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The ‘Citizen Kane’ Screenplay Controversy

The real story behind the events that inspired David Fincher’s new movie about one of Hollywood’s great controversies.
Citizen Kane
By  · Published on July 16th, 2019

We’ve been impatiently waiting for an announcement about David Fincher‘s next movie and finally have some good news. Deadline reports that he’ll be teaming up with Netflix for a black and white biography chronicling the life of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his involvement in the creation of Citizen Kane. Titled Mank, the movie will star Gary Oldman as the titular protagonist.

Of course, Fincher is no stranger to biopics about figures involved in feuds. In 2010, he helmed The Social Network, which tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook and how it led to a lawsuit. Since then, there have been rumors of a sequel in the works. However, Fincher isn’t the kind of filmmaker who repeats himself, so a story about a brand new famous figurehead is exciting.

Given the iconic status of Orson Welles and his most famous and widely revered film, it’s easy to overlook the behind the scenes drama surrounding its production. The role of Welles as director, star, and producer of Citizen Kane is undisputed, but the authorship of its Oscar-winning screenplay is a different matter.

When Welles was approached to make Citizen Kane, RKO Pictures needed a hit film to get the studio back on track. Having made a name for himself in the world of theater and the notorious The War of the Worlds radio drama, RKO felt he was a creative force capable of turning their fortunes around.

Welles agreed to make the movie for RKO under the condition that he received creative freedom throughout the entire process. At the time, giving so much power and responsibility to a relatively untested director of films was rare, but in the end, the studio took a chance on him.

Welles had built a reputation as a creative genius, but most of his theater and radio works were secret collaborations. When he worked with the Mercury Theatre, he allegedly took credit for the projects he was involved with. For example, Howard Koch actually wrote the War of the Worlds radio drama, but after it generated lots of publicity, Welles claimed authorship.

That said, the Mercury Theatre encouraged Welles to take credit for its productions. His name and reputation attracted good press, after all, and his employers were more than happy to take advantage of his growing profile.

Unfortunately for Welles, Hollywood wasn’t as accepting of him as his old theater buddies. Although he had a key role in writing Citizen Kane, his co-creators wanted their rightful acknowledgment.

Apparently, the genesis for Citizen Kane came from Mankiewicz, who collaborated with Welles’ theater cohort John Houseman on the initial draft of the script. Mankiewicz was well acquainted with William Randolph Hearst, upon whom the film’s protagonist is supposedly based. Given that the character resembles the real Hearst in many ways, it’s highly unlikely that Welles came up with his characteristics on his own since he didn’t know Hearst at the time.

According to Mankiewicz’s son Frank, Welles didn’t write a single word of the script. In his memoir So I Was Saying, he claims that his father agreed to shared credit as a favor to Welles because his agreement with RKO stated that the director had to contribute to the script in order to be fully paid. He also supports findings discussed in Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Raising Kane,” which claims Welles’ involvement was minimal at most.

Evidence to the contrary disputes these allegations, however. In Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey, author Harlan Lebo states that Welles revised the script extensively and wrote some scenes from scratch. His findings were based on script drafts and notes by Welles he found at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and at the University of Michigan.

In the end, Welles agreed to co-credit Mankiewicz after the screenwriter threatened him with a lawsuit. On top of that, Mankiewicz had the backing of a Hollywood writers’ union behind him, which put extra pressure on Welles to give in.

When Citizen Kane went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, both men were given Oscars. But if Welles had his way, Mankiewicz’s contributions to the script would have remained a secret.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.