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Interview: Ben Mankiewicz Reflects on the 80th Anniversary of Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane. Whether you love it, or hate it, the 1941 drama holds an undeniable place in Hollywood history. I mean, being proclaimed one of the greatest movies of all time certainly means something and this is one work which all students of film should see at least once.

Personally, I have a complicated history with Citizen Kane dating back to 1998 when the American Film Institute released its ‘Top 100 List’, leading little old me to learn of the movie’s existence. I mean, it is squarely at the top of the list, so it’s really hard to miss.

That year, I made a goal of ticking as many movies as I could off my list and dear readers, I have to admit something: I didn’t get Citizen Kane. In fact, it took me four viewings before I could get through (let alone wrap my head around) this fascinating tale of narcissism, greed and opulence.

With that being said, the age and wisdom resulting from the passage of time allowed me to finally meet Citizen Kane at its level and at the same time, see why so many celebrate this picture. Whether it is the sheer beauty of the camera work and cinematography, the dynamic direction by the 26 year old Orson Welles, or the spot-on performances by (then) up-and-coming Mercury Theater players like Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins, Citizen Kane was (and continues to be) a force to be reckoned with. It sure is a heady beast of a movie, but if you’re a student of film, it is an important one.

As the essential comes speeding towards its 80th anniversary, the crew at TCM is showcasing the film as part of the TCM Big Screen Classics Series and our Ticklish team was lucky enough to chat with TCM host (and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz‘s grandson) Ben Mankiewicz about his personal relationship with the legendary movie thanks to his famous Grandfather.

What do you think Citizen Kane still says to society in 2021?

I think it says something about the corporate control of the media and the danger of misusing (that) power. Obviously, we’ve had corporate controlled media for some time. I was thinking about CBS News, right… obviously no one would deny the power of the CBS Corporation….There was a hands off approach… where they left the news division alone… That began to change in the (19)80s and now that’s just sort of the acceptable model that we have.

So it’s a little bit different here, because this is specifically the politics and the power of one man dictating news coverage to millions and millions of Americans… obviously, there were some direct parallels (now), even with Charles Foster Kane and media control, but in general, what we’re looking at (is that) we’re a corporatist… and a consumerist society, but some of that still applies in Kane.

And now what we perceive as… bold, independent breakthrough journalism is really just… contrarian nonsense, steeped in very little… information…. Real independent journalism is so rare that we don’t even know it when we see it. I’m a giant consumer of journalism, and I love it. (I) was there for a long time. I’m not knocking all these individual journalists who work for giant, giant corporate entities (who are) out there busting their ass doing critically good work on a daily basis, but overall… it is tough to break through (the) corporate groupthink that pervades… throughout the journalism most of us read on a daily basis.

Growing up with such a personal relationship with Citizen Kane thanks to your family, when did you watch it and become aware of your Grandfather’s involvement? Or did you come to appreciate that more later on?

I definitely came to appreciate it more later on, but I did know. I grew up in DC and my father was a… fairly big deal in Democratic politics. (He was) Bobby Kennedy’s Press Secretary (and) actually ran George McGovern’s campaign that was all when I was very young.

My Dad was always the smartest person in any room he was in… I just thought there was this… Hollywood wing of the family, which my Dad had… very consciously fled from and I knew Herman (Mankiewicz) had written the movie. I knew the family line that he’d written the movie (emphasis Mankiewicz). So you know, until I was older, I sort of was like, ‘Oh, well, this guy (Orson Welles) tried to steal credit for my Grandpa’s movie’.

I’m not even sure I’ve ever said this, but the first time I saw it with some (understanding) that it was important, I do remember thinking, ‘Okay, well obviously this is very good and very clever. It sounds like a Mankiewicz wrote it. But… I’m pretty sure this Welles guy deserves a tremendous amount of credit, even if he didn’t write a word.’…. Movies were not important to me, I mean, other than as a consumer of movies until I was… in college, but (definitely) into my into my twenties. So and now I… can say, yeah, I think Herman… deserves the overwhelming lions share the credit for writing the screenplay, but let’s not kid ourselves that’s Welles’s movie, period.

