The Man in the Wings: David Fincher on the Shadowy Life of Herman Mankiewicz

Sydney Ladensohn Stern
January 14, 2021
Criterion

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.

Read the full interview

The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics.
By Sydney Ladensohn Stern:

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