Can a fictional film damage a real person’s reputation? William Randolph Hearst certainly thought so, as he mobilised to stop the screenplay of Citizen Kane being turned into a movie. Charles Foster Kane was modelled, blatantly and pointedly, on Hearst himself, and within its fiction, Citizen Kane contained some painful, and subversive truths. That’s a moment captured in David Fincher’s fascinating new film Mank, which dramatises the process by which Herman J. Mankiewicz, holed up in a desert ranch with a collection of broken bones, wrote that incendiary movie script. And also, how his words were received in San Simeon, Hearst’s famous Californian castle.
Naturally, the film unfolds via a series of flashbacks, Kane-style, including a fun scene in which the MGM writing room pitches a remake of Caligari to Irving Thalberg, off-the-cuff. The central dramatic tension here is not between Mankiewicz (played here by Gary Oldman) and Tom Burke’s Orson Welles (although there was plenty of aggro there), but Mank’s previous encounters with Hearst (Charles Dance), and Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more than studio politics at stake, but actual politics too – here we see the genesis of Citizen Kane, which is here explicitly Mankiewicz’s revenge on Hearst. But while there no love lost between the men at the table, Mank does have a soft spot for Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, played here radiantly by Amanda Seyfried.
This is a platonic, playful friendship, and among Mank’s cast of fulminating and frustrated men in suits, Marion’s scenes leap off the screen. Marion and Mank chat while admiring the San Simeon elephants, while sipping from a flask hidden in one of the terraces’ stone benches – what’s not to love? Mank and Marion are great pals, who enjoy each other’s company and see the best in each other. Seyfried’s performance is every bit as captivating as Oldman’s, bursting through the heavy makeup she wears as Marion. Their dialogues are wonderful, but there is one devastating scene in which Marion sits silently horrified while Mank delivers a bitter, drunken monologue to her and Hearst’s guests at San Simeon. Seyfried proves an excellent silent actress, which is just as well, because she doesn’t have any lines.
Which brings us to an uncomfortable problem with Citizen Kane. Why did Mankiewicz expose his enemy Hearst by writing the undignified truth about him, but also humiliate his friend Davies by distorting her image with untruths? To summarise, a little bluntly: in the movie, Kane’s mistress and second wife is a talentless and lonely alcoholic with naïve dreams of being a great opera singer. Davies was a talented comic actress, whose films were very profitable. She was also an extremely popular person, whose career was stymied only because of Hearst’s insistence that she play prestige dramatic roles. Welles ferociously denied there was any connection between Davies and the fictional character of Susan Alexander Kane:
“That Susan was Kane’s wife and Marion was Hearst’s mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today’s changed climate of opinion. The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. … The mistress was never one of Hearst’s possessions: he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than 30 years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.”
And yet Hearst read the script as an insult to Davies and many people fear that the mud, as it were, has stuck. Mank explains in full why Mankiewicz wanted to attack Hearst, but offers only one reason why his screenplay diminished his friend Davies. Some people, Mank asserts are headliners, and others are merely secondary characters. That’s a dramatist’s distinction, not the words of a friend.
What makes Davies a secondary character though? I can’t possibly imagine. Mank tantalises the audience by giving us a glimpse of Davies’s brilliance, and then pushing her back to the sidelines. Because … she’s a secondary character, a distraction from the wranglings of men over their own legacies. Davies has a legacy worth protecting too, as anyone who has seen The Patsy or Show People, or any number of her other films, can tell you.
If you want to discover the truth about Marion Davies, you can read the many testimonies of her Hollywood friends in their own memoirs, you can even read her own autobiography of sorts (The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst) if you can find it. But I recommend you wait a little, until 2022, and the publication of Lara Fowler’s impressively researched biography, Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies (University of California Press). It’s bound to be worth a read, because the work Fowler has done already is exemplary, and because Davies deserves to be more than just a secondary character in someone else’s life story – whether that story belongs to Hearst, or Mankiewicz or anybody else.
- Mank is released on Netflix on 4 December
- Citizen Kane is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
- I programmed a film season! Marlene Dietrich: Falling in Love Again plays at BFI Southbank in December and includes the wonderful silent film she starred in: The Three Lovers/The Woman Men Yearn For (Curtis Bernhardt, 1929)
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