This may be more of a hypothetical, but if Citizen Kane were to be made for the first time today, How different would it be from the film that came out in theaters?

Yeah, pretty sure it’d be in color (laughs). And, you know… the Spanish American War would probably be… the manipulated news (and) be bigger than the personal story.

In Citizen Kane… the biggest manipulated news (event) is the criticism of Susan Alexander Kane’s performance, right? That’s what breaks up the friendship (and) it ultimately tells you… what kind of man Charles Foster Kane is.

So I suspect it would be a little bit bigger. It would have a bigger worldview. But, you know (it) depends on who made it… Not just the director, but, you know, who financed it (and) where the pressures were… but it wouldn’t be as good because it would be impossible…. There’s some great modern movies and they’ve made a lot of movies better, but… nobody’s making Kane better then Orson Welles. Nobody’s making Casablanca better than Michael Curtiz.

So now, I’m curious what you thought of movies like Mank and RKO 281?

It’s funny… I haven’t seen RKO 281 in 10 or 12 years. And I watched it…. a few nights ago… And you know, I love some of the changes made in that (one)…. Welles never met Hearst, but… in RKO 281… they have Welles at ‘The Castle’ and interacting with Hearst. You know, there was a time in my life (where) I would have been like, ‘That didn’t happen!’….Now I think that’s interesting.

So I like RKO 281 very much. I mean, my memory… is that I liked it, because it made it seem like Herman wrote the screenplay… And I love Liev Schreiber and John Malkovich… I love almost any… good inside Hollywood story. I (had) totally forgotten Melanie Griffith played Marion… James Cromwell… those are good people.

And Mank… look, man, I started sobbing at the title card for crying out loud. I mean, it’s called Mank. And they say Mank… 112 times (or) something in the movie and everybody in my family’s called ‘Mank’.

So I thought Mank was really great. I just thought it was a wonderful, wonderful movie… I get it, it probably didn’t connect with everybody because it doesn’t really build to anything. It’s really just a slice of slice of life (of) this struggling writer. But you know, I never met my Grandfather and that character (David) Fincher gave us and that Gary Oldman gave us… is exactly how my father described (Herman). It was like, my father talked to Fincher, which he didn’t…my Dad died in 2014. I just kept thinking, ‘Man, my Dad would love this’. You know, that Herman (was) smart (and) funny. Yeah, (he was also) drunk, a gambler, reckless (and) filled with self loathing. All those things were true. But he was never mean. My Dad regretted that (Herman would) come home, fall asleep (and) pass out. So (you’d) miss time with him. But you know, he loved his father…. That’s why my Dad didn’t want to make movies. My Dad would have been a brilliant screenwriter, but… he felt… that career drove his father to an early death and my Dad wanted to do something that… he could be proud of. Now it’s silly… I want to go back in time and tell my Grandfather, ‘Stop wallowing moron’… what you’re doing is valuable. This is great. What you’re doing… is art, but…. he did not see it that way.

So, so I love Mank and I think RKO 281 is terrific… I think they’re both, you know, I think they’re both really, really valuable. But I’m a sucker for those kind of movies, even if they don’t have a relative of mine in it.

I wanted to go back on your first experience with watching Citizen Kane . It’s such a brilliant but also a complex movie. Can you reflect some on your thoughts and feelings watching it for the first time?

Well, like I said… I’ve seen it 30 times now. Maybe 50… I do remember (feeling) that… I had misinterpreted what my Dad had said… I just remember as a kid a long time ago (feeling that) my Grandfather wrote it not not Orson Welles…. And then I do remember seeing it and thinking ‘Oh, well, I think that this Welles guy… maybe maybe I shouldn’t dismiss this kid’.

