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Historians fact-check ‘Mank’: Who really wrote ‘Citizen Kane?’ And does ‘Rosebud’ have a hidden meaning?

  • December 05, 2020

“Mank” is now on Netflix, giving viewers a peek behind the scenes of one of the greatest films ever made. 

David Fincher’s black-and-white drama transports us back to 1930s Hollywood, where alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) – nicknamed “Mank – is commissioned to write a script about a newspaper man for rising star Orson Welles (Tom Burke). The film explores the politics and power dynamics of the studio system and how Mank’s distaste with media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) inspired Welles’ 1941 masterpiece “Citizen Kane” and its titular character, the tortured billionaire tycoon Charles Foster Kane (also played by Welles). 

After watching “Mank,” we called up two Hollywood historians to discuss what’s real and what isn’t in Netflix’s sumptuously crafted awards contender. 

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Orson Welles was responsible for making ‘Citizen Kane’ what it is 

Who “actually” wrote “Citizen Kane” has been a subject of debate among film scholars for decades, and “Mank” unsurprisingly sides with its title character. At the beginning of the movie, Mank agrees to write a first draft for Orson Welles without writing credit, understanding that Welles will likely rewrite most of it. But by the end of the film, Mank realizes this is the best script he’s ever written and demands co-writing credit, leading to a heated confrontation with Welles. The two eventually share an Oscar win for best original screenplay, but still feud in the press in the final coda of “Mank.” 

Historians have read Mank’s drafts, and “it would have been a very tired, sort of standard Hollywood biography about a rich man whining about his life, and that’s exactly what Orson Welles did not want to do,” says Harlan Lebo, author of “Citizen’s Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey.” Charles Foster Kane’s motivations and consequences “really emerged when Welles started work on it, and there were important scenes that were never in any draft that Welles wrote later during production.”

“So sure, Herman Mankiewicz absolutely had a role in making ‘Citizen Kane’ and he put down those first words,” Lebo continues. “But other than that, it became Orson Welles’ project and that’s what makes it great.”

Mank and Marion Davies weren’t really close friends 

One of the bright spots of “Mank” is the warm friendship between him and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), a free-spirited party girl and Hearst’s live-in girlfriend. The writer and starlet bond over politics and feeling like Hollywood outsiders, and Davies continues to support Mank even when rumors swirl that the character of Susan Alexander Kane in “Citizen Kane” was based heavily on her.

In reality, Davies ran in the same social circles as Mank and his wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton), but it’s highly unlikely that they were ever close confidantes.

“I don’t think Mank had a personal relationship with Marion, other than they might’ve crossed paths at Sam Simien (Hearst’s Castle) and they were both at MGM,” Lebo says. “The idea that they had an ongoing friendship during the writing of ‘Citizen Kane’ certainly didn’t happen.”

By the late 1930s, when Mank was writing “Citizen Kane,” “Herman was not welcome at San Simien because he drank a lot and Hearst didn’t want Marion drinking,” adds Sydney Ladensohn Stern, author of “The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak and Hollywood Classics.”

‘Rosebud’ was probably not named for Marion 

Late in the film, Mank’s brother, Joe (Tom Pelphrey), visits him after reading the script, calling it “the best thing you’ve ever written.” He asks Mank whether he wrote “Citizen Kane” as a way of getting back at Hearst, and if rumors are true that the movie’s famous “Rosebud” sled is actually named for Hearst’s “pet name for Marion’s genitalia,” which Mank laughs off. 

“That story has gone around. I was told it with great authority by more than one person, but I don’t believe it,” Stern says. “Rosebud was the name of a horse Herman bet on at the Kentucky Derby and won. There’s even a mule named Rosebud in (another) old movie that Herman wrote. So he had a history of equine animals named Rosebud.”

Mank didn’t inspire MGM to create ‘fake news’ 

The movie suggests that Mank was ostracized in Hollywood for voicing his support of Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye), who was painted by the media as a communist. He refuses to contribute to MGM’s anti-Sinclair fund in the 1934 California gubernatorial election.  

“You don’t need my donation. You don’t need anybody’s. You have everything it takes right here,” Mank tells studio head Irving Thahlberg (Ferdinand Kingsley). “You can make the world swear King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40. Yet you can’t convince starving voters that a socialist turncoat is a menace to everything Californians hold dear? You’re barely trying.”

Mank’s kiss-off winds up backfiring, inspiring MGM to hire actors to create fake newsreels of “voters” denouncing Sinclair and exalting Republican candidate Frank Merriam. When Sinclair ultimately loses the election, a director of those attack ads, Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane), is overcome with guilt and commits suicide.

Although fake newsreels did exist, there is no evidence that Mank inspired the studio to create them: “Herman’s offhand suggestion was not true. That was put in for motive, I believe,” Stern says.

Shelly Metcalf is also an entirely fictional character, although “others participated,” Stern says. “Joe (Mankiewicz) worked on that fake news thing. I don’t imagine enthusiastically, but he did. They both did things they weren’t enthused about. They were employees, and had to work on movies they didn’t like.”

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