Gary Oldman had many options when he won the Oscar for Best Actor for Darkest Hour, but he followed up this remarkable portrait of Winston Churchill during the war years with another real life character, an alcoholic screenwriter from Hollywood’s golden era, there could be no more exact opposite. The result is the same, however, and that is huge credit and instant Oscar craze for his portrayal in Mank about Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who wasn’t even contracted for the job Orson Welles got back then in the 25 years The old child prodigy director / star brought him on board.
Welles and Mankiewicz eventually shared the credit and, ironically, the legendary movie’s only Oscar for best screenplay out of nine nominations. Neither of them attended the ceremony in 1942, but Mankiewicz later met with the press and said, “I am very pleased to see this award in Mr.. . Welles’ absence because the script in Mr.. . Welles’ absence. Ouch. Those who deserve credit for the script have been a source of controversy for decades, which my colleague Todd McCarthy on Jan.. October has examined in detail for deadline. When famed critic Pauline Kael stood out for Team Mankiewicz in her 5,000-word essay, « Raising Kane, » other Welles have given Welles the lion’s share of praise for his later contributions so that future drafts of the script really work. And of course he was the director of this influential and groundbreaking piece of cinema. Last week I had the chance to speak to Oldman, who is starting a new TV series for Apple in London. on taking on the role of Mankiewicz and his take on the lingering mystery of who really wrote Citizen Kane. David Fincher’s exquisite new film Mank premiered on Netflix today and seems like a strong argument for its title character. I found Oldman’s attitude particularly illuminating, an answer that could be most reasoned.
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DEADLINE: In my review of the film, I said the Writers Guild will love it because it is about the author and point out the importance of the author. But obviously there has been a lot of debate over the years about who deserves the credit for « Citizen Kane, » and there’s this big showdown about the credit between Welles and Mankiewicz in the movie. What do you think after playing Mank and doing a lot of research? Resolve the dispute 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 manager at RKO who came up with Citizen Kane. It wasn’t Herman, and I don’t think Welles found that title, but I was privy to this material, had the privilege of working on the production, and you can read these things the public can’t access. So I read the 325-page first draft.
Well, it’s a little naughty from Mankiewicz for being an old hand. He had written a lot of scripts. He was essentially a script doctor. He was someone, if a script didn’t work someone in the studio would say, here, throw it to Mankiewicz and let him stick it through his typewriter to 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 had been doing this for a long time and he knew that films ran at 73 minutes and 86 minutes in that time. I mean, submitting a first draft of 325 pages, that’s kind of F-you back then, and he turned that off.
But yes. It was all there. It was all there and I’m sure I know Welles went to the ranch and had a couple of visits with him, they communicated through (producer) John Houseman. But let’s put it this way, do you know the old Michelangelo thing saw David in the stone? It’s a little bit like that. It was in there, and Mank supplied that piece of stone Welles had knocked away. Yes, he didn’t have a written credit initially because Welles needed a safety net. He knew Mank was the guy for the job, but he also knew about Mank’s reputation and would he be the Mank who met the challenge and got through, or would he be the drunken Mank who couldn’t deliver, or just his typewriter folded up and basically waived the project? So he needed, and I think initially in the contract, he needed this safety net. Mank took it, or he took it to arbitration and then withdrew it, this whole title / credit question, and as you know Welles circled his name and drew an arrow at the end. It was Orson Welles, Herman Mankiewicz, and he just circled Mankiewicz’s name and drew an arrow that basically gave him the highest reckoning up, but I think yes it was all there.
DEADLINE: And how ironic that it turned out to be the only Oscar Kane won, even though Welles was also nominated for Best Actor, Director, and Best Picture.
OLDMAN: Yeah, it must have been a tough night for Welles. I mean you know it’s really great for both of them, but it was, I don’t know, maybe the industry has been short of it in the past . . . just out of sheer perseverance and they really gave it to Welles, I think he wasn’t popular in the other categories. He was far too young and far too smart for his own good.
FRIST: After you won your own Oscar for Churchill, how daunting was it to take on another role from another person who once lived?
OLDMAN: To be honest, I didn’t really see it that way. Churchill was obviously such an icon. What I personally knew about Herman Mankiewicz could be put on a stamp. I knew he was Joe’s brother and I knew his name had Citizen Kane and that I think he had written one of two Marx Brothers films, but other than that, I knew very little about Herman and stuff it came about in a way, as if it were a fictional character, and the more I found out about the man and the more I read about what he had achieved and what he had done, the more amazing the journey of discovery was.