I saw it (in) college… it was like… (a) Saturday night movie… I didn’t go to many. I saw Midnight Run at Tufts, that was also a great experience. I saw Kane… I saw them (in)… back to back weeks because the experience of seeing one was so good that I went back the next week. And again, movies were not terribly important to me… not as important as they should have been… but when I saw it at Tufts, that was profound. I remember feeling emotional about it and being in a theater where all these other kids were reacting to it in a strong way. And I did feel this sort of enormous sense of pride in it, because… this is just so cleverly structured. And I’m still to this day, far more likely to pay attention to the… structure of the script and to what people say to each other than I am to appreciate, you know, depth of field and certainly that was the case at that point.

So I felt an enormous sense of pride that somebody in my family… had written that… The sense of ‘Oh, crap’. My Dad was so smart… and so thoughtful and everybody wanted his opinion (and) solicited his opinion and then I’m watching this in college and thinking, ‘Oh, I see why he’s clever’. This… is smarter than I recognized. I am never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to come close to matching this. And, you know, is it’s too late to go by my middle name (and) call myself Benjamin Fredericks?.

That’s the nature of having this name, which… opened far more doors than the difficulty of carrying (the) sense that you’ll never match your ancestors. You know, that’s what a lot of kids feel. I had seen it before (Tufts), but that’s the one… that mattered.

(In fact), that’s why I took my first film course pass/fail and… wrote a paper on Santa Fe Trail the Warner Brothers picture…. I didn’t even try (and) that’s the only A plus I’ve ever gotten. A plus! On a paper! … But I still look at that as a moment where I was like, ‘Oh, maybe this is maybe this is something I can talk about’…. So things began to change for me there at college, and I suspect that viewing of Kane mattered somewhat too.

Citizen Kane brings a glaring focus on the makings of a narcissist. So this thing is so culturally relevant in today’s landscape. What are your thoughts on finding empathy for the Charles Kane’s of the world.

It’s easier for me to say (that) I don’t have empathy for the Charles Kane’s of the world. Any. I have empathy for each one that (might) learn. Big Picture… there’s no space anymore (to have) empathy for that.

(However) in the… two hours that we learned about Charles Foster Kane, there’s enormous empathy. I suspect if I spent two and a half hours with someone who was both honest and honestly critical about Rupert Murdoch, by the end of it, I might think, ‘Well, alright, man, that’s a complicated guy… who had his own desires (and) was thinking about hurdles to overcome, right’? ….That’s one of the great legacies of Kane… we’re all more complicated than you think. Because obviously, if you were exposed to a boy… losing his sled… and having the sled sort of represent (his lost) innocence… being, you know, abandoned by his mother, who he loves, even if she thought it was the best thing to do for him… If that doesn’t… tug at you a little bit… then you’re not paying attention and I don’t really want to be friends.

You know it’s funny because that (makes me) think about Succession, which I love…the HBO show. I watched (it) again to catch my wife up on it. Like I don’t have any sympathy at all for Brian Cox… but I love it. Right I’m still interested in (it), but I have sympathy for his kids… even though they’re sort of monstrous…. I feel like that that show’s really about… these four little Charles Foster Kanes… it seems clear that Kane has informed Succession in some way.

If you had the opportunity to interview your Grandfather, what questions would you ask him?

That’s a good question! I get hung up on the self-loathing, like why don’t you think what you do is valuable. It seems pretty clear that he saw value in Kane (and) he thought he’d written something that mattered. But, you know… this idea that what he was doing wasn’t worthwhile, you know, clearly came from his father, who was the person who came over from Germany (or) Poland… (it’s) hard to tell who that area belonged to at the time. (He) came over to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania in the 1880s and Herman was born in 1897.

(His father) was a professor and (was) a strict disciplinarian. We have his portrait that Joe had for a long time. It’s now hanging in our house again, we just hung it up this week. It looks like he’s just staring at you disapprovingly.

Both Herman and Joe had this struggle that what they were doing didn’t matter. If they’d written plays that would have been good, if they’d written a novel… not a pulp novel, but a novel of substance that would have mattered. (A) theater critic… would have mattered, but they’re writing these silly movies, for the masses, right? These popcorn fillers.

