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Who Wrote ‘Citizen Kane’? It’s a Mystery Even If You Know the Answer (Column)

Who Wrote ‘Citizen Kane’? It’s a Mystery Even If You Know the Answer (Column)

11/28/2020 9:56:00 PM

Who Wrote ‘Citizen Kane’? It’s a Mystery Even If You Know the Answer (Column)

For all the piles of research and miles of column inches that have been devoted to it, the controversy over the creative authorship of “Citizen Kane” — a kerfuffle that’s now 50 years o…

In other words…done and done. Case closed. End of controversy.But not really. Because even once you accept that Orson Wellesdiddeserve the co-screenplay credit for “Citizen Kane,” there’s a question that lingers, and it’s the mystery that I think Kael tried (unsuccessfully) to poke at. Kael’s essay, among other things, was a kind of backhanded meditation on the inner meaning of what a screenplay

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is. And the reason that question creates such an endless conundrum when we think of “Citizen Kane” is that “Kane” was the Hollywood movie that changed the answer to it.If you believe, as I do, that “Kane” is the greatest movie to have come out of classic Hollywood, and maybe the greatest movie ever made, and then you ask, “Okay, but

whyis it the greatest movie?,” the answer is 50 reasons at once — the visionary excitement of it, the through-a-snow-globe-darkly gothic majesty of it, the joyous acting and grand brooding cinematography, the hypnotic structure, the playfulness, the doomy haunting mythology of Rosebud, and on and on and on. The pleasures and profundity of “Kane” are right there on the surface, and infinitely deep beneath the surface. headtopics.com

But what sometimes gets lost in film history, especially for those of us born decades after “Kane’s” premiere, is that the consummate audacity of the movie, the thing that continues to make it such a singular and bracing experience, is that in its inky-shadowed, looming-ceilinged, boundlessly inventive and imaginative baroque showman’s way, “Kane” was a Hollywood movie that subverted the cosmos of Hollywood. It leapt ahead to an age when movies would be wedded to social and psychological reality in ways that the studio system never fully had room for.

I don’t say that as an insult to classic Hollywood. Hitchcock and Capra, film noir and MGM musicals, Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and James Stewart — to me, they’re as good as it gets. Yet just as you can acknowledge that and still point out that Marlon Brando brought a lightning flash of authenticity to the big screen that revolutionized movies, “Kane,” in a different way (and nine years before Brando’s film debut), brought a similar lightning flash. Only Welles was so far ahead of his time that the movies would have to wait years to be influenced by him. In 1941, the year of “Kane,” most movies were conceived in two dimensions, good movies sometimes achieved three dimensions, but “Kane” was a four-dimensional media-wise shadow play of the real. It used the life of the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst in such a knowing and immediate way that it seemed to break down the wall that separated life and art.

A good dollop of that came from Mankiewicz, and that’s the subject of “Mank”: how in addition to drinking and gambling, he spent the ’30s hobnobbing with Hollywood power brokers, soaking up the tricks of their trade — the way they charmed and manipulated and terrorized, bending the world to their whims and wills. And, of course, Mank got to know Hearst and his silver-screen inamorata, Marion Davies. He glimpsed their lives from the inside (he was friends with Davies, and saw the gilded cage she lived in), and he drew on all of that in his portrait of life inside Kane’s castle, Xanadu (a gloss on Hearst’s fortress of San Simeon).

The word “gossip” doesn’t exactly evoke art, but Mankiewicz, in using what was basically gossip to fuel the story of Charles Foster Kane, foresaw the Age Of Reality — not reality TV, but the age when movies would begin to shape and reflect the world around them, rather than a rarefied Dream Factory confection of good and evil. One of the messages of “Mank” is that Mankiewicz, in scripting the epic first draft of the drama that was originally called “American,” could only dare to write such a script because he had nothing to lose. headtopics.com

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But what would “American” have looked like without Orson Welles? Early on, “Mank” shows us Mankiewicz writing one of the narrator’s lines from the News on the March faux newsreel sequence that kick-starts “Citizen Kane.” Did he actually write that line? Maybe so. But the News on the March sequence is one of the most astonishing nine minutes in American film history. There had never been anything like it — an intricate documentary, full of lurching tonal shifts and contrasting film stocks, embedded inside a big-scale movie. That sequence plants us inside the real world, the same way that Welles’ staging of “The War of the Worlds” as a radio broadcast of an actual alien attack planted H.G. Wells’ sci-fi saga in the real world. The Welles aesthetic — and the reason he fought Hollywood from the get-go — was rooted in his reverence for a transcendent reality. (Just watch the restored version of “Touch of Evil,” a noir that revels in its empty-cantina-and-lonely-telephone-wires bordertown squalor and grunge.) Welles sought a movie art that flowed in and out of the life around us. Twenty years before John Cassavetes, he was the first American independent filmmaker.

The discussion about the “Citizen Kane” screenplay is really a way of asking: How did “Kane” acquire its quality of (magical) realism? Who gave it that essence? The short answer is: Orson Welles. The slightly longer answer is: Welles, with a major contribution from Mankiewicz — and, of course, from his other collaborators, like the cinematographer Gregg Toland and the composer Bernard Hermann. Both answers are true, and Welles, in fact, was not a credit hog. He initially fought Mankiewicz on the “Kane” credit, asking for sole credit himself, because his contract with RKO demanded it. The arbitration that resulted in the co-credit was a primitive version of the arbitrations that now go on routinely. “Mank” makes a point of the fact that it’s set during the early, formative days of the Screenwriter’s Guild, when Hollywood writers were setting out to establish not just their power but their identity.

Writers in Hollywood have always struggled for prestige, but they acquired more of it over the last 50 years than they possessed under the studio system, where they were generally considered hacks with a knack. That system meant that they often didn’t get credit, which was fine with most of them (like Mankiewicz), because they got paid. Part of the controversy over the writing of “Citizen Kane” relates simply to the ways that the times have changed. It’s far more conventional today to see a director get a co-screenplay credit — going back to, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s credit on “The Godfather,” which is an apt comparison, since “The Godfather” is the greatest American film since “Citizen Kane.” Mario Puzo contributed at least as much to that movie as Herman Mankiewicz did to “Kane,” yet no one begrudges Coppola’s contribution.

Read more: Variety »

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So the Welles hate train continues? No it doesn't. Look at Mankiewicz's work before and after Kane. No comparison. Not really. They established 40 years ago that Welles wrote most of it, although Mank initially sketched out the plot and characters. I thought it was Orson Welles? donwinslow Well Orson Welles principle but co-wrote screenplay. Won't give away his last word.

donwinslow Did you ever see The Story of a Cheat (1936) by Sasha Guitry? Wells said it was his inspiration. donwinslow I did, still waiting on my royalties. donwinslow Rose Budd. donwinslow Obviously it was Cieran Hines. donwinslow What point are you trying to make, please. donwinslow Ask the typist/secretary

Kane wrote it. Taylor Swift wrote it I bet it was rosebud No mystery. Something that it is obvious and rarely mentioned or given enough credit in film criticism, is Orson Wells theatre background. Citizen Kane was his first movie. Wells knowledge and mastery of dramaturgy is due to his years working in theatre. Dramaturgy is often ignored in cinema

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