Citizen Kane has long been hailed as the greatest film ever made. It was the first full-length feature film of the influential director Orson Welles. Citizen Kane gave Welles acclaim and positioned him as a triple threat who directed, co-wrote, and acted in an indisputable masterpiece. But there is more to the tale than meets the eye.
Citizen Kain’s authorship has been a highly disputed subject in Hollywood history, as has the true story behind the film. In Mank, David Fincher’s 2020 biopic of Citizen Kane’s co-writer Herman Mankiewicz, the director takes another look at some of the infamous feuds behind the classic.
Citizen Kane’s Screenplay
In the final cut of Citizen Kane, the screenwriting credits are attributed to both Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz. However, according to legend, Welles tried to remove Mankiewicz’s name and recognition, in order to take sole responsibility for the masterwork.
Many believe that Mankiewicz deserves more acknowledgment than he received for his part in screenwriting. Meanwhile, other sources claim that Welles never used Mank’s draft and rewrote the entire movie script himself. Either way, their collaboration ended with angry threats from Mank demanding credit and a lifelong grudge against Orson Welles. What actually happened behind the scenes?
George Orson Welles
Born in 1915, Orson Welles entered the entertainment business in his twenties and was considered a boy wonder. He began as a theater director and founded the Mercury Theatre, a repertory stage company responsible for several Broadway plays. In 1938, Welles started a radio series called The Mercury Theatre on the Air.
He quickly rose to prominence after a convincing radio narration of The War of the Worlds, which caused some listeners to panic as they mistakenly believed that an actual war with extraterrestrials was happening. In December 1938, the show’s name was changed to The Campbell Playhouse after their sponsors- Campbell’s Soup.
Enter Herman Mank
In 1939, Welles hired notorious alcoholic script-doctor Herman Mankiewicz to write scripts for The Campbell Playhouse. Mank was known for having worked uncredited on The Wizard of Oz’s screenplay. But his days as a popular Hollywood screenwriter were dwindling because of his unprofessional shenanigans.
Furthermore, Mank had sustained injuries from a car accident that shattered his leg. As Mank and Welles’ friend John Houseman said, “His behavior, public and private, was a scandal. A neurotic drinker and a compulsive gambler, he was also one of the most intelligent, informed, witty, humane, and charming men I have ever known.”
He Felt It Would Be Useless
Orson was unsure about hiring Herman and later admitted, “I felt it would be useless because of Mank’s general uselessness many times in the studios. But I thought, ‘We’ll see what he comes up with.'” Mankiewicz surprised Welles and proved highly efficient in editing and writing scripts for the radio playhouse.
Meanwhile, Welles showed interest in moving into film work and signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. The terms of the deal were hitherto unheard of; the studio promised the untried filmmaker creative control over two movies which he was to produce, write, direct, and act in.
The Idea Behind Citizen Kane
After RKO didn’t agree to Welles’ first few film ideas, the director visited Mank at home and spent over a month brainstorming ideas with the script doctor. Eventually, the two men came up with what would later become Citizen Kane.
Welles had always wanted to create a movie that showed the same story several times from different perspectives. Mank had yearned to write a script about the life of a famous American figure, beginning from the character’s death. Together they thought of the right man for the story.
William Randolph Hearst
The duo considered businessman Howard Hughes at first, before moving on to press billionaires. It is unclear who suggested that Citizen Kane be based on the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, although research and speculation point to Mank, who had once been part of Hearst’s inner circle.
The choice to base Charles Foster Kane, who would later be played by Welles, on Hearst proved inspired. However, it also became the catalyst of another high-profile feud surrounding the famous motion picture: Welles’ feud with Hearst himself.
Based on a True Story
Although we may never know who wrote what part, we do know that the story of Charles Foster Kane and his opera singing long-lost-lover is based on the life of William Randolph Hearst and his affair with silent film actress Marion Davies.
It was well-known gossip in Hollywood that Davies’s film career began at only nineteen, after she was swept into a scandalous affair with fifty-three-year-old news mogul Hearst. Hearst not only promoted his mistress in his papers, but he also started a production company to produce her films.
Marion Davies’ Career
W.R. Hearst took on the job of Davies’ manager. The combination of her talent and his vast influence made Marion the #1 female box office star in mid-1920s Hollywood. Despite Hearst’s wife and the many scandals they faced as a couple, Daviesremained Hearst’s mistress until his death.
