What ‘Mank’ didn’t show about real-life ‘Citizen Kane’ Oscar drama

Even after scoring 10 Oscar nominations, the most of any film this year, pundits still felt like David Fincher‘s “Mank” under-performed thanks to snubs in categories like Best Film Editing and Best Original Screenplay. But there’s an interesting aspect to the snubbing of the screenplay that hasn’t been talked about that much. It’s the fact that the brief scene that takes place during the 14th Academy Awards omits one of the craziest events in Oscar history.

Towards the end of the movie, we see the Oscar ceremony honoring the films of 1941 taking place inside the Biltmore Hotel and the award for Best Original Screenplay is presented to Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz and Orson Welles for “Citizen Kane.” The audience reacts with applause as the president of RKO Pictures goes to the stage to accept the honor. Except, that’s not what happened when the film won. From the accounts of several people at the ceremony, including Robert Wise who was nominated that night as the film’s editor (and would later win two Oscars for directing “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”), the film was booed by the audience consistently throughout the night. When the first category in which “Kane” was nominated was presented and the film’s name was read as one of the nominees, a smattering of boos could be heard in the audience. As the evening progressed, each time the film’s name was read as a nominee, the boos would get louder and louder. By the time the film scored its only win of the night, the audience’s attitude toward the movie could be heard loud and clear throughout the hotel ballroom.

This begs the question, why would this incredible piece of Oscar history not be portrayed accurately? The film’s screenwriter, Jack Fincher (the director’s father), sadly passed away in 2003, so we can’t ask him about this. But it’s still an interesting question to entertain as what happened at the Oscars fits perfectly into the narrative that the film presents. In the film, Mank becomes disillusioned with the powers that be as he watches newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst (whom Mank would base Kane on), and MGM head (and California state GOP chairman), Louis B. Mayer, use the media companies they oversee to manipulate the electorate during the California governor’s race of 1934. As Mank writes “Kane” several years later, several people implore him to pull out of the Welles project, warning him that Hearst will do everything in his power to destroy the film if it gets made.

Of course, Mank doesn’t back down and neither did Hearst. He refused to let theaters that played “Citizen Kane” advertise in his newspapers and also had his publications launch a smear campaign against the film and Welles himself. Mayer also helped to enforce these tactics (including offering $800,000 for all copies of the negative so he could destroy them) which led “Kane” to be a financial failure as well as a pariah around Hollywood. It makes it all the more bizarre that the actual reception it received at the Oscars isn’t accurately portrayed. This is what’s considered to be the greatest film ever made winning its only Oscar and the elite of the entertainment industry had so bought into the trashing of it that they made their disgust known on a night that should have been one of glory for the film. That would have been an incredible moment to witness in the film, especially as the ceremony wasn’t filmed.

I am not arguing that this was the sole reason that the film was not nominated for Best Original Screenplay, or one of the main ones for that matter. There’s a difference between filmmaking and journalism and Fincher was under no obligation to include this moment in his script for the sake of historical accuracy. It’s simply an interesting discrepancy. However, it’s not that difficult to imagine that when these nominations were being announced and Fincher’s name was not read out for Best Original Screenplay, Oscar historians (both official and unofficial) chuckled at the fact that the academy had the last laugh on this matter.

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