To say that Netflix’s Mank is ambitious is a laughable understatement. It’s a movie about a movie, exploring the fraught dynamics behind the making of 1941’s Citizen Kane, one of Hollywood’s most venerated films, and the rivalry between screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (nicknamed “Mank”) and formidable writer, director, and star Orson Welles. But Citizen Kane itself was an exploration into the myth of fame and fortune surrounding the towering figure of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. And to top it all off, Mank is directed by one of our most elusive and talented modern auteurs, David Fincher. That’s a lot of hubris and testosterone for one project.
Ironically, the runaway star of Mank isn’t its eponymous protagonist (Gary Oldman) or Welles (Tom Burke), or fearsome studio owner Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), or even Hearst (Charles Dance) himself. Instead, the movie’s heart belongs to Marion Davies, the Hollywood actress best known as Hearst’s longtime mistress, strikingly played by Amanda Seyfried in what should be an Oscar-nominated performance.
Mank’s timeline goes back and forth between 1940, when a bedridden Mank is hired to produce a first draft of Citizen Kane in 90 days, and his Hollywood heyday in the early 1930s, which we experience through his memories. It’s in that hazy golden glow of his psyche that we first meet Marion, tied to a pyre on a film set, her screams piercing the silence of Hearst Castle, the mogul’s gigantic estate in San Simeon, CA. A former showgirl, Heart’s mistress has a hankering to get into the movie business, and he’s brought in an entire film crew to give her some practice.
At first glance, this version of Marion echoes the talentless social climber Susan Alexander, Charles Foster Kane’s mistress and second wife in Citizen Kane, widely believed to have been based on her. But Fincher quickly peels back those layers, and we discover that there’s a lot more to Marion than we think. She’s not just Hearst’s mistress — she’s a star in her own right, and often the most interesting person in the room, speaking truth to power with a raw frankness learned on the streets of her native Brooklyn.
Born Marion Cecilia Elizabeth Brooklyn Duras in 1897, the real-life Davies was the youngest of five children. Her father, Bernard Douras, was a lawyer and a judge, and Marion was sent away for a rigorous education at a convent school in Hastings, NY, but soon left to become a chorus girl. Early on in her career, she appeared in a handful of shows, and worked as a model for magazine cover illustrations.
By 1916, she was hired by legendary producer Florenz Ziegfeld to star in as a featured player in his Ziegfeld Follies, which ran on Broadway between 1907 and 1931. Known as “Ziegfeld girls,” the women in this high-class vaudeville show were famous for their elaborate costumes and strutting up and down stairs to show off their legs. Because of her slight stutter, Marion became a dancer in the chorus. That’s where billionaire newspaper-owner William Randolph Hearst spotted her one night in 1917.
“There is a report that he went to the show every night for eight weeks, just to gaze at her,” Davies’ 1961 New York Times obituary reads. “She was 17 years old then (or 20, depending on which two birth dates appearing in reference books is accurate) and Mr. Hearst, rich, powerful, willful, was either 34- or 37 years her senior.”
The two were together for over 30 years, right up until Hearst’s death at the age of 88 in 1951, but never married. Hearst’s wife, Millicent, refused to grant him a divorce.
Over the next two decades, Davies starred in over 40 movies, positioning her as one of Hollywood’s most famous silent stars. In 1918, Hearst founded Cosmopolitan Pictures, launching Davies as a star of the silver screen. In reality though, her film debut had actually already taken place. In 1917, Marion starred in Runaway Romany, a film she wrote herself, directed by her brother-in-law, George W. Lederer.
Best-known for her comedic roles, she was often hindered by Hearst’s overbearing hand in her career. Convinced she should be playing more serious parts, he tried to use his influence to make it so. But the more he tried to bully studios into hiring her, the fewer jobs she actually got. We see some of that in Mank — listen closely to the dialogue and you’ll catch the drama over Hearst trying to get producer Irving Thalberg, then Mayer’s right-hand man, to cast Marion as Marie Antoinette in MGM’s 1938 movie about the doomed queen. Instead, Thalberg cast his own wife, actress Norma Shearer.
Had Davies had more of a say in her own career, she might have mirrored Seyfried, who is now transitioning from her early career in campy staples like Mean Girls, Mamma Mia, and a slew of fluffy romantic comedies, into acclaimed dramatic roles in awards contenders like First Reformed and now, Mank.
Though Marion only appears a few times throughout Mank, each instance is memorable, in part because of Seyfried’s charismatic screen presence, but also because of the context in which we see her: at the center of a gloriously lavish party. Hearst and Davies were famous for their extravagant entertaining. Among their guests were Hollywood royalty, such as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, politicians, and national heroes like Amelia Earhart.
In her obituary, the Times noted: “Miss Davies was one of the last survivors of the ultra-lavish era of Hollywood, that period of the great extravagances: the gold plated Hispano-Suiza, the marble palaces transplanted from Europe to the sands of California, the sudden Champagne decisions by hosts to take their weekend yachting guests on six month excursions (all expenses paid) all around the world.”
Mank’s eventual downfall, brought on by his growing vocal opposition to Hearst’s political beliefs, takes place during a drunken display at a glamorous circus-themed dinner. Dressed as the ringmaster, Hearst stares down his former friend as he monologues, spewing insults and sharp truths at everyone in the room, including Marion. “Funny, adventurous, smarter than she acts,” Mank says about her. “She’s a showgirl, beneath his social strata but that’s okay. Because true love on the big screens we all know is blind.”
By 1937, Davies had retired. Nearing 40, she could no longer play ingenues, and there weren’t many other kinds of roles available for women. And then came Citizen Kane, which projected the character of drunk, oafish Susan Alexander onto her legacy, and tarnished her reputation for years.
Throughout the movie, Mank repeatedly insists that Susan isn’t based on Marion. The only moment the two share in real time, outside of his memories, takes place towards the end of the movie, when Marion drives to Mank’s secluded retreat. They haven’t seen each other in a few years, and she’s come to ask him to spare Hearst, now broke, the embarrassment. (As Slate points out, it’s unlikely this ever happened. In her memoirs, she claimed never to have seen the finished film.)
The irony of Davies’ life is that while she may have started as a showgirl enamored with a rich man, she didn’t end that way. When Hearst had money troubles towards the end of his life, she lent him a million dollars, earned from all the real estate he had put in her name over the years. When he died, he left her a trust fund of 30,000 preferred shares in the Hearst Corporation. She lived out her remaining years in financial comfort, flipping a $2 million inn in Palm Springs, and with properties in New York City and California bearing her name. Still, her legacy remains inexorably tied to his, and while Mank does give her much needed space to shine, it still positions Davies as the shiny link between two men. She’s still not the leading lady of her own legacy, instead playing the love interest or spunky sidekick in the grand retelling of male achievements. She deserves better.
So, Fincher, how about it? When can we expect Marion?