to playwright Ben Hecht—Mank redirects it to screenwriter Charles Lederer, nephew of Marion Davies, the lover of Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst—Mankiewicz wrote, “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

Mankiewicz’s professional success came with ups and downs at least partly attributable to his alcoholism and compulsive gambling. At his mid-’30s peak, his name could be seen in the opening credits of films like the William Powell comedy Escapade and the early Spencer Tracy vehicle The Show-Off, but he didn’t want for uncredited work as a script polisher, either. Then it all slowed down. He continued to work, often uncredited (including some key contributions to The Wizard of Oz), but the offers all but disappeared. That made Mankiewicz open to other sources of income by 1939, like writing for The Campbell Playhouse, a radio show connected to Welles’s Mercury Theater. By then, Mercury had become a multitentacled enterprise that included Broadway plays and radio shows. Welles and his troupe of collaborators moved from New York to California in 1939, drawn by the chance to expand into film and a promise of total control from RKO Pictures president George Schaefer. The offer to work on what would become the first Mercury film proved similarly enticing to Mankiewicz. He joined the RKO payroll on February 19, 1940.

To write the film that would become Citizen Kane, Mankiewicz traveled to the desert town of Victorville, California, accompanied by his secretary Rita Alexander and John Houseman, Welles’s former Mercury Theater partner who’d agreed to work as the script’s editor. What emerged was American, a mammoth screenplay that included subplots about a presidential assassination attempt and Kane’s son joining a fascist moment, as well as scenes of Kane arranging the death of his wife’s lover. But American also contained most of what we now know as Citizen Kane, including its innovative structure in which multiple narrators share their perspective on the ultimately unknowable protagonist. More drafts followed, with Welles’s refinements, until the arrival of a “Third Revised Final Draft” in July 1940.

Mystery cloaks the nature of the collaboration. Was it Welles’s idea to base a film around the life of media mogul William Randolph Hearst or Mankiewicz’s? Certainly it couldn’t have existed without Mankiewicz’s knowledge of Hearst from time spent in his inner circle, but who first pointed in that direction? And, beyond the matter of who deserved credit, did Welles ever plan to give Mankiewicz credit of any kind? RKO paid Mankiewicz, but he’d signed a contract with the Mercury Theater, whose radio shows rarely credited writers other than Welles. Mankiewicz’s contract clearly stated that Mercury Productions Inc. would be the author of the script—he was merely an employee. Seemingly out of a desire to avoid bad publicity, the film’s closing credits attributed the screenplay to both Mankiewicz and Welles; its opening credits, however, read simply “A Mercury Production by Orson Welles.”

The fight for credit preceding that attribution spilled into the trades, preceding battles to come as to who should be considered Kane’s true author. When the film premiered to great acclaim in 1941, any tension between the two creators was overshadowed by Hearst’s attempt first to suppress the film and then tank its success. It would take several decades before controversy around the credit bubbled up again.

Pauline Kael made her national breakthrough with a refutation. Published in the spring 1963 issue of Film Quarterly, the essay “Circles and Squares” set out to tear down the “politique des auteurs.” Coined by then-critic, soon-to-be-director Francois Truffaut in 1957, the term would be anglicized as “auteur theory” and championed in America by critic Andrew Sarris. Auteur theory treated the director as the ultimate author of a film, and treated a film as valuable primarily as an expression of the auteur’s personality, style, and abiding concerns, with all other elements—and creative contributors—treated as secondary. Auteur theory also valued directors with strong styles—Hitchcock, Hawks, Fellini, and so on—over more craftsmanlike filmmakers. Kael objected, arguing in part that a recognizable directorial signature did not itself give a film value, and that moviegoers should look beyond the director for elements of greatness.

The piece put her in the center of the film conversation and led to the publication of her first collection of criticism, 1965’s I Lost It at the Movies, as well as jobs at McCall’s, The New Republic, and ultimately The New Yorker, where she worked from 1968 until her retirement in 1991. Asked to pen an introduction to a book edition of the Citizen Kane screenplay in 1968, Kael found another outlet for her fight against auteurism. Here was a film by Orson Welles, the auteursiest auteur of them all. But did he really deserve all the credit for Kane?

The result was “Raising Kane,” which championed Mankiewicz over Welles in an essay published across two issues of The New Yorker in 1971. It painted Mankiewicz as an underappreciated talent and, as such, one of a species of underappreciated Hollywood laborers: the screenwriter. In the process, Kael also championed witty early talkies over silent films (“The commonplaceness—even tawdriness—of the imagery was such a relief from all that silent ‘poetry.’”) and escapist entertainment of the ’30s over the “socially conscious” films of the ’40s. It often reads like the critical equivalent of the end of The Godfather, a settling of all scores. It also doubles as a colorful portrait of Mankiewicz, in the process of shifting the credit from Citizen Kane’s brilliance away from Welles. “Citizen Kane is a film made by a very young man of enormous spirit; he took the Mankiewicz material and he played with it, he turned it into a magic show,” she wrote backhandedly. “It is Welles’ distinctive quality as a movie director—I think it is his genius—that he never hides his cleverness, that he makes it possible for us not only to enjoy what he does but to share his enjoyment in doing it.”

