Coming off a Best Actor Oscar win for Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman had a lot of choices. But following up that remarkable portrait of Winston Churchill during the war years with another real-life figure an alcoholic screenwriter from Hollywood’s golden era, could not be more of a polar opposite. The result however is the same, and that is wide acclaim and instant Oscar buzz for his portrayal in David Fincher’s Mank, about the Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz who contractually wasn’t even supposed to receive credit for the job that Orson Welles, then the 25-year-old wunderkind director-star, brought him aboard to do.
Welles and Mankiewicz ended up sharing credit, and ironically the iconic film’s only Oscar, for Best Screenplay, out of nine nominations. Neither attended the ceremony in 1942, but Mankiewicz did meet the press later and said, “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’ absence because the script was written in Mr. Welles’ absence.” Ouch. Who deserves the credit for the script has been a source of controversy for decades, one that my colleague Todd McCarthy examined in detail for Deadline on October 30. As famed critic Pauline Kael definitely came down for Team Mankiewicz in her 5000-word essay “Raising Kane,” others have credited Welles for the lion’s share of praise with his later contributions in making future drafts of the screenplay really work. And of course he was the director of this highly influential and landmark piece of cinema.
Last week I got the opportunity to talk with Oldman (he is in London embarking on a new TV series for Apple) about taking on the role of Mankiewicz, and what his opinion is on the ongoing mystery of who really wrote Citizen Kane. Fincher’s exquisite new film Mank premieres on Netflix today, and it appears it makes the strong case for its title character. I found Oldman’s take particularly enlightening, an answer that may be the most reasoned.
DEADLINE: In my review of the film I said the Writers Guild is going to love it because it is ABOUT the writer, and points out the importance of the writer. But there obviously has been a lot of debate over the years regarding who deserves the credit for Citizen Kane, and there is that big showdown over credit between Welles and Mankiewicz in the movie. Having played Mank now, and done a lot of research, what do you think? Solve the debate for us.
GARY OLDMAN: Well, I was lucky because I had access to the original script which was called The American. I think it was a studio head at RKO who came up with Citizen Kane. It wasn’t Herman, and I don’t think it was Welles that finally came up with that title, but I was privy to, you know, this material, having the privilege of working on the production, and you get to read these things that the public doesn’t have access to. So, I read the 325-page first draft.
Now, it is a little cheeky of Mankiewicz because he was an old hand at this. He had written many scripts. He was essentially a script doctor. He was someone, if a script wasn’t working, someone at the studio would say, here, throw this over to Mankiewicz and have him put it through his typewriter, see what he can come up with. See if he can give us some snappy lines, we need some funny lines, you know, “Give it to Herman.” So, he’d been doing this a long time and he knew that movies were running at 73 minutes, 86 minutes in this era, so to hand in a first draft of 325 pages, I mean, that’s a sort of F-you back then, and he handed that in.
But yeah. It was all there. It was all there, and I’m sure, I know that Welles went out to the ranch and had a few visits with him, they communicated through [producer] John Houseman. But let’s put it this way, you know the old thing of Michelangelo saw David in the stone? It’s a little like that. It was in there and Mank delivered this piece of stone that Welles chipped away at. Yes, he did not have a writing credit initially because Welles needed a safety net. He knew that Mank was the guy for the job, but he also knew of Mank’s reputation, and was he going to be the Mank that lived up to the challenge and came through or was he going to be the drunk Mank that could not deliver or just folded up his typewriter and reneged, basically, on the project? So, he needed, and I think initially in the contract, he needed that safety net. Mank did take it, or he presented it to arbitration and then withdrew it, this whole title/credit issue, and as you know, in the end Welles circled his name and drew an arrow. It was Orson Welles, Herman Mankiewicz, and he just circled Mankiewicz’s name and drew an arrow, basically giving him above, top billing, but I think, yeah, it was all there.
DEADLINE: And how ironic that it turned out to be the one and only Oscar Kane won, even though Welles had also been nominated for Best Actor, Director and Picture.
OLDMAN: Yeah, that must have been a tough night for Welles. I mean, you know, it’s really great for them both, but it was, I don’t know, maybe the industry kind of gave it to Mank for the past…just for sheer endurance and they really gave it to Welles, I think, in the other categories he was not popular. He was far too young and far too smart for his own good.
DEADLINE: After winning your own Oscar for Churchill, how daunting was it to take on another role of another person who once lived?
OLDMAN: Honestly, I didn’t really think of it in that way. Churchill obviously was such an iconic figure. What I personally knew about Herman Mankiewicz, I mean, you could put on a postage stamp. I knew he was the brother of Joe, and I knew that his name was on Citizen Kane, and that he had written, I think, one of two of the Marx Brothers movies, but really apart from that, I knew very little about Herman, and so it was in some ways coming to it like it was a fictional character, and the more I found out about the man and the more I read on what he had achieved and what he had done it was quite amazing the journey of discovery.