FRIST: It’s such a complex character and such a complex type. You know, I mean what he thought of Hollywood, the business he was in, his own potential, his own self-loathing. I think this has to be really interesting to play out these different aspects of a personality.
OLDMAN: Yes. He was a very complex person. I mean, he was a functioning alcoholic and that comes with his own baggage, of course, an egomaniac with low self-esteem, all that, the grandiosity of alcoholism, but that also brings with it a lot of shame, a lot, as you say, a lot of self-loathing. Early on, he had an aspiration to either become a famous playwright or write that great American novel and that never happened to him, and he ended up in Hollywood first to write the tickets for silent films and really considered film writing as a he had a real disdain for it. He had the feeling that it wasn’t literature, which compared to the novel, compared to the stage, was a medium that one could really reject, and this is also at a time when speaking images are not that old. Really. I mean, when Citizen Kane comes along, they’re about nine or ten years old so there is all of that, yeah, all of that to play. Orson Welles, I think he described it wonderfully. He said Mankiewicz was the perfect memorial to self-destruction. He’s one of those people who always had to have an enemy, always had to point a finger at someone else.
FRIST: You have had so many great and rich roles in your career. How did this compare?
OLDMAN: Well, I’ve had more than my fair share. I’ve really tried this over the years and really can’t fault it. Some of the roles I’ve played, I look back and think you know I was very lucky, I did pretty well. I had a few special ones that came in and landed 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 are two types of directors. There are those who meet you and say, « Oh my god, I’m such a fan and we have to do a movie together, » and you never hear from them again, « or you have a director who says, » Oh ‘We have to do something’ and then they try to construct, they try to create a project. In a way, they’re trying to stick a square pin into a round hole. I thought, well, maybe my chance to work with David. I’ll never be able to tick this box because he’s the director type. I think he won’t work with you just because of work with you. And so far I don’t think anything was for me.
When this happened, a wonderful role, the opportunity to work with David, you knew in advance that he would shoot it in luscious black and white. It’s kind of old Hollywood royalty, in a way. In some ways it glorifies Hollywood and also reveals the wickedness and cynicism and ugliness of Hollywood. I think it’s a character piece. I think it’s almost a chamber piece about that time and especially about this very, very talented, tortured alcoholic. When you walked in you knew the world you were stepping into and you knew that with David at the helm, the experience we hoped or felt would only be transformative. He’s obsessed with details, meticulous, and you could only tell from the sets, the costumes, and the whole attitude that this had the potential to be a very special movie, 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.
OLDMAN: Yes. He took a couple. We made a few hundred. You know, here’s the thing, I know people would look at it sometimes and they would roll their eyes and say, « Oh my god, he takes so many shots, » but it’s, I think, first of all, really nice to have one really big bite into the apple. We’re in a time where budgets are getting tight and you make movies, do two takes, three takes and keep going, and you really have to push if you want a third or fourth take.
With David, as I said, you not only get a big bite of the apple, but at the end of the day when you walk away, you feel like you’ve covered the scene. You don’t feel like you’re working with someone who settles down. David won’t settle down. He won’t walk away from anything until he has it and that gives you great assurance. It helps. In the end, we really worked on this scene, and that’s why I don’t think it’s that bad, and also, you know, as the actor you work for. 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 12 hours a day, and sometimes it’s more, sometimes 13 or 14 hours, but I’m contracted to work those 12. If the director wants to do 60 takes or 100, I’ll be there until I switch off. It doesn’t really matter. You’re there to get the job done and he’s obsessed, he’s meticulous, yes, he’s all of these things and yes, he does a lot of shots. I think he likes the reputation too. I think he doubles on that.
DEADLINE: So many of the movies you’ve made have played characters that required a lot of makeup and different looks. I heard Fincher wanted you to be in some ways nude in this role than ever before.
OLDMAN: How would I put it? I love a disguise. You know, I like to hide, but I hide because it’s all my luggage and all my belongings and that was my problem, that wasn’t Fincher’s problem, and when he said, “No, I just want no veils in between you and the audience ‘, it wasn’t that I resisted it, it made me a little scared because hey, even George Smiley has those glasses, you know, at least I was able to hide a little behind those glasses.
I was a little concerned about this, and when we started I felt like David made the right call. I found it very liberating. It’s one thing that I had to work out in my process. I don’t look like Herman Mankiewicz and that never bothered David. He wasn’t concerned with that. Gary was a little concerned about it, it was my concern at first, it wasn’t his, but when we started working it was very, very liberating.
David Fincher, Herman J.. . Mankiewicz, Netflix, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles
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