Top 10 Things Mank Got Factually Right and Wrong
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Top 10 Things Mank Got Factually Right and Wrong

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
Biopics have a tendency to inflate the truth. How did this one do? For this list, we'll be looking at what's fact and what's fiction in this Netflix biopic about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Our countdown includes Mank's Election Bet, Marion Davies' Portrayal, Upton Sinclair Inspired Mank, and more!

Top 10 Things Mank Got Factually Right and Wrong

Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Things Mank Got Factually Right and Wrong.

For this list, we’ll be looking at what’s fact and what’s fiction in this Netflix biopic about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

How do you think “Mank” measured up to “Citizen Kane?” Let us know in the comments.

#10: One of Welles’ Outbursts Inspired a Scene

Towards the film’s conclusion, Orson Welles is infuriated to learn that Mankiewicz wants credit for co-writing “Citizen Kane,” despite their previous agreement. Although Welles ultimately relents, he’s prompted to angrily throw a box across the room. This, in turn, inspires Mankiewicz to contribute a scene where Susan Alexander leaves Charles Foster Kane and he starts tearing her bedroom apart. While that sounds too dramatically convenient to be true, this crucial scene did indeed stem from Welles’ short temper, although not under the same circumstances seen here. According to John Houseman, who collaborated with Welles on several projects, the scene was inspired by a confrontation where Welles threw flaming Sterno cans at him. Despite the change, you can see why Welles was tailored to play Kane.

#9: Mank’s Election Bet

Mankiewicz was notorious for making outrageous bets, which we’ll discuss in greater detail later. So, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched to think that he actually bet Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg that Democratic party nominee Upton Sinclair would upset incumbent Frank Merriam in the race for governor of California. Making the wager even more extravagant, Mankiewicz doubles a debt that had been forgiven, putting $24,000 on the line. While this sounds on-brand for Mankiewicz, there’s no evidence showing that he placed this bet or that he even supported Sinclair. Nevertheless, the scene does capture Hollywood’s political climate in 1934 and the general enmity towards the former socialist. It also touches upon Mankiewicz’s outspoken nature and his difficult yet enduring marriage to “Poor Sara.”

#8: Mank Saved His Housekeeper’s Village From Fascism

Mankiewicz’s nurse/housekeeper, Fräulein Frieda, explains that she puts up with her employer’s excessive drinking because he got her village, her family, and herself out of Germany. She claims that Mankiewicz saved nearly 100 people from Nazi tyranny, which is true and false. Mankiewicz didn’t sponsor his nurse’s village as the movie suggests. However, Mankiewicz - himself the son of German Jewish immigrants - did help Jewish refugees escape from Europe and find work in the US. He also wrote an unfilmed 1933 script entitled “The Mad Dog of Europe,” warning of Hitler’s inevitable actions. According to the biography, “Mank: The Wit, World and Life of Herman Mankiewicz,” “Herman became the official sponsor for hundreds of German refugees and took responsibility for total strangers fleeing to America.”

#7: Mank’s Addictions

As mentioned before, Mankiewicz was a compulsive gambler. While the filmmakers took liberties with the election bet, Mankiewicz did lose a significant sum over a coin toss - $1,000 to be precise. What the filmmakers and Gary Oldman really get down, however, is Mankiewicz’s alcoholism. In addition to taking a toll on his marriage, friendships, and professional life, the bottle would sadly lead to his ultimate demise. Mankiewicz’s years of heavy drinking caught up to him on March 5, 1953, about twelve years after “Citizen Kane” was released. The famed screenwriter died from uremic poisoning at the age of 55. According to biographer Scott Eyman, Mankiewicz compared himself to “a rat in a trap of [his] own construction” a decade before succumbing to his alcoholism.

#6: Mank’s Contract & Screen Credit

While the film takes a clear stance, it’s still debated w ho was mainly responsible for writing the Oscar-winning screenplay for “Citizen Kane.” Had Mankiewicz given an acceptance speech, he claims he would’ve remarked, “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’ absence, because the script was written in Mr. Welles’ absence.” Welles, who didn’t attend the Oscars either, stated, “I used what I wanted of Mank’s and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own.” In any case, three things are for sure. Mankiewicz initially signed a contract forgoing credit. Mankiewicz later decided that he wanted credit, leading to an argument with Welles. Mankiewicz won the argument, but was still largely overshadowed by the film’s director, star, producer, and co-screenwriter.