Herman… internalized (that) and thought he… made his life worthless. You know… politics was all anybody talked about in the family… but movies were unimportant. I’m sure I’d ask him questions about whether he still thought that (and) why he thought (it). Thankfully, you know, in 2021, we recognize the art, but he never (saw) that…. And that’s really to me… the tragedy. Obviously I’d ask him about Welles. What was Welles like? Clearly, there was a draw. I’m sure he liked him. Herman liked people. He loved talking to people and Welles could talk, and I’m sure that that was exciting.

We live in this age where Hollywood just keeps recycling ideas from old intellectual property. Are you kind of surprised that Citizen Kane hasn’t been on that list of announced remakes yet?

I’m not surprised because of the other things that haven’t been remade… I mean, the true classics. I don’t know what that means. That’s just a thing people say. If there’ s a sort of universally accepted top tier of classic films…we’re not remaking those right? I mean, the pressure (is) too great. The criticism that comes with it ahead of time (is) too intense. The expectation then becomes too high. How do you remake the movie that is… considered by so many… the best movie ever made, or the second best movie ever made. Nobody’s gonna remake Vertigo… we’re not remaking North by Northwest and we’re not remaking Casablanca. We’re not remaking Sunset Boulevard. That would be crazy.

Then there are some you could get away with remaking… Rob Marshall was talking about remaking The Thin Man. And you know, that’s different, right? That’s more of an idea than then than a truly perfect movie…even though it is a perfect movie. So you’ve got to… find the little sweet spot if you’re going to remake a classic.

The mythical ‘Rosebud’ sleds have a long history in Hollywood memorabilia circles. Only four supposedly existed and one was supposedly owned by your Grandfather. What is your experience with the sled?

At the wrap party, Ben Hecht gave Herman a sled he had… made, I presume… exactly the same as the ones… used in the movie. So I don’t know whether that’s one of the four. But it’s one of the reasons why when it ultimately sold… it sold for a little less money.

So… the only (sled) I ever saw was that one. And that was the story of that sled. If that story is fully correct or not, I don’t know. That sled said ‘Rosebud’… forget that it was the one made by the prop department that wasn’t burned. The notion that Ben Hecht gave it to Herman at a party… to celebrate the movie, that’s to me a better story. But it ended up not going for… what you would imagine a ‘Rosebud’… sled… would be worth… it seems like somebody would pay certainly hundreds and hundreds of thousands for that.

My father had the Oscar for years and after my parents divorced it was… with him in his place… it was so much to insure that he put it in a safety deposit box. Somebody else in the family needed some money… and my Dad, who owned it completely… sold the Oscar at auction…so he could give some of the money to (them). My Dad was very generous and… would always help people. Herman too was always borrowing money and lending it simultaneously.

I wish obviously (that) we still had the Oscar, because I definitely have it now. I mean, my brother… I’m sure we’d co-own it, but… I love that my Dad sold it because it was too much to insure and he had to put it in a safety deposit box. So what’s the point? His hope was that Spielberg would buy it because Spielberg bought… Herman’s copy of the screenplay with Herman’s notes on it and and so the theory was (to sell) the Oscar and Spielberg would buy that too. That’s like giving it to a museum… but we don’t know who bought it.

But the sled, yeah, I saw and I touched it… of course, I wish we had it. But I don’t know, man, it’s a slippery slope of memorabilia. I’m overwhelmed with the number of things that we have… all these… great letters… people like Ben Hecht wrote to my Grandmother after my Grandfather died… I love that that stuff, but… it feels… okay not to have that. I should probably give it to the Academy Museum and see if they can do anything with it.

Citizen Kane is of course just one example of the many classics of which TCM is working to increase their exposure. If you’re comfortable going to a movie theater, this is a tremendous opportunity. I can’t sing the praises enough of seeing the classics on the big screen if you are able. There’s something truly special in the experience.

Click the link for more information on the TCM Big Screen Classics Series.

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