The piece became a must-read blockbuster for The New Yorker and Kael, and it remains an enthralling read that thoughtfully analyzes Mankiewicz’s work. As a work of scholarship, however, it had problems that didn’t take long to surface. Kael relied heavily on the research of film historian Howard Suber, to whom, ironically, she gave no credit. She took the stories of Mankiewicz’s widow and the memories of Houseman at face value. She never talked to Welles. Director Peter Bogdanovich—with input from Welles, a friend—pointed out some of these errors in “The Kane Mutiny,” in Esquire, directly responding to Kael. But beyond the mistakes, he also claimed prejudice. Welles, his fortunes having fallen, had become an easy target, especially in light of a none-too-flattering depiction in a memoir by Houseman, Kael’s alleged primary source. Apart from a final paragraph reiterating that every filmmaker now working owed a debt to Welles, Bogdanovich let the director have the last word, quoting a letter in which Welles worried what his grandchildren would think of him thanks to Kael and Houseman. “Cleaning up after Miss Kael is going to take a lot of scrubbing,” the director concluded.

Welles was right, but only to a point. If anything, his reputation has only grown in the years since his death, thanks to reassessments and restorations of later films like Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight. 2018 even saw the release of a “new” Welles film via Netflix, the posthumously completed The Other Side of the Wind, which confirmed him as a director who kept up a desire to experiment years after Kane. If the subtext of “Raising Kane” is that Welles would be nothing without the specific contributors who joined him on Citizen Kane—Mankiewicz, but also cinematographer Gregg Toland—the conventional wisdom that it was all downhill for the former boy wonder after Kane (or maybe The Magnificent Ambersons) has long since faded. And if “Raising Kane” ultimately proved too off-base to swing the conversation away from auteurism, auteurism in its purest form no longer dominates the critical conversation.

Played by Tom Burke, the Welles of Mank emerges as, if not spotless, hardly a villain. He’s more an egotist who backs down from his attempt at credit-grubbing when called on it, though not without first throwing a bottle-smashing fit. Based on Fincher’s interview with Vulture’s Mark Harris, this touch departs from the original Mank screenplay, written by Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher, at his son’s suggestion, in the ’90s. “When I read his first draft, I thought, ‘This is kind of a takedown of Welles,’” he says.

Some of the Mankiewicz stories and witty lines recounted by Kael do make it into the finished version of Mank, whose screenplay was reworked by Fincher with screenwriter Eric Roth. (Jack Fincher died in 2003.) The film lets scenes of Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) laboring over the screenplay speak for themselves, but it also never depicts any of the filmmaking process after the screenplay’s completion, leaving the question of who did what unanswered. It plays like a pushback against the idea of Welles as a genius with no need for collaborators, but portrays a gentler, more informed version than Kael—and also one that does nothing to suggest the final film is any less Welles’s accomplishment because of the collaboration.

It’s a take informed by Fincher’s own experiences in the film industry. After becoming the defining director of music videos in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Fincher made a difficult transition into features via the troubled Alien 3, which he describes to Harris as working as “a hired gun to make a library title for a multinational, vertically integrated media conglomerate.” The experience gave him a new perspective on the importance of collaboration, but also made him commit to making movies on his own terms or not at all. That independent streak and desire for control over his films has also made Fincher something of an outlier now that library titles for multinational, vertically integrated media conglomerates have become the dominant form of Hollywood filmmaking. That Mank was made for Netflix is a statement in itself.

In one of Mank’s most memorable scenes, a flashback to when its protagonist was one of the most in-demand writers in town, Mankiewicz and a collection of other top-shelf writers (Hecht, S.J. Perelman, and George S. Kaufman among them) work up an improvised pitch for David O. Selznick and Josef von Sternberg. They deliver it exquisite corpse style, with each tagging off the last detail provided by his predecessor. The result is a ridiculous-sounding Frankenstein-inspired story about a traveling mad scientist tailored on the spot to suit the commercial tastes of the day. The pitch falls flat not because the task is beyond their abilities but because it’s beneath them. The younger Mankiewicz appears world-weary even before drink and disillusionment get the better of him, but he also knows he’s capable of better things given the chance. Mank depicts Citizen Kane as just that too-rare chance. It champions Mankiewicz not at the expense of the more famous (and, yes, quick to take credit) Welles, but because, like Welles, Mankiewicz wanted to push past what had been done before; to see what else could be done, no matter who got hurt or how many rules had to be broken. That desire might have proved to be the two creators’ undoing—but who else can say they made Citizen Kane?

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.