The Man in the Wings: David Fincher on the Shadowy Life of Herman Mankiewicz
Herman Mankiewicz—a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter writing the first draft of Orson Welles’s 1941 biopic about William Randolph Hearst—may seem an unlikely hero for a 2020 biopic. He is rarely remembered today outside of cinephile circles, but in telling his story, David Fincher’s Mank delivers a loving tribute to Golden Age Hollywood films, a clear-eyed dissection of a company town, an unexpectedly timely depiction of 1930s fake-news shenanigans, and an unabashed homage to Citizen Kane, all wrapped up in a snappy, stylishly retro package.
Welles is rightly revered as the twenty-five-year-old wunderkind behind Citizen Kane, but when Herman Mankiewicz went to Hollywood in 1926, he, too, was a promising young man. At twenty-eight, he was not only the New York Times’ assistant theater editor under George S. Kaufman and the New Yorker’s first theater critic, he was an aspiring playwright collaborating with both Kaufman and Marc Connelly. Unfortunately, Herman was also an alcoholic with a gambling problem and a penchant for getting himself fired. So, despite despising the movie business, his periodic attempts to escape back to his native New York and his friends in the Algonquin Round Table writers’ group failed, and he remained in Hollywood for the rest of his life.
At first he was successful. As head of Paramount’s writing department, he recruited journalist friends who created the wisecracking, irreverent sensibility of many 1930s movies. He produced the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, David O. Selznick had Herman write an all-star adaptation of George Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s hit play Dinner at Eight. As the first writer assigned to The Wizard of Oz, he objected to adapting the book, then said that if the studio insisted, they should film Oz in color and shoot the Kansas sequences in black and white, a suggestion that led to the movie’s iconic use of sepia.
Mank begins soon after that, with Herman on his way east to take one more stab at rekindling his newspaper career when fate intervenes in the form of Orson Welles. Citizen Kane revitalized Herman’s career in the 1940s, but he spiraled down again, dying in 1953 at the age of fifty-five.
After that, he was largely forgotten until February 1971, when the New Yorker published a two-part, 50,000-word piece by Pauline Kael, in which she wrested away screenplay credit from Orson Welles and handed it almost entirely to Herman. Kael’s inaccurate and unfair account was actually an attempt to rebut auteur theory critics by arguing that Citizen Kane was not the product of one man’s singular genius and vision, but rather an example of the studio system at its best. Kael’s claims on Herman’s behalf were so hyperbolic and her dismissal of Welles so outrageous that although her arguments were effectively debunked at the time, Welles’s defenders have been attacking Herman ever since.
In October 2019, I published a biography of Herman and his younger, more successful brother, writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Cleopatra), and after living with Herman in my head for a decade or so, I had mixed feelings about the prospect of a David Fincher biopic. Like most biographers, I had become proprietary about my subjects, and though I imagined a movie would raise Herman’s profile, film is such a powerful medium that I knew no matter how inaccurate it might be, Fincher’s concept and Gary Oldman’s portrayal would become the prevailing version of Herman for the foreseeable future. To my immense relief, they cared very much about accuracy. So much so, in fact, that the first time I saw Herman, Joe, and Herman’s wife, Sara, up on the screen and heard them saying many of the same things they say in my book was an incredibly moving experience. They were the Herman, Joe, and Sara I had imagined. It was surreal in a good way.
David Fincher has actually been thinking about Herman decades longer than I have. He acquired his love of movies from his late father, journalist Jack Fincher, and because the two revered Citizen Kane above all, David was interested enough to seek out Kael’s piece while he was still in junior high school. The notion that Herman’s Marx Brothers sensibility and newspaper background fed into Citizen Kane intrigued him, so when Jack retired around 1991 and wanted to write a screenplay, David suggested he consider Herman as a subject. Jack liked the idea, and over the years, he wrote draft after draft while David tried to get it made. It took almost three decades to find a producer, mostly because of David’s insistence that he shoot in black and white. By the time Netflix assented, Jack, who died in 2003, did not live to see the final result. David dedicated Mank to his father.
I keep reading reviews that describe Mank as the story of the battle over screenplay credit on Citizen Kane. Many believe you support Pauline Kael’s lopsided depiction of Herman’s contribution to the movie. Some complain that Mank slights Welles.
I was never interested in Herman Mankiewicz’s conflict with Welles or anything about credit arbitration.
I don’t know why it has to be said, but apparently it’s getting lost in all this: Citizen Kane is a fucking towering achievement. Forget that Welles was twenty-five. It’s a towering achievement. He continued to have peaks and valleys, but he was masterful. He was a showman in ways that most of us in the DGA can only hope to scratch at. I always considered Welles’s legacy to be granite. With titanium inserts. I don’t think it’s possible to chip away at that.
