'Mank' on Netflix: The Real Life Mystery of Who Wrote 'Citizen Kane'

Mank on Netflix wades right into one of the most conscientious issues among fans of classical Hollywood cinema: Who exactly wrote Citizen Kane?

The script for the movie, called by many the greatest ever made, is credited to Herman Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman in Mank) and director Orson Welles (Tom Burke).

But exactly how much is Mank and how much Welles, however, has been the source of many books and many discussions among film buffs for years.

Mank takes a fairly even-handed approach to the question, with Mankiewicz seen drafting the script and Welles doing what was effectively a touch-up. The movie also claims that the original deal was that Welles would get full credit for the script, only for Mank to renege after writing the script and realizing how good it was.

If this is the case, then this was a savvy move on his part—in 1942, it won the Oscar for best original screenplay, the only Academy Award the film won, and the only one Mankiewicz won in his 30-year career as a screenwriter.

The fact that the film is so revered and yet only won the screenplay Oscar might explain why the question of who wrote the movie is so debated. Opinions run the whole gamut from critic Pauline Kael and Mankiewicz's son Frank, who argued the script was all Mank to historian Harlan Lebo, who in book Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey that Welles owned his contractual credit by significantly revising the screenplay.

Tom Burke Orson Welles Mank
Tom Burke as Orson Welles in "Mank." Courtesy of Netflix

Among those who took the latter argument was Citizen Kane composer Bernard Herrmann, who told Sight & Sound magazine in 1972: "The greatest thing that ever happened to Herman Mankiewicz, whatever his contribution, was that he met Welles, not the other way around. If Welles hadn't created Kane, he would have made other equally remarkable pictures. Mankiewicz's credits don't show any other remarkable scripts. His only moment in the sun was when he came across Orson Welles."

Lebo's account has significant evidence behind it. The journalist based his argument on two scripts for the movie housed in New York's MoMA and the University of Michigan respectively. These shows Welles making major changes to the Citizen Kane script up to and including new scenes and some of the movie's best lines. The line where Kane (played by Welles) tells Bernstein (Everett Sloane), "if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man," for example, seems to have been written by the director.

The scripts Lebo unearthed even showed disagreements between Mankiewicz and Welles where the latter's change is the one that ended up in the movie. One note after a change written by Welles assistant Kathryn Trosper Popper, for example, reads, "Welles: Loves it. Mank: It stinks!"

The film's most iconic element, however, seems to have come from Mankiewicz: "Rosebud," the final words of Citizen Kane whose meaning various characters are searching for throughout the film (no spoilers here for an 80-year-old film). It was actually an element of the movie that Welles hated, famously calling it a "dollar-book Freudian gag."

The mystery around this line, however, seems to be what gave Mank the idea. His son claimed that it was named after a childhood bike that the writer had, whereas others claim that it was taken from a horse named Old Rosebud that the writer won big on at the Kentucky Derby around around the same time he was working on the Kane script.

Mank is streaming now on Netflix.