There is a short list of films I consider to be perfect; that is, I’ve watched them over and over again and they not only work every single time, but they have no weak spots and just get better and better with each viewing. Casablanca is one of those. Psycho is one of those. Jaws is one of those. Fargo is one of those. Taxi Driver is one of those. The Social Network is one of those and, of course, Citizen Kane is one of those. You can’t imagine anything making the film better, and if you removed one tiny piece of it you would ruin the whole thing. From the writing to the directing to the acting to the producing, everything just works. Even time can’t break them down. You probably have your own ideas about which movies you consider perfect, but for me it’s a short list as even most of my favorite films of all time I would not call perfect. And indeed, perfection is never a goal any artist should seek to attain – it’s just that every so often a film arrives there.
The myth about Citizen Kane is legendary – the young Orson Welles with his Mercury Theater players, a keen eye, and a whole lot of ambition made what is not-arguably the greatest film ever made. Welles has always been credited with the whole thing because in America we are beholden to the hero’s journey. That he pulled off such a brilliant hat trick at 24 is part of the myth. When you have a more honest conversation about Citizen Kane, you start talking about Gregg Toland and you eventually get to (because you must) Herman Mankiewicz.
Variety reports that David Fincher will team up with Gary Oldman for Mank, a biopic about the Oscar winning co-screenwriter on Kane for Netflix. The script was written by Fincher’s late father and will be filmed in black and white!
Although no plot details have been released about Mank, one can only assume it will have something to do with Mank’s writing of Citizen Kane, or co-writing with Orson Welles. Mank had famously spent time at William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon with Hearst’s wife, Marion Davies, which gave him such close and personal access that, it is rumored, Mank knew that Hearst had a pet name for Davies’ golden clam, Rosebud, and trolled Hearst by putting it in Kane.
What is great about the story of Kane is what it says about William Randolph Hearst directly and indirectly and what a fit Hearst had about it. He thwarted the film’s release, hurting its box office significantly. He somehow turned the film industry against Orson Welles, who was booed at the Oscars, and easily handed the Best Picture/Best Director win over to John Ford and How Green Was my Valley.
I started this website in 1999 to better understand why it was that history remembers Kane as the greatest film ever made yet it didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar. In 1999, I had no clue. Now I know because I know what the game the Oscar race ultimately is. Either way, that the film survived is a testament to the power of not just art itself, but how hard truths in art will always stand the test of time. Once you start tinkering with that by instructing people on what can and can’t be explored, joked about, or written about, you’ve killed the whole point of it. That’s what’s happening now, by the way – Citizen Kane would have been picked apart within an inch of its life were it released today for a variety of things.
What Citizen Kane would be charged with today was what David Fincher’s films overall (but the Social Network specifically) have often been charged with – as in, “why should I care about these awful people?” Indeed, you could get to the end of Kane and ask yourself the same question, but the movie takes that choice away from you anyway because ultimately it is a movie about finding the truth underneath the myth of an American legend. Even if the journalist in the movie had figured out what Rosebud was, would that have given him the key to who Kane was? It is a great film because it asks more questions than it answers.
Did Mankiewicz and Welles collaborate on Kane or did Welles take credit for what Mankiewicz had written? No man can say. Mank, who drank enough to have gotten himself kicked out of Hearsts’ famous parties and who died prematurely at the age of 55, says that yes, he wrote it, and Welles took credit and no one really cared either way. Others disagree and say that Welles had a huge part in the writing and they can prove it. By the way, the cinematographer on Kane, Gregg Toland, is also credited with many of the shots that makes Citizen Kane what it is, and many say Welles took credit for some of the innovations he didn’t deserve there too.
But, the director is the director and thus, a really good one like Welles, like Fincher, must hold the whole thing together and deliver it as a whole working piece, and if you’re needing to give credit, that will naturally be where it is due in a film. The ultimate vision and execution of Citizen Kane really does belong to Welles above all, but it also belongs to all of its essential components: Welles, Mank, the Mercury Theater players, Toland, and Robert Wise. Take away any one of them and you don’t have the greatest film ever made.
To my mind, the Social Network and Citizen Kane are both films about the folly of extreme wealth and success in America. Both films are brilliantly written and directed and both films revolve around a complicated protagonist who is hard to like but also hard to hate. What drives both films is the unending and unsatisfied loneliness of their protagonists. Both films tell an American success story with one foot in fact and one in fiction. In the Social Network, the names are the same. Mark Zuckerberg and the supporting characters are all real people, but everyone knows that it wasn’t the real Zuckerberg nor was it supposed to be. Though Zuck was both flattered and angered by the portrait of him in the film, the same could not be said for the character Citizen Kane was based on: William Randolph Hearst. Hearst wanted to ruin Welles for life. He might have ruined Welles. He could never have ruined Kane.
Fincher’s approach to this will be a departure in many ways, though he has worked in black and white before (Vogue, for instance). This will be his first film for Netflix and will once again test the Netflix model. Now you have Netflix with Scorsese, Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, David Fucking Fincher, to name a few – not to mention Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, etc.
Many of David Fincher’s films – with a few notable exceptions like Zodiac, Panic Room, and Benjamin Button – revolve around complex or dark protagonists. The story of Mank, with Gary Oldman in the lead, will likely not be one of those, considering the story around Mank was that he was brilliant, somewhat difficult, but ultimately a good guy kicked around in a system that didn’t value him enough.
As to whom can ultimately take credit for Citizen Kane, well let’s look at The Social Network. Clearly that is a film driven in large part, like Kane, by its writer – in this case, Aaron Sorkin. If you look at other work by Sorkin and other work by Fincher and similarly look at other work by Mankiewicz and other work by Welles, you can see how the collaboration between the two – not just one but both – is what makes the film what it is. So much of the Social Network is quotable, and so much of Kane is quotable – lines from both films rattle around in my head constantly.
Kane: “People will think … what I tell them to think.”
Social Network: “You better lawyer up, asshole because I’m not coming back for 30%. I’m coming back for everything.”
Kane: “You will continue with your singing, Susan.”
Social Network: “You had one friend. I was your only friend.”
Who takes credit for that scene in the Social Network? Of course, Fincher. Who else could tell that story like that?
How can you watch that scene and not think of what a director does vs. what a writer does. Welles is a master with the actors – Susan Alexander in this scene is just brilliant. Only a director can do that. Sure, it can be written in the script, but to do it that way is why Kane is a great film. Still, the line “you decided what you were going to do a long time ago” is pure Mank.
Both of these sequences are points in the film that tell us who the characters really are. They are pitch perfect scenes in pitch perfect films.
That Citizen Kane lost to How Green Was My Valley and the Social Network lost to The King’s Speech tells you what you to need to know about consensus voting overall and Oscar voting specifically.
When you start looking at those films or any films and you start hearing those lines rattling around in your head for a lifetime, you know the writer is at least half of that. But how these scenes play out must be credited with the person who is telling the story visually, the director. Editing, acting, score – all of it matters and in a perfect film it all has to be perfect. So goes the beauty of collaboration.