DEADLINE: It’s such a complex character and a complex guy. You know, I mean what he thought about Hollywood, the business he was in, his own potential, his own self-loathing. I think that must be really interesting to play those different aspects of a personality.
OLDMAN: Yeah. He was a very complex individual. I mean, he was a functioning alcoholic, and that of course comes with its own baggage, an egomaniac with low self-esteem, all of that, the grandiosity of alcoholism, but that comes also with a lot of shame, a lot of, as you say, a lot of self-loathing. He had aspirations early on to become basically be either a famous playwright or write that great American novel, and that never happened for him, and he ended up initially in Hollywood writing the cards for silent movies, and really looked at movie writing as, he had a real contempt for it. He felt that it wasn’t literature, that compared to the novel, compared to the stage, that it was a medium that you could really dismiss, and this is also at a time where, you know, talking pictures are not that old, really. I mean, the time that Citizen Kane comes along, they are like nine or 10 years old, so there’s all that, yeah, all of that to play. Orson Welles, I think he described him wonderfully. He said that Mankiewicz was the perfect monument to self-destruction. He is one of those people that always had to have an enemy, always had to point the finger at someone else.
DEADLINE: You’ve had so many great and rich roles in your career. How did this one compare?
OLDMAN: Well I’ve had more than my fair share. I’ve really had my go at that over the years, and I really cannot complain. Some of the roles that I’ve played, I look back and think, you know, I was very lucky, I’ve done pretty well. I’ve had a few special ones come in and land on the desk. This was manna from heaven.
I mean, I’ve known David Fincher for a long time, and I think he’s one of those directors, there’s two types of directors. There’s the ones that meet you and say, “Oh my God, I’m such a fan, and we must do a film together,” and you never hear from them again, or you have a director who says, “Oh, we’ve got to do something,” and then they try to engineer, they try to manufacture a project. In a way, they’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole. I kind of thought, well, maybe my chance of working with David, I’m never going to be able to tick that box because he’s the type of director, I think, he won’t work with you just for the sake of working with you. And up until now I don’t think there’s been anything for me.
So, when this came along, a wonderful role, the opportunity of working with David, you knew up front he was going to shoot it in sumptuous black and white, it’s an honorarium, in a way, to the old Hollywood. In one sense it glorifies Hollywood, and it also reveals the nastiness and the cynicism and the ugliness of Hollywood. I think it’s a character piece. I think it’s almost a chamber piece about this period and particularly about this very, very gifted, tormented alcoholic. So, coming in you knew the world that you were stepping into and you knew that with David at the helm that the experience, we hoped or we felt, would be just transformative. He’s obsessed with detail, meticulous, and you could just see from the sets, from the costumes, and from the whole attitude going in that this could be, it had the potential to be a very special film, and I think we’re all very proud of it. And it was a wonderful company of actors working at the top of their game.
DEADLINE: Fincher is known for requiring a large number of takes. Did that happen here?
OLDMAN: Yeah. He took a few. We did a few hundred. You know, here’s the thing, I know people would sometimes look at it and they roll their eyes and say, “Oh my God, he does so many takes,” but it is, I think, first of all, it’s really nice to have a really big bite in the apple. We’re in an age now where budgets are becoming more and more restricted and you’re making movies, you’re doing two takes, three takes, and you’re moving on, and you really have to sort of push if you want a third or a fourth take.
With David, like I say, you not only get a big bite of the apple, you feel at the end of the day when you walk away that you covered the scene. You don’t feel like you’re working with someone who will settle. David isn’t going to settle. He’s not going to walk away from something until he’s got it, and that gives you a great security. It helps. At the end of the day thinking, well, we really worked that scene, and so I don’t think it’s such a bad thing, and also, you know, as an actor you work for hire. I mean, you come in and you want to serve the character and the story, and you want to serve the director. I’m contracted, I have a contract that says I have to work for 12 hours a day and sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s 13 or 14 hours, but I’m contracted to work that 12. If the director wants to do 60 takes or 100, I’m there until I clock off. It doesn’t really matter. You’re there to do the work and he’s obsessive, he’s meticulous, yeah, he is all those things, and yeah, he does a lot of takes. I think he likes the reputation, too. I think he doubles down on it.
DEADLINE: So many of the films you have done have been playing characters that required a lot of make-up and different looks. I heard Fincher wanted you to be more naked in a sense in this role than you have ever been.
OLDMAN: How would I put it? I do love a disguise. You know, I do like to hide, but I’m hiding because it’s all my baggage and all my stuff, and so that was my problem, that wasn’t Fincher’s problem, and when he said, “No, I just want no veil between you and the audience,” it wasn’t that I resisted it, it made me a little anxious because hey, even George Smiley has those glasses, you know, at least I could hide a little behind those glasses.
So, I was a little anxious about that, and once we began, I felt that David has made the right call. I found it very liberating. It’s a thing I had to work out in my process. I don’t look anything like Herman Mankiewicz, and that never worried David. He wasn’t concerned with that. Gary was concerned with it a little, it was initially my worry, it wasn’t his, but once we started working, it was very, very freeing.