From Mank (2020), dir. David Fincher (image courtesy Netflix)

With the new film Mank, director David Fincher goes behind the scenes of Citizen Kane. Long heralded as one of the best movies of all time, if not the best, Kane‘s influence on cinema is monumental. But that magnum opus did not ascend to the canon without bumps. Both its greatness and director Orson Welles‘s role as its “author” have been hotly debated over the years. By focusing on Kane’s writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and downplaying Welles as an auteur, Mank revives an old controversy.

Released in 1941, Citizen Kane was Welles’s first feature, and he had an unprecedented degree of freedom within the American studio system (at the time rigidly controlled by producers) to make the story of a newspaper magnate laid low by his hubris. The writing process was contentious. Welles signed Mankiewicz to a contract as a script doctor, which outlined that he would not receive credit. With frequent Welles collaborator John Houseman, Mankiewicz wrote the first draft based on a loose outline devised by Mankiewicz and hundreds of pages of Welles’s notes. Before shooting, Welles would heavily rework the screenplay. As the film’s release approached, Mankiewicz decided he wanted credit after all, taking out ads in newspapers and petitioning the screenwriter’s guild for a change. In the end, RKO Studios credited both Welles and Mankiewicz as the film’s screenwriters. Mankiewicz’s process of writing the film is dramatized in Mank.

From Citizen Kane (1941), dir. Orson Welles (image courtesy Warner Bros.)

A moderate success upon its release, it would take a few decades before Citizen Kane accumulated its reputation as a masterpiece. The 1952 first edition of the Sight & Sound poll of the greatest movies (as close to an authoritative source for what film professionals consider “the canon” as we have) did not feature the film. But in 1962, it was voted #1, where it stood for decades until it was unseated by Vertigo in 2012. And at the center of the story both before and behind the camera was the charismatic Welles. His career would be hit hard in the aftermath of its release, and he would struggle to obtain funding and full control of his work for the rest of his life. Welles’s image as a larger-than-life showman and sidelined genius made him attractive to those developing the ideas of auteurism that would emerge in the 1950s in France. 

The auteur theory was introduced by the critic (later a filmmaker) François Truffaut. In “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” published in Cahiers du Cinema, he argued that a film’s ultimate author was its director. At the time this was a revolutionary concept, challenging the supremacy of industry over artistry. Truffaut’s conception associated auteurism with power, addressing the lack of it for directors (especially in France). Within the French New Wave movement, Welles was upheld as one of the greats. Jean-Luc Godard once said of him, “All of us will always owe him everything.” Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris brought auteur theory to America with “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” He explained that to be considered an auteur, a director’s work had to exhibit technical competence, personal style, and interior meaning. 

Pauline Kael (courtesy Quad Cinema)

But as this idea caught on, it drew the ire of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who responded with the article “Circles and Squares.” She was outraged by the inflexibility and literal application of the theory, claiming that it treated criticism as a science rather than an art. There’s a lot of bad faith in her reading, which attributes too much rigidity to the approach and leaves little room to understand that nearly all auteurists incorporate creatives besides directors into their arguments. Still, challenging the idea of the director as a pristine genius is always worthwhile. “Circles and Squares” holds up as a compelling (if slightly messy) argument against auteurism. The same cannot be said for Kael’s subsequent takedown of Citizen Kane and Welles.

In 1971, Kael published “Raising Kane,” a book-length essay challenging Welles’s role as the film’s auteur, instead citing Mankiewicz as its primary creative force. This dredged up Mankiewicz’s fight for credit during the production of Kane for the sake of her argument against auteurism. The essay was controversial on many fronts. Kael was accused of plagiarism by UCLA professor Howard Suber (though his 2011 comments that it felt like rape were extreme), who lent her his research with the promise of credit (she even paid him), which he never received. She was accused of omitting any research that did not fit her argument. She refused to interview Welles for the project. (“I already know what happened,” she said.) At the time, Welles was an easy target. Ousted from Hollywood, it wasn’t hard to paint him as a pompous cad taking undue credit from others, and many felt she was right to take him down. Still, he had his defenders. Sarris and Peter Bogdonovich were among Kael’s notable opponents, questioning both her argument and facts. Any cursory research into Welles suggests he was anything but a credit-stealer; he spoke highly of his collaborators, and frequently worked with the same people. Time has been unkind to Kael on this front, and the essay has been discredited and often discounted, casting a long shadow on her career. 

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the best lesson to be taken from the fights over auteurism is that an auteur’s greatest asset is the ability to surround oneself with great people. Film is one of the most mechanized and industrial arts, so we need language and ideas that can uplift its human element. Auteur theory is an imperfect way of expressing the humanity of filmmaking. (In a sense, Kael was right that its ways of doing so are restrictive.) Re-reading “Raising Kane,” it’s obvious that Kael has compelling arguments about Mankiewicz’s contributions, especially given that he worked extensively in the newspaper business. Auteurism centered solely on the director erases the knowledge and experience of a film’s other creative forces, ironically downplaying the complexity and depth of Citizen Kane. It’s a shame that those perspectives are lost in an otherwise sloppy piece of writing that might easily have ruined a critic of lesser status. 

The script for Mank was originally written by David Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher, in the ’90s, and was heavily inspired by “Raising Kane.” Jack Fincher died in 2003, and later drafts would downplay the “anti-Welles bent,” though David Fincher has also been quick to disparage Welles and his “delusional hubris.” But while the internet has raged over such comments, it seems more appropriate to open ourselves to deeper understanding of how films are made. Even Welles would agree that a movie doesn’t simply pop into existence. It’s the hard and shared work of many people working toward a common goal.

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.