The screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz — whose life is the inspiration for Mank, heading into the Academy Awards with 10 nominations, the most of any film — was himself an Oscar winner in 1941 for Citizen Kane, sharing the honor with Orson Welles. But Mankiewicz did not attend the ceremony. Here, one of Mankiewicz’s grandsons, Nick Davis, explains what really led to his no-show that night.
My grandfather Herman Mankiewicz was nominated for an Oscar for writing maybe the greatest movie of all time, Citizen Kane. With David Fincher’s Mank, a movie about Herman’s writing of the first draft of the screenplay for Kane, now itself nominated for 10 Oscars, I’m reminded of a question that bothered me when I was growing up: Why didn’t Herman attend the Oscar ceremonies when Citizen Kane was nominated in February 1942?
Orson Welles, Herman’s co-author, had a good excuse. He was in Brazil, working on a documentary about the Rio Carnival as part of the war effort.
Herman had no such conflict, but he skipped the ceremony, too. The reason he gave was the same one he had for getting involved with Orson Welles in the first place: a busted leg. As depicted in Mank, back in 1939, Herman and his friend Tommy Phipps had gotten into a car accident in New Mexico that broke Herman’s left leg and landed him back in Hollywood in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, his leg in traction.
Having just been fired by MGM, and battling massive drinking and gambling problems — my mother would lose track of how many times the family had to rent out their Tower Road house in Beverly Hills and move to a smaller home south of Sunset during Herman’s boom-and-bust career — Herman, a legendary wit who had once been one of highest-paid screenwriters in town, needed something to revive him. Soon enough, of course, Orson Welles came along, showing up in the hospital seeking help on radio scripts for his Mercury Theater, forming a partnership that ultimately led to the writing of Citizen Kane.
By the time the Oscars rolled around over two years later, Herman should have been fully mobile again. In fact, just a few months earlier, he had finally gotten his cast off, an occasion that led to an impromptu party with many of his pals at Hollywood’s famed Chasen’s. At the party, true to form, Herman slipped and rebroke his leg.
But the leg was something of an excuse. Something deeper was at work.
The legacy Herman’s father Franz left Herman and his younger brother Joe was profound. Franz was a stern, brilliant professor and German immigrant who insisted on perfection and excellence in all things. All his life Herman would tell of bringing home a 97 on an exam only to be barked at: “Where are the other three points?” Perfection was not only possible, it was expected, and who cared what the other kids were doing. Herman would tell Franz that nobody else got more than a 90, and Pop would say, “The boy who got 90, maybe it was harder for him to do that than for you to get 97. It’s not good unless it’s your best.” On those rare occasions when Herman did meet the high standards his father had set for him, Franz never praised him. Forget about “I love you.” Herman and Joe never got so much as a “nice job.”
The pressure to succeed at the highest level, to compete and win no matter the cost, drove Herman and Joe their entire lives, and I think it was at the root of why Herman didn’t go to the Oscars that night. On the one hand, he was convinced that he was going to lose. “He did not want to be humiliated,” his wife, my grandmother (Goma) Sara, said years later. “He thought he’d get mad and do something drastic when he didn’t win.”
But equally, by 1942, Herman had had nearly 45 years of never measuring up to his father’s expectations. When I think about what happened after that night — Herman’s inability to leverage Citizen Kane’s success into a sustained thriving career — it’s equally possible that Herman stayed home because he was afraid to win.
So he listened that night on the radio in his bathrobe and slippers, making a show of pretending to nod off in his chair as the ceremony dragged on. As expected, despite all the nominations, it was not Citizen Kane’s night. The voters, Hollywood insiders, weren’t about to reward Welles — detested, despised, and envied for his youth and his early success. Kane lost out in virtually every major award — save one.
When they announced the winner of best screenplay as “Herman J. Mankiewicz…” Herman jumped out of his chair, grabbed Goma and danced a limping jig. A few blocks away, my grandmother’s sister Mattie let out a yelp, grabbed her cousin Olga, and the two women, still in their nightgowns, drove straight to Tower Road for an impromptu celebration: everyone jumping around, and the phone ringing, and even my Mom, just 4, twirling and sashaying.
But not everyone was joining in the celebration. Across town, listening on his radio, was an MGM producer with an uncanny physical resemblance to the screenwriter. The producer had also decided not to attend the ceremony, though several of his movies had also been nominated for awards. Still, he felt a strong connection to the ceremony, and to Citizen Kane in particular. For one thing, he would later tell interviewers that he’d been the source for one of the movie’s great inventions, for he claimed he had owned a sled called Rosebud in his youth. But he really didn’t want to go to the ceremony because, like Herman, he didn’t want to be humiliated.
Now, when the moment came and his brother’s name was announced, Joseph L. Mankiewicz looked over at his wife, who was listening with him, and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever win an Oscar.” Seething with sibling rivalry and resentment, hoping vainly that awards and professional success would fill the gaping psychological hole dug by their father, Joe didn’t know that the moment was helping water a seed that would eventually flower into his own masterpiece, in which the coveted Oscar was transformed into the fictional Sarah Siddons Award, a film about art, about ambition, and about a lovable, maddening elder and a cold, scheming, usurper: All About Eve.
He stood up from his chair, went to the wet bar, and poured himself a drink. Years later, Joe could still remember the awful feeling in his stomach, and the thought that went with it: “He’s got the Oscar, and I’m a producer at Metro, goddamn it!”
Nick Davis is a New York City-based filmmaker. His next film is a multipart documentary about the 1986 Mets for ESPN’s 30 for 30. His book about his grandfather and great-uncle, Competing With Idiots: Herman and Joe Mankiewicz, A Dual Portrait, will be published this August by Alfred A. Knopf.