Hearst is often considered to be responsible for Davies’ ruin, as her career declined during the Great Depression, and she sank into alcoholism. Citizen Kane worsened Marion’s reputation and was seen as an admission that she only succeeded thanks to Hearst.
Hearst vs. Welles
The only problem was that unlike the character of Kane, in 1941, Hearst wasn’t dead and didn’t want Citizen Kane to see the light of day. The influential newspaper tycoon went so far as to ban mention of RKO productions in his publications and even tried to halt the film’s release.
Hearst never actually saw Citizen Kane but nevertheless did his best to sabotage the success of the feature, even pressuring movie theater companies to limit screening of the movie and threatening to blackmail Welles.
Threats and Blackmail
Hearst’s employee Louella Parsons threatened the production company with a lawsuit if they proceeded with the film’s release. When that didn’t work, she was instructed to threaten film industry members with newspaper exposés about their private lives.
They even contacted Welles himself, threatening to publish a story about his affair with actress Dolores del Río, who was married. Therefore, Welles began to claim that the film wasn’t about Hearst at all. Furthermore, the studio forced the director to remove scenes that would be offensive to Hearst.
Kane Would Have Accepted
Hearst’s hard work paid off and caused the movie to gain only moderate box-office profits. Many theaters were afraid to show the film out of fear that Hearst would sue them. Welles later described an accidental encounter he had with Hearst before the film’s premiere.
In an elevator at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, the two ran into each other, so Orson introduced himself and invited William to the opening night. Hearst didn’t respond, but as he exited the lift, Welles said, “Charles Foster Kane would have accepted.”
Writing the Screenplay
The story goes that throughout 1939 Welles and Mank spent their time writing notes and outlining their idea for Citizen Kane before creative differences came between them, and they began to argue. At that point, in late January of 1940, Welles left.
Mank then retreated to his rented house in Victorville, California, to write his first 325-page draft, which he then sent to Welles. In February 1940, Welles rehired his old colleague, John Houseman, to join Mank in Victorville and supervise the screenplay’s writing.
Mank’s Contract With Mercury
Mankiewicz was under contract with Welles’ company, Mercury Productions. The agreement stated that the script doctor would be paid $1,000 a week, so long as he kept at it and would receive another $5,000 after completing the script.
The contract stated that credit for the script would go to Orson Welles and Mercury Productions, just as Mank’s work for The Campbell Playhouse had gone uncredited. But Mankiewicz became unhappy with the arrangement later, as he felt that most of the script had been written by him.
Mank’s Writing and Rewriting
Mankiewicz wrote his drafts of the screenplay under Houseman and his secretary Rita Alexander’s babysitting for twelve weeks straight, during which he stayed sober. Mank dictated the whole script to Rita, who typed it up.
According to Rita, Welles wasn’t there at all and didn’t write one word of the script’s first draft; he only gave notes to Mank over the phone. Rita, who also accompanied Mank in the rewriting and cutting of the script, alleged that “Welles didn’t write (or dictate) one line of the shooting script of Citizen Kane.”
Orson Welles’ Version
According to Welles and his defendants, Rita’s claims are hogwash. Welles insisted that he and Mank split up, and each would write their own full script for the film. He explained that when he finished, Mankiewicz sent Welles his drafts, and the director took from them the parts he liked and took the rest from his own screenplay.
Welles’ secretary, Katherine Trosper, also backed up his claims, explaining that she was constantly tasked to type up drafts of the script for her boss. She shared that the director wrote and rewrote the screenplay tirelessly, even continuing to write into production.
The Studio’s Records
According to the records kept by RKO studios, Herman Mankiewicz was responsible for the first two drafts of the script, which he wrote without Welles. But after the initial Mank versions, Welles wrote five more drafts of the script without Mank.
Robert L. Carringer claimed that Mank’s scripts were too long and raw and that Welles sculpted the screenplay into something more cinematic. Welles shortened sprawling dialogues to mere moments shown in flashbacks. He also brought the character of Kane to life and removed direct references to William Randolph Hearst.
Mank Demanded Credit
In the end, it’s hard to prove the whole truth, and numerous interviews and articles support each side. We only know that when Mank understood that he wouldn’t be receiving credit for the screenplay as per his contract, he became angry and demanded recognition.
Mank was even quoted saying, “there is hardly a comma that I did not write.” He then threatened to turn to the screenwriter’s guild. Eventually, Welles gave him co-credit and said Herman’s contribution had been enormous. He claimed to harbor no hard feelings towards Mankiewicz.
