Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after you stream David Fincher’s Mank on Netflix.
Let’s start off by stating that Citizen Kane is not on this list of movies we recommend to watch after you see David Fincher‘s Mank. Why not? Well, because it’s best to watch Kane before Mank. Of course, if you’ve come here after watching the new Herman J. Mankiewicz biopic on Netflix and haven’t already seen Kane, then that’s an obvious essential watch. Go do that. But also I think Kane is better paired with Fincher’s The Social Network, a much greater film than Mank (this should be true no matter who is doing the ranking).
Yeah, so The Social Network is also not on this list, despite its relevance. You should have seen that already and then seen Kane and then seen Mank. I’m not including any of Fincher’s other feature films. But there might be a nod to something of his below. Mostly, I’ve compiled other titles depicting the story behind the making of Citizen Kane and the story of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies — plus a primer of her films — along with some other goodies I see fit to include.
Trumbo (2007) and Trumbo (2015)
There are maybe a handful of brilliant movies about screenwriters: Barton Fink, In a Lonely Place, Adaptation, Contempt, and of course, Sunset Boulevard. But none of them are biopics (no, Adaptation doesn’t count). For films about the few real screenwriters with stories worth telling, documentaries are the best place to turn. You’ve got Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood, the Oscar-nominated Waldo Salt: A Screenwriter’s Journey, and Trumbo, about blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.
I’ll always recommend the documentary first and foremost, and the earlier Trumbo is definitely a fascinating and thorough watch that features the involvement of many Hollywood actors, not just as interviewees but also as readers and reenactors. But the later biopic of the same name, which sounds like it’s a remake but isn’t really, is a more compatible recommendation alongside the red-scare dramatics of Mank. It’s mostly enjoyable for Bryan Cranston’s Oscar-nominated performance, which is a good enough reason to see it.
Biography: Louis B. Mayer (2004) and Irving Thalberg: Prince of Hollywood (2005)
Warning/promise: you’re getting a lot of documentary recommendations this week (but sorry none on Hearst since Citizen Hearst is more about his company’s legacy than him). Here are two more for some backstory and more story on two prominent characters in Mank. The first is a basic forty-five-minute look at the life of Louis B. Mayer, produced as an episode of A&E’s Biography series. The second is, obviously, about Thalberg, and Stanley Tucci is the narrator. They overlap, of course, and aren’t anything special, but if you’re looking for bigger picture stuff, these are worth watching.
The Cat’s Meow (2001)
Directed by Orson Welles confidant Peter Bogdanovich, The Cat’s Meow stars Kirsten Dunst as Davies and Edward Hermann as Hearst in the notorious story of the strange death of Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince (Cary Elwes) following a party aboard Hearst’s yacht in 1924. Charlie Chaplin is there, too — or the sort of version of Chaplin you get by casting Eddie Izzard in the role. The movie is set half a decade before any of the events of Mank but shows another take on some of its characters.
The film’s version of events — as scripted by Steven Peros adapted from his own play — is close to what he’d heard from Welles, who’d heard it from Davies’ nephew, the screenwriter Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross’s character in Mank). Supposedly, Welles almost included a more direct reference to the scandal in Citizen Kane as was found in the first draft of Herman Mankiewicz’s screenplay. “If I’d kept it in,” Welles told Bogdanovich, “I would have had no trouble with Hearst. He wouldn’t have dared admit it was him.
I don’t love The Cat’s Meow (nor do I love Mank for that matter). It’s too goofy for the material, I think. And I don’t like Dunst’s performance, but I do think it’s worthwhile to see other portrayals of Davies. It’s kind of funny, also, that she’s played by someone who later portrayed Marie Antoinette (see below). The story of Virginia Madsen’s regretted characterization of Davies in the 1985 TV movie The Hearst and Davies Affair (featuring Robert Mitchum as Hearst) before she knew and loved the subject better is also interesting.
As for the rest, Gretchen Mol doesn’t have much to do with the role (other than to be Heart’s arm candy) in the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, and Davies is barely worth crediting as a character in the 1992 biopic Chaplin (again just part of a pair with Hearst), but both movies are also suggested viewing anyway for their treatment of politics and entertainment during that same time period. Also for the full Davies story, check out the 2001 doc Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies narrated by Charlize Theron.
The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996) and RKO 281 (1999)
If there’s just one movie to watch after Mank, it’s RKO 281, and many other websites are concurring with that idea (see Gregory Lawrence’s piece for Collider and Vince Mancini’s piece for Uproxx). The made-for-cable HBO production offers a different perspective on the making of Citizen Kane, focused more on Welles (portrayed by Liev Schrieber) and the completion and release of the film in a battle with Hearst (James Cromwell). John Malkovich plays (a more age-appropriate) Mank, while Melanie Griffith is Davies, who funny enough is depicted as helping her “Pops” out financially by selling all her jewelry.
This time the dramatic film is based on a documentary. I sometimes refer to RKO 281 as a remake of The Battle Over Citizen Kane, but it’s more aptly classified as an adaptation. The Oscar-nominated doc offers a broader yet also a more detailed look at the lives of Welles and Hearst (receiving some criticism for aligning the two so much, actually) and the making of Welles film and Hearsts attempt to bury it. After watching it, you’ll wonder if there ever could be a single definitive film about the story of Kane.
It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles (1993)
You could make a film, documentary or dramatic, on the making of just about every one of Welles’ films. His second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, involved another bitter battle regarding its completion and release (a new doc about the search for Welles’ cut is currently in the works but delayed due to COVID-19). His third, Journey Into Fear, was an odd production that wound up a directorial collaboration, uncredited on his part. And then there’s It’s All True, which has inspired a couple of docs, including this feature explaining the unfinished project and attempt to restore at least part of it.
The reason I recommend the doc It’s All True here is for anyone wondering about the ending of Mank and why Welles is in Brazil and unable to attend the Oscars. He was shooting It’s All True, a planned three-part anthology spotlighting Latin America mixing fiction and nonfiction in support of the Good Neighbor policy — think Disney’s Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros but all live-action and from the mind of Welles. RKO terminated the film before it was done and broke out parts of the footage that had been shot and used it for other purposes. But much of It’s All True was unfilmed and/or destroyed.
Welles being in Brazil at that time is also why it’s believed there’s a lost full print of The Magnificent Ambersons down there (see mention of the doc in the works above). So the story of the production of It’s All True and Welles in Brazil is a lot while also just being another piece of the puzzle about the filmmaker’s ambitiousness and his struggles. You could continue through Welles’ own making-of docs The Filming of Othello and Filming The Trial (which was itself unfinished) and definitely include the 2018 doc They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which is Netflix’s companion to the finally posthumously finished final Welles feature, The Other Side of the Wind.