#5: Marion Davies’ Portrayal

The film’s depiction of Marion Davies is mostly dead-on, as is Amanda Seyfried’s witty performance. The longtime mistress of William Randolph Hearst, Davies did form a friendship with Mankiewicz, although it’s debatable exactly how close they were. The scene where she tries to persuade him not to release “Citizen Kane,” for example, is purely fictional. Like Mankiewicz, though, Davies also struggled with alcoholism, which created a mutual bond. Whether intentional or not, it’s widely believed that Davies served as the inspiration for Susan Alexander Kane. Where Susan had little to no talent, however, Davies was an accomplished actress, comedien, writer, and producer. Davies might’ve achieved even more had she been cast as Marie Antoinette, a role that ultimately went to Irving Thalberg wife, Norma Shearer.

#4: Mank’s Condition While Writing “Citizen Kane”

Throughout the film, Mankiewicz is seen in bed with a broken leg and a looming deadline to finish his first draft. This framing device paints an accurate portrait of Mankiewicz’s conditions as he devised his greatest work. In September 1939, Mankiewicz shattered his leg in a car accident. Recouping in the hospital, Mankiewicz was paid a visit from Welles, who offered him a gig writing for “The Campbell Playhouse.” The two eventually decided to collaborate on the project that would become “Citizen Kane.” In 1940, Mankiewicz started working on the screenplay at a ranch in Victorville, California where alcohol was not permitted. During this period, Mankiewicz was aided by producer John Houseman and secretary Rita Alexander, who inspired Susan Alexander’s name.

#3: Mank’s Drunken Pitch

In a powerhouse scene, a drunken Mankiewicz goes on a tirade at William Randolph Hearst’s castle. Taking shots at Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, and the other guests, Mankiewicz essentially pitches the idea for “Citizen Kane.” It is true that Mankiewicz was a regular at Hearst’s parties. Hearst liked listening to Mankiewicz’s witticisms, although he was no longer welcome after attempting to get Davies drunk. It’s also true that Mankiewicz once vomited at a dinner party, prompting his white wine and fish remark, although this happened at producer Arthur Hornblow Jr.’s residence. As for Mankiewicz’s impassioned Don Quixote speech seen in the film, it certainly provides an Oscar-worthy acting showcase for Oldman, but there’s no record of this incident actually happening.

#2: Upton Sinclair Inspired Mank

Politics might’ve played a key role in “Citizen Kane,” but Upton Sinclair wasn’t a major source of inspiration as “Mank” suggests. While Thalberg was behind a smear campaign against Sinclair, Mankiewicz’s comments didn’t inadvertently inspire these bogus newsreels. Therefore, Mankiewicz never approached Davies about getting the newsreels pulled. The timing here is also off, as Davies wouldn’t make her exit from MGM until after the election. It is true that Mankiewicz donated to Merriam’s campaign, although he wasn’t necessarily pressured into doing so. Mankiewicz’s friend Shelly Metcalf, who makes propaganda films for Merriam despite supporting Sinclair, is fictional as well. This character is loosely inspired by director Felix E. Feist, although he didn’t suffer from Parkinson’s disease or take his own life.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

MGM Cut Salaries, Right
Not Even the Hollywood Elite Were Safe from The Great Depression

Rita Alexander’s Husband Was an RAF Pilot, Wrong
Her Husband Was a European Refugee Who Had Recently Arrived in the U.S.

Mank’s Animosity Towards “The Wizard of Oz,” Right
Mankiewicz Was a Writer on the 1939 Classic, Although He Wasn’t Credited

#1: William Randolph Hearst = Charles Foster Kane

While Joseph Pulitzer, Samuel Insull, and Harold McCormick also served as inspiration, William Randolph Hearst shared the most parallels with Mr. Kane. Both men were newspaper publishers whose wealth was only matched by their power and influence. Thus, when Hearst caught wind of “Citizen Kane,” he used all of the tools at his disposal to bury the film. Not only did he ban any mention of the film from his papers, but members of his inner circle also targeted Welles. Louis B. Mayer and a few other bigwigs unsuccessfully tried paying RKO Pictures to destroy the film. Despite Hearst’s efforts, “Citizen Kane” was a modest box office success, won an Oscar, and is today recognized by many outlets as the greatest film of all time.