If not to make the case for Herman writing Citizen Kane, what drew you to this minor character in Hollywood history?
To me, what was interesting about Herman Mankiewicz was not that he was in conflict with anyone. It’s that he was in conflict with everyone. Including himself.
He doesn’t kiss babies. He doesn’t save puppies from burning buildings. He’s difficult. He’s contradictory. He was a mad, careening wit who, if there was a great rejoinder, just couldn’t help himself. It was like, shave-and-a-haircut, two bits. He was like Roger Rabbit. He had to fucking do it. He had to say it for the same reason everyone around him wrote down everything he said. Because it’s pleasurable. It’s a kind of truth to power that is pleasurable for the little guy.
Look how exquisitely placed those explosive devices are. “The white wine came up with the fish.” “How to get people into theaters? Show movies in the streets.” “Perfect equilibrium: I won’t work at half the studios and the other half won’t hire me.” And yet, he never did so much damage that people didn’t adore him. Somehow the force of his true human failings and confusion and all that stuff seemed to temper the vitriol.
I thought maybe we could make a movie about him like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. About somebody whose job it is to be in the wings.
At the same time, you managed to say a lot about the motion picture industry.
I thought Herman could be an avatar to explore Hollywood. I don’t want to see a movie get shot. Next to watching people type, it’s the single most fucking boring thing you could shoot. But what I did like was this hit man. Herman was an idea hit man who could generate nine pages about Wizard of Oz that end with, “I don’t think there is a way to make it any good, so I don’t know why you’re asking me,” but then think, Let’s see, I’m making $750 a week. Oh no, I’m making $1,500 a week, so I’d better come up with something. “Okay, make the Kansas scenes in black and white and the Oz scenes in color. That’s all I’ve got for you.”
And that idea—Kansas: black and white; Oz: color; Kansas: black and white. You have this Walker Evans reveal into Technicolor and then back to Walker Evans. It may be the best special effect of all time, and this guy just tossed it off.
Let’s talk about Mank’s screenplay. You have a brilliant alcoholic with a gambling habit that keeps him permanently in debt who has been fired all over town for mouthing off to his bosses. That is historically accurate. You also have a subplot about MGM creating a campaign of fake-news advertisements to deter voters from supporting Upton Sinclair in California’s 1934 gubernatorial race. That campaign really happened, though the movie overstates Hearst’s role. But you have Herman inadvertently trigger the campaign by making a casual observation about the studio’s ability to fool the public. That is fiction. How did that get into the story?
My father’s first draft was a replay of Pauline Kael. He identified with Herman and basically wrote a credit screed. When I said I wasn’t interested, I thought that would be the end of it.
Then he came back with an idea from a documentary he’d seen about Upton Sinclair. It showed that when Sinclair ran for governor, MGM and [Louis B.] Mayer and [Irving] Thalberg and Hearst all colluded to put their finger on the scale to defeat him. I said, “There might be a handful of octogenarians whose righteous indignation would stoke this as a great second-act complicator, but it seems really quaint. I don’t see how we’re going to get the moral outrage that you hope for.”
Jack said, “No, don’t think about it that way. Think about this guy. Thirty percent of the output in his career is uncredited and he has no issue with that. He just signed a contract for no credit and didn’t think twice about it. Then he goes and writes this thing [Citizen Kane]. And suddenly, he fights to go back on his word. Something changed. What if he’d tossed off an idea like he did with ‘Kansas is in black and white,’ but it became something he wanted to take his name off of? What if that could make us see that there are certain things we want to be remembered for—and certain things we don’t?”
That got my interest. So, as Jack wrote more drafts, he began to infuse a different kind of understanding of the punch-up guy. A guy like Robert Towne. There’s a history of these people who are brought in to see clearer. That’s the notion: Herman’s a guy who sees more clearly than anyone else. He’s on his way for a drink and a three-hour lunch when he says to Thalberg [who is hitting up Herman to support the anti-Sinclair campaign], “You know, you don’t need $10 from me. You’ve got cameras, you’ve got people desperately looking for work. They’ll take five dollars a day. You can do this. Come on.”
Then he walks out. And later this thing comes back to haunt him.
At that point I was around thirty, and I think the notion of a legacy had begun to dawn on me. I’d made one movie by this time [Alien 3], and I desperately hoped a meteor would hit Deluxe Laboratories so I wouldn’t have to endure it. So I started thinking, There is an interesting frequency where this thing vibrates. And that was where we began to focus.
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