He Needed a Villain
Orson later speculated that John Houseman was responsible for the falling out between him and Herman and said, “When Mank left for Victorville, we were friends. When he came back, we were enemies. Mank always needed a villain.”
Houseman and Welles had their differences, and the former notoriously told Pauline Kael that Mank deserved all the credit for the screenplay, although his version changed again when he said, “As far as I could judge, the co-billing was correct. The Citizen Kane script was the product of both of them.”
Raising Citizen Kane
In 1971, film critic Pauline Kael wrote the article Raising Kane about the making of the film. The most memorable part of the essay is her claim that Welles didn’t write the script at all but stole the whole thing from Herman.
Relying solely on the testimony of Houseman and Alexander, Pauline wrote a manifesto against “the auteur,” profiling Orson as an egomaniac who stole Mank’s masterwork. The only problem was that she was a hypocrite who stole her research from a writer named Howard Suber without giving him credit.
The Kane Mutiny
Director Peter Bogdanovich, Welles’ friend and Kael’s enemy, wrote an essay called The Kane Mutiny in response to her article. Bogdanovich was dying to knock Pauline down a notch, seeing as she’d just written that his film What’s Up Doc was infantile.
So, Peter interviewed Orson and wrote a two-part piece praising the director as an under-appreciated genius to which every filmmaker alive owed an outstanding debt. But neither of them had the last word; the controversy over the authorship of Citizen Kane is alive and well.
Jack and David Fincher
In 2020, David Fincher released the film Mank, a biopic about Herman, based on the controversy between him and Orson. Fincher’s screenplay was actually written by the director’s late father, screenwriter Jack Fincher. Jack was a big supporter of Mankiewicz and believed Welles was the villain of the story.
However, David didn’t fully agree with his father and changed parts of the older man’s script to paint Welles in a slightly less negative light. On the other hand, David kept the parts in which Mank’s charisma and wit shine through.
The Movie Mank
The movie Mank never resolves the question of who indeed wrote the script of Citizen Kane, although many reviews felt that Fincher’s portrayal of the events leaned more towards Mank’s version. The film rejects the idea of Orson Welles as a boy genius who did everything alone.
On the other hand, it shows Mank as an unreliable, scandalous, alcoholic, tortured artist with a gambling problem. In conclusion, Fincher’s version is closer to the general consensus that the men collaborated in creating the award-winning screenplay, even if it tore them apart.
Marion Davies’ Reputation
Herman Mankiewicz harbored hard feelings towards Orson Welles until his dying breath, while the more successful Welles spoke fondly of Mank in retrospect. Welles also tried to fix the damage Citizen Kane had caused poor Marion Davies’ reputation and praised her as an actress.
Welles even said, “the real story of Hearst is quite different from Kane’s. As for Marion, she was an extraordinary woman, nothing like the character Dorothy Comingore played in the movie. Marion was much better than Susan, whom people wrongly equated with her.”
The Greatest Film Ever Made
Although 80 years have passed since the movie was released, Citizen Kane is often still revered as the greatest film ever made. At first, the film succeeded in Europe far better than in America, and it was there that its reputation as a masterwork was cemented.
The picture was praised for its inventive cinematography, experimentation with sound, and “new understanding of realism.” Citizen Kane topped Sight and Sound’s list of the best movies for five years but was replaced in 2012 by Vertigo. That’s quite a feat for a directorial debut that failed at the box office.
Orson Was an Orphan
Born in 1915, George Orson Welles was orphaned at a young age. His mother, Beatrice Ives Welles, a pianist, passed away from hepatitis when he was nine. His father, Richard Welles, was wealthy because he invented the bicycle lamp but became an alcoholic when Orson was young and stopped working.
After his mother’s death, Orson traveled the country and the world with his wayward father for a few years before going to boarding school. Richard Welles died from kidney failure in 1930 when Orson was 15.
He Met Many World Leaders
During his travels abroad, Welles met many prominent world leaders. Orson shared with Dick Cavett that he sat beside Adolf Hitler while in Austria with his teacher. It was just after Hitler formed the Nazi party and before he became a notorious dictator.
Welles said, “[Hitler] made so little impression on me… he had no personality… he was invisible.” Welles also encountered other, better men, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and George Marshall, whom he called “the greatest human being, who was also a great man.”
The Filmmaker’s Feuds
Despite his great success as a filmmaker and influence on world cinema as it is today, Orson Welles wasn’t necessarily well-liked. For many, he was a controversial figure, considered a narcissist, an egomaniac, and a pretty vile character.
