The release of Mank, David Fincher of Fightclub fame’s newest release on Netflix, has once again stoked the flames of one of those bitter battles in movie history often lying in the dirt for anyone who has better things to worry about, that being the production of Citizen Kane. You’ve probably heard of Citizen Kane even though you may not think you have as it’s referenced quite frequently and revered as one of the greatest movies ever made. Such praise often invites controversy and pseudo mythology, which the film brims with. Its release is one spiral of mystery and controversy with attacks on the studios hiring of Jewish refugees to help production, the film released in 1941, and attempts at destroying all remaining copies of the film as it was seen as a sort of exposé on newspaper mogul and millionaire William Randolph Hearst.
Instead, Mank focuses on the story of Herman Mankiewicz, a journalist turned screenwriter who solely wrote the first draft of the film and also had a personal history with Hearst. Being a Fincher film, our protagonist is portrayed as an unlucky genius robbed of his rightful glory as the films director, producer and star Orson Welles tries to scrub his name off the credits until finally settling for a co-writer credit. Again, this film is said to be the best ever made, so of course this aspect has been mythologized as well, thanks to critic Pauling Kael’s scathing report on the supposed shenanigans that “the greatest loser in Hollywood history” Orson Welles, was getting at to unjustifiably pass the screenplay as his own. This report has been mostly disproven thanks to a series of essays and deep dives through production records as Welles edited the screenplay and produced five whole drafts, but the tale of screenwriters getting the short end of the stick has more than a little bit of truth to it, though of course they’re not alone.
It’s no controversial remark that humans like to simplify or attribute multiple accomplishments to a single person. To make a legend out of a person isn’t only fun, but inspiring, it happens all the time in history under the Great Man theory and happens all the time in entertainment. Throughout this entire column Mank has been attributed as “Fincher’s film” when, in reality, it’s the product of thousands if not tens of thousands of make up artists, designers, cameramen, composers and so on that seem to fade in the public consciousness and sometimes really are cheated out of credit and cash.
Of course, some faces shine through. John Williams is a household name as was Roger Deakins following the release of 1917 and actors do get their credit and attention as they are the people in front of the camera, but Marvel’s army of sfx artists certainly don’t, yet they arguably make a larger contribution than most actors on set. When these people succeed, either they create a good costume, put that makeup on just right or build a wonderful set and no one seems to care, but it’s only when one fails, especially if that person is an sfx artist, when that person is noticed.
Movies are an incredibly complex organism with so many moving pieces it’s often confusing, and blockbusters especially have sprawling lists of workers who made the film possible. I’m not saying we should all gather around and have a discussion over who provided the greatest food on the set of Star Wars, though that would be fun, instead we should throw away the idea that the movie is the sole creation of one person outside of ease of language like that found in this column. We should foster a culture of greater appreciation for those that make our favorite movies possible and, who knows, maybe one day we will all have heated debates on who did or didn’t deserve the Oscar for Best Catering.
This article originally appeared in HiLite.