Classic Conversations: Ben Mankiewicz on His Grandfather’s Oscar-Winning ‘Citizen Kane’ Coming to Theaters

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, grandson of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz

Among classic movie lovers, the topic of the greatest film of all time is one that always leads to a lot of controversy. I tend to be an outlier when I read such lists. I’m shocked by all the people who call Vertigo the best film ever, there are so many other Hitchcock films I prefer. I’ve never seen Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story or Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. I appreciate Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now but am more of a fan of his Godfather trilogy. I studied Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in film school and admire its achievements, but I don’t think it would even make my Top 25. I adore Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain but I lean toward Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon as my favorite MGM musical of that era. But there’s one film that always appears on the lists of all-time greats that I never quibble with: Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane, co-written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz.

If you’ve never seen the extraordinary Citizen Kane on the big screen, now’s your chance! For the film’s 80th anniversary, TCM Big Screen Classics, together with Fathom Events, is screening Welles’ masterpiece around the country on Sunday, September 19, and Wednesday, September 22.  Just go to this link and type in your city or zip code to find theaters near you that will be showing the film. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this spectacular achievement, loosely based on the life of media moguls such as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, Samuel Insull, Harold McCormick, and others. Yes, Hearst really did prohibit mention of the film in his newspapers, which severely hurt the film at the box office, yes, he went after Orson Welles in a big way, and yes, part of Hearst’s enmity towards Welles was based on his perception that the film also skewered his love, actress Marion Davies. But no, neither Orson Welles or Herman Mankiewicz in any way based the tragic Susan Alexander Kane on Davies. Both men knew Marion Davies and knew the successful actress and glittering personality to be the polar opposite of the unfortunate second Mrs. Kane. 

Herman J. Mankiewicz

I had a chance this week to talk to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, the grandson of Citizen Kane’s storied screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz—one of the few screenwriters in history to be portrayed in not one but two feature films (by John Malkovich in the 1999 film RKO 281, and by Gary Oldman in last year’s Oscar-nominated Mank). Ben will be providing filmed commentary for the theatrical screenings next week and I was delighted to join the roundtable discussion of journalists talking to him about the legacy of this film. I asked Ben what kind of lore this film had in his life as he was growing up. Did he grow up watching it and acknowledging his grandfather’s work, or did he come to appreciate it more later on?

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane

“I definitely came to appreciate it more later on,” Ben replied. “I grew up in DC and my father (the late Frank Mankiewicz) was a fairly big deal in Democratic politics. He worked closely with Bobby Kennedy, and then, after Kennedy was murdered, he ran George McGovern’s presidential campaign. My dad was always the smartest person in any room he was in. Growing up, I knew there was this Hollywood wing of the family that my dad had very consciously fled from. I always knew that Herman had written Citizen Kane and I was aware of the family line—that Orson Welles had somehow tried to steal the credit for my grandfather’s movie! But, to be honest, movies back then were not that important to me. That changed in college but it was really when I was in my twenties that I started to get a lot more interested. I remember watching Citizen Kane with a lot more cognition of my grandfather’s role and thinking, ‘Okay, this is obviously very good and it’s very clever, and it sounds like a Mankiewicz wrote it, but I’m pretty sure this Welles guy deserves a tremendous amount of credit no matter how much of the script he actually wrote!’ I mean, yes, I think Herman deserves the overwhelming lion’s share of the credit for writing the screenplay but let’s not kid ourselves: this is Orson Welles’ movie. Period.”

Mankiewicz talked to us about last year’s Mank which told the story of the writing of Citizen Kane and the relationship between his grandfather and young Orson Welles.  “I thought it was a wonderful movie. I started sobbing at the title card, for crying out loud! You know, I never met my grandfather (Herman died in 1953) but the character that David and Jack Fincher and Gary Oldman gave us was exactly how my father described him. It was like my father had talked to Fincher, but he didn’t, he died in 2014. When I watched the film I just kept thinking how much my dad would have loved it—this exploration of my grandfather as this urban, smart, funny guy, yet also a drunk and a gambler who was reckless and filled with self-loathing. My dad would have recognized that torture that Herman put himself through and which, frankly, was the reason why my dad, who would’ve been a great screenwriter, wanted nothing to do with the movies.”

“When I see my grandfather’s work in Citizen Kane, I know that I am never, ever going to come close to matching that accomplishment! But that’s okay. My name has certainly opened doors for me and given me a lot of advantages even if I know I’ll never be able to match my ancestors.” Mankiewicz was asked what he might ask his grandfather if he could interview him on his TCM set. “To be honest, I would probably get hung up on the self-loathing. It seems pretty clear that Herman saw value in Kane and knew he’d written something that mattered, but he could never really shake this idea that what he was doing wasn’t worthwhile. My guess is that it came from his own father, the one who had first emigrated here from Poland in the 1880s. Herman and Joe (Ben’s great-uncle, the Oscar-winning director, screenwriter, and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz) had that struggle throughout their lives. 

With its incredible cast of actors including Welles, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Ruth Warrick, and Dorothy Comingore, most of them making their film debuts, its brilliant and innovative cinematography by Gregg Toland, and its Oscar-winning screenplay by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, don’t miss the chance to see the 80th anniversary screening of Citizen Kane on the big screen where it belongs. And, for the record, Ben Mankiewicz agreed with me about Vertigo. “Not even on my Top 10 list of favorite Hitchcock films!” Duh…North by Northwest and Rear Window leave that film in the dust! [Now I better hide from my classic movie friends…]

–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Danny’s Classic Conversation Articles Here

Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of  About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the StarsYou can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller

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3 Responses to Classic Conversations: Ben Mankiewicz on His Grandfather’s Oscar-Winning ‘Citizen Kane’ Coming to Theaters

  1. Barry Lane says:

    Great piece, Ben and I am with you on Vertigo. Picking the best of all time is ridiculous, but picking Vertigo makes the ridiculous sublime to the point of nothing. We are after all talking about the movies, and all of your picks above are more fun, but let us add dozens of films, several directed by Howard Hawks, John Ford, Rene Clair, but if Hitchcock is to be represented let us not forget Notorious and Foreign Correspondent, for content as well as expertise.
    A final thought about Vertigo. It is such a bore, the Gitane crowd have anointed it in the same way they rail at injustice. A futile business.

  2. Fredric M. London says:

    When I first read that “Vertigo” was regarded as the greatest film of all time, I just shook my head. This is indicative of how far down people have come in understanding. I like several of Hitchcock’s other films better. But, as good as many of them were, they were not earth shattering. “Citizen Kane” is earth shattering. It is so incredibly creative on so many levels, so brilliantly innovative, I really have a problem with it ‘losing’ its ‘greatest film’ status, especially to “Vertigo.” And I wish I were there to see it on the big screen!

  3. Stacey G says:

    I agree with you about Vertigo as well! I’m so glad to see the above poster mention Foreign Correspondent and Notorious for Hitchcock.

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