Aside from his aforementioned feuds with Mank and Hearst, Welles was known for his squabbles with people from the entertainment industry and for his general dislike of most human beings. He antagonized everyone from studio executives to actors and actresses alike, even those who admired his talents and looked up to him.
My Lunches With Orson
Recently, recordings of lunches that Orson ate in 1983 with his friend, filmmaker Henry Jaglom were uncovered after being hidden in Jaglom’s home for decades. The tapes reveal some of Welles’ craziest likes and dislikes and some of the meanest things he said his contemporaries in show biz.
Welles trashed everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Bette Davis. During the lunches, he coined the term “the Chaplin disease,” something he claimed was a “particular combination of arrogance and timidity” that made him hate Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen as well.
He Hated Woody Allen
Welles stated, “I hate Woody Allen physically, I dislike that kind of man.” He explained that he’d met him and felt that he could “hardly bear to talk to him” because Allen’s “timidity sets [his] teeth on edge.”
Orson refused to believe Jaglom’s interjection that Allen is just shy and continued, “his arrogance is unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably arrogant. He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation.”
The Cult of Alfred Hitchcock
Chaplin and Allen weren’t the only other directors Welles couldn’t stand. He also had an opinion on Alfred Hitchcock. Orson thought Rear Window was the worst film he’d ever seen and a “complete insensitivity to what a story about voyeurism could be.”
He told Jaglom, “I’ve never understood the cult of Hitchcock. Particularly the late American movies.” He believed Hitchcock’s movies were full of “Egotism and laziness” and that “they’re all lit like television shows.” It’s a bit ironic to be calling Chaplin and Allen arrogant…
Bergman, Antonioni, Eisenstein, and Fellini
Welles didn’t limit his hatred to American directors but dragged some of his counterparts overseas through the mud as well. He actually said out loud that there are a lot of films by Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni that he’d “rather be dead than sit through.”
Welles sarcastically implied that Antonioni is the founding father of boring art and that he basically makes “backgrounds for fashion models.” He didn’t stop there and called Federico Fellini “fundamentally very provincial” and Sergei Eisenstein “the most overrated great director of them all.”
From Laurence Oliver to Spencer Tracy
It wasn’t only fellow filmmakers that Welles despised; he held many actors and actresses to even lower esteem. Welles called Spencer Tracy “a hateful, hateful man [who] hated everybody” and couldn’t think of one great performance of Tracy’s. For Lawrence Oliver, he had only disdain, calling the Othello star “seriously stupid.”
And although Orson explained “that intelligence is a handicap in an actor… because it means that you’re not naturally emotive,” he thought some of Oliver’s acting was “the worst things I ever saw in my life.”
Grace Kelly and Katherine Hepburn
When it came to Casablanca starlet Katherine Hepburn, Welles thought her indiscreet and claimed she “laid around the town like nobody’s business.” The director shared that he once heard Hepburn describing her romance with media tycoon Howard Hughes “using all the four-letter words.”
As for her acting, Welles couldn’t stand the romantic movies Katherine appeared in. Hepburn wasn’t the only scandalous actress he accused of being a floozy. Welles said that Grace Kelly “also slept around, in the dressing room when nobody was looking, but she never said anything.”
Norma Shearer, Jennifer Jones, Bette Davis, and Joan Fontaine
For some actresses, Orson Welles had more of a professional distaste. According to the esteemed director, Joan Fontaine “was just a plain bad actor.” Welles claimed she had “two expressions, and that’s it.” As for Jennifer Jones, Orson thought her to be “hopeless.”
Almost no one escaped his wrath; Welles called Norma Shearer “one of the most minimally talented ladies to appear on the silver screen” and said that he could never “stand looking at Bette Davis” and definitely didn’t “want to see her act.”
Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart
Their costars fell under fire too. When Welles criticized Rear Window, he expressed his astonishment “to discover that Jimmy Stewart can be a bad actor,” claiming he was “overacting.” Another A-lister who Welles found less than sympathetic was Humphrey Bogart.
Orson went as far as to call him “both a coward and a very bad fighter.” The filmmaker explained that Bogart was “always picking fights in nightclubs in sure knowledge that the waiters would stop him.” Who knew one director could despise so many people from his industry?
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
During one lunch with Jaglom, the actor Richard Burton approached the two men’s table. “Orson, how good to see you. It’s been too long. You’re looking fine. Elizabeth [Taylor] is with me. She so much wants to meet you. Can I bring her over to your table?” said Burton.
