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Who actually wrote 'Citizen Kane'? David Fincher's 'Mank' revives the debate.

Dec 05. 2020
Gary Oldman stars as the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz in
Gary Oldman stars as the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz in "Mank." MUST CREDIT: Netflix. Photo by: Netflix — Handout
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By The Washington Post · Sonia Rao 

One of the greatest films ever made also generated a great controversy. In 1971, the film critic Pauline Kael wrote a 50,000-word essay revisiting the debate over who wrote 1941′s "Citizen Kane," officially credited to screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and the film's director, Orson Welles. The bold essay was published in back-to-back issues of the New Yorker.

Chief among Kael's claims was that Mankiewicz was the principal author of "Citizen Kane," an argument countering the auteurist stance that Welles - also the director, producer and star - was responsible for most of the work. Mankiewicz would have agreed with Kael. Though neither he nor Welles attended the Academy Awards, where the film won best screenplay, he said his acceptance speech would have been, "I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles's absence because the script was written in Mr. Welles's absence."

"Mank," the new Netflix film directed by David Fincher, revives this age-old debate. The screenplay is credited to Fincher's father, Jack, and favors Kael's telling of events. Anchoring the flashback-filled story are the months Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) spends on a ranch in Victorville, Calif., where he works on a draft while recovering from a car crash. Welles (Tom Burke) appears in the film, but it's mostly about Mank.

The basic details are uncontested: Mankiewicz suffered terrible injuries in a crash and, while healing, wrote for Welles's Mercury Theatre radio show. The two men agreed to work on a project inspired by the newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance in "Mank"), and the film picks up with Mankiewicz heading off to the ranch with Welles's former collaborator John Houseman (Sam Troughton), secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and a German nurse (Monika Gossmann) hired to look after Mankiewicz's health.

"Mank" also includes his decision to sign a contract giving up any writing credit on the "Citizen Kane" script, an agreement he later went back on by filing a complaint with the Screen Actors Guild.

Kael interviewed both Houseman and Alexander, who took dictation from Mankiewicz and told the critic "that Welles didn't write (or dictate) one line of the shooting script of 'Citizen Kane.' " Welles might have made suggestions early on and pointed out potential cuts, Kael stated, but Alexander held that she never even met him until after Mankiewicz had finished his first draft. Much of Kael's essay reads as a defense of screenwriters in the studio system, particularly a portion in which she remarked that "in that period, it was well known that if a producer of a film wanted a screenplay credit, it was almost impossible to prevent him from getting it."

Kael, highly regarded as a critic, received praise from many peers. In the New York Times review of a 1971 book that contained both "Raising Kane" and the actual film script, Mordecai Richler praised Kael's essay as a "highly intelligent and entertaining study of a bona-fide film classic." He also argued that her "excellent case for Mank is in the end more than somewhat vitiated by the publication of the script itself," describing it as smart but superficial. Welles's direction therefore deserved all the credit for "Citizen Kane" being a "miracle," Richler wrote, something he said "Miss Kael would be the last to deny him."

But the authorship claims, which director Peter Bogdanovich disputed in a 1972 Esquire article, remained. He spoke to Welles, his friend, who many suspected had contributed more than just an interview to the piece. Regardless, Welles claimed he penned his own draft of the script while Mankiewicz was in Victorville: "At the end, naturally, I was the one who was making the picture, after all - who made the decisions," he said. "I used what I wanted of Mank's and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own."

Aspects of "Raising Kane" continued to be discredited in the years after it was published, in part by the claim that Kael stole some of the research from an academic, Howard Suber, as well as by the notion that "her piece contained many factual errors of her own, all undetected by New Yorker fact-checkers and all contrived to reinforce her anti-auteurist argument," as Frank Rich wrote in a 2011 article for the Times.

Film scholar Robert Carringer aimed to settle the matter in his 1985 book "The Making of Citizen Kane" and the preceding 1978 essay "The Scripts of 'Citizen Kane,' " which presented a version of events widely accepted today. After evaluating a "virtually complete" set of script records at the RKO archives, he determined that "the full evidence reveals that Welles's contribution to the 'Citizen Kane' script was not only substantial but definitive." Kael seemed to base most of the "Raising Kane" argument off an early draft, he stated.

In an interview with Vulture, even Fincher offered a gentle critique of Kael. In response to a question asking him about his response to a line from "Raising Kane" - specifically that "the director should be in control, not because he's the sole creative intelligence, but because only if he is in control can he liberate and utilize the talents of his coworkers" - he said Kael knew loads more about watching movies than making them. Tons of work goes into the planning, he argued, but much of a film's vision comes down to the on-set execution.

"The movie business is an incredibly couture boutique storytelling venture," Fincher said, "and every single designer at the head of his house works in a different way. You are stitching those garments onto bodies up to the last 45 seconds before that person walks that runway."

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