The man who would be Kane

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Citizen Kane is 70 years old this month and is acknowledged as a masterpiece from actor/director Orson Welles. But, let’s not do what he did and forget screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Orson Welles was a dictator — a loud, overbearing brilliant control freak and a genuine cinematic genius, but a dictator nonetheless. And he wasn’t too keen to correct people when they attributed all the success of Citizen Kane to his work. “Theatre is a collective experience; cinema is the work of one single person,” he once said, typifying his pompous nature. Speaking about Welles’ self-importance, Herman Mankiewicz, the screenwriter who penned Citizen Kane stated: “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

Mankiewicz began as a journalist, first in Berlin and then in New York, where he garnered a reputation as a wit and bon vivant. He based the film’s lead character, Charles Foster Kane, on publisher William Randolph Hearst – much to the latter’s annoyance. Mankiewicz had become a friend of both Hearst and Marion Davies, the actress with whom Hearst was having a relationship, and he frequented Hearst’s parties until his alcohol-related antics got him barred, but he used this access to inspire his story.

Hearst couldn’t prevent the film à clef being released, despite attempts to do so, but did succeed in persuading cinemas to reduce its run, so Citizen Kane made less than originally hoped for at the box office upon its release. Critically, however, the film was well received and its reputation grew. Mankiewicz, alas, is often forgotten and pre-publicity for the film regularly claimed that Welles wrote, directed and starred in the movie. In a letter to his father, Mankiewicz wrote: “I’m particularly furious at the incredibly insolent description of how Orson wrote his masterpiece. The fact is that there isn’t one single line in the picture that wasn’t in writing – writing from and by me – before ever a camera turned.”

Rita Alexander, a secretary hired by Mankiewicz, claimed she “took the dictation from Mankiewicz from the first paragraph to the last… and later did the final rewriting and the cuts, and handled the script at the studio until after the film was shot… Welles didn’t write (or dictate) one line of the shooting script of Citizen Kane.” Welles disputes this, but as was revealed by Pauline Kael’s 1971 essay “Raising Kane”, even the key part that was not based on Hearst was from Mankiewicz’s life. “He had had a sled, which may or may not have carried the label Rosebud (his family doesn’t remember); he wasn’t dramatically parted from the sled, but he once had a bicycle that was stolen, and he mourned that all his life. He simply put the emotion of the one onto the other.” The more enduring legend, however, is that Mankiewicz knew Rosebud was Hearst’s pet name for a certain part of his lover’s anatomy, and gave the sled this name to provoke him still further.

Few dared dispute Welles’ authorship, however, and both he and Mankiewicz were credited with the screenplay, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Mankiewicz didn’t attend the ceremony. Instead he sat at home pretending not to be interested in the coverage playing on the radio. According to his wife he barely reacted when his name was called out for the Best Writing award.

One man who never forgot Mankiewicz’s contribution was Hearst himself, and through his papers he persecuted him so constantly that Mankiewicz appealed to the American Civil Liberties Union. It was a troubled end to a short life. Mank liked a drink (In Frank Brady’s biography of Welles it describes him as “…a legend of acerbic wit, outrageous social behaviour, and advanced alcoholism.”) and in March of 1953 he died of kidney failure. He was just 55. Sadly his demise was overshadowed in the press as Joseph Stalin also died that day. Even in death he remained a distant second-billing to a dictator.

Welles, meanwhile, struggled to live up to the youthful prodigy tag. His last acting role was providing the voice of Unicron in a mid 80s Transformers cartoon; a humbling end for the great dictatorial director. He didn’t live to see its release, but by now he’d outlived Mankiewicz by 33 years and had spent his life taking all the credit for the film that’s regarded by many to be the greatest of all time.

For Esquire magazine, May 2011

For original PDF click here – Citizen Kane

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