Orson answered, “No. As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch. I’ll stop by on my way out.” Jaglom was shocked, so Welles explained, “Richard Burton had great talent. He’s ruined his great gifts. He’s become a joke with a celebrity wife. Now he just works for money….”
He Did Get Along With Some
Some actors and actresses loved Welles, and he loved them and worked with them whenever he could. Mercedes McCambridge, Lucille Ball, Joseph Cotton, John Wayne, Marlena Dietrich, and Charlton Heston were among these lucky few. Another of the director’s favorites was Carole Lombard.
He shared, “I adored her. She was a very close friend of mine. And I don’t mean to imply that we were ever lovers.” The director also started a very disputed conspiracy theory about her death: “Do you know why [Lombard’s] plane went down? It was full of big-time American physicists, shot down by the Nazis.”
His Relationship With Marilyn Monroe
Welles also revealed that he had a close relationship with the one and only, Marilyn Monroe. He claimed, “She was a girlfriend; I used to take her to parties before she was a star. I wanted to try and promote her career. Nobody even glanced at Marilyn.” e
Orson even introduced her to producer Darryl Zanuck, who said, “She’s just another stock player. We’ve got a hundred of them.” Furthermore, Welles alleged that he had an incredibly intimate connection with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who supposedly said to him, “You and I are the two best actors in America.”
Welles’ Many Marriages
Aside from his alleged romance with Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles was married three times and had countless affairs throughout his life. His first marriage was to socialite and actress Virginia Nicolson. The two tied the know in 1934 but divorced in 1940 after Virginia learned that Orson had fallen in love with someone else.
The new object of his affections was Mexican actress Dolores del Río, with whom Welles had been infatuated since childhood. The two began a secret affair because they were both still married. After their respective divorces, their romance was cut short due to Welles’ infidelity.
A Marriage With Rita Hayworth
In 1943, just months after his love affair with del Río ended, Orson married the beautiful Hollywood icon Rita Hayworth. Their relationship lacked balance; Rita craved a conventional marriage while Orson couldn’t stop cheating. Rita was ready to quit her career, while Orson was just getting started.
But Rita made actual money and reached success, while Orson’s movies kept failing to impress. In 1946, they separated before officially ending things with a divorce in 1947. The couple had one daughter together, Rebecca.
His Constant Infidelities
Despite his constant infidelity, Welles later said that Rita was “one of the dearest and sweetest women that ever lived, and we were a long time together. I was lucky enough to have been with her longer than any of the other men in her life.”
In 1955, Welles married his third wife, Italian actress and aristocrat, Paola Mori. Their relationship began as a premarital affair, but the Contessa’s parents heard of it and demanded they marry. The couple never divorced, but Welles was still unfaithful. He had a mistress: Croatian actress Oja Kodar, from 1966 until his death.
His Children, Legitimate and Otherwise
Orson had three daughters, one from each wife. The oldest, Christopher (yes, that is her name), was born to Virginia Nicolson in 1938. Next came Rebecca, his daughter with Hayworth, born in 1944. The youngest, Beatrice Welles, was born in 1955 to Paola Mori. However, Orson is speculated to have fathered a few illegitimate children.
Rumor has it that British director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is the son of Welles with actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. According to Glamour Ghoul, Welles also impregnated actress Maila Nurmi who gave up their child for adoption.
Crash Diets and Corsets
When Orson was thirteen, he was already over six feet tall and weighed more than 180 pounds. According to the biographer Barton Whaley, Welles turned to “crash diets, [prescription] drugs, and corsets” to slim down for his early film roles before bouncing back to “gargantuan consumption of high-caloric food and booze.”
By the late ’40s, the director weighed over 230 pounds, and in the mid- ’50s, he’d reached 275 pounds. Whaley wrote that “after 1960, he remained permanently obese.” At age 70, on October 10th, 1985, Welles suffered a heart attack and was found dead by his chauffeur.
His Undying Legacy
Although Orson Welles has passed on, his legacy is here to stay. From his larger-than-life radio and stage work to his unparalleled motion picture career, Welles is an artist of the highest degree. Whether he is a nice person or not can be disputed, but his genius cannot be.
The success of Citizen Kane was unprecedented, but he didn’t stop there. From masterpieces like F Is for Fake, The Trial, and The Lady from Shanghai to Touch of Evil, Welles’ influence, experimentation, and broad range of talent is unmistakable.