Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): Why Mank recreated the 'Rosebud' shot from Citizen Kane
From its unique sound profile to its lush black-and-white cinematography, Mank is a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood and one of its most enigmatic raconteurs, Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. The fingerprints of the era are everywhere, but nowhere is the homage more noticeable than in a shot of Mank with an empty Seconal bottle that perfectly mirrors that of Charles Foster Kane holding a snow-globe in the opening moments of Citizen Kane. Here, director David Fincher reveals the personal history behind the shot.
David Fincher thought about cutting the "Rosebud" homage in Mank more times than he can count.
The moment, which substitutes Kane's (Orson Welles) snow-globe for Mank's (Gary Oldman) bottle of Seconal, was in his father Jack Fincher's original script. "He wrote in the script that Mankiewicz drops the bottle that has the Seconal in it, and it was supposed to look like the paperweight from Kane," Fincher tells EW. "He wrote a couple of other things that were similar — the neon of the Trocadero being like the Susan Alexander club. But we didn't get too bogged down in it."
It's the most blatant moment of homage in Mank, with the overall style of the filmmaking doing the bulk of the heavy lifting there. Fincher feared keeping the shot would tie them too closely to Citizen Kane. "I wanted to hearken to Kane without becoming slavish," he admits. "We don't want to water ski behind Kane. But when I went to cut it, I thought, 'Maybe there's room for this homage or the film appreciation side of it.'"
Ultimately, Fincher kept it in. It's a striking shot not just for its referential playfulness, but also because of what it tells us about Mank. The film offers an unflinching, yet non-judgmental portrait of a raging alcoholic.
Cinephiles will know that the snow-globe paperweight in Kane is a potent object, one that Kane clings to as he utters his last words, "Rosebud." That turns out to be his boyhood sled (spoiler alert!), but the snowy scene in the globe evokes the moments when Kane was happiest and landscape upon which he used the sled.
To replace the paperweight with a bottle of a potent, near deadly barbiturate speaks volumes. It tells us everything we need to know about what Mank's own "Rosebud" is, for better or worse. Fincher did that by design. "I'm not good with the cautionary tale. We talk about his incredibly destructive alcoholism in an adult and period way, which is people were expecting him to course correct and he never did," Fincher reflects. "When [he died], they were draining acid from his lower limbs because he had uremic poisoning. By the time they realized they weren't going to be able to save him, it was too late."
On the surface, the shot might feel like winking homage, but it's also a tragic nod to the depths of Mank's self-destructive tendencies and the sway drinking held over him.
In the end, Fincher kept the moment not so much for this richer double meaning, but because it reflected the heart of the script penned by his late father. "Invariably, every time I went to cut it, I ended up saving it because it's heartfelt," he notes. "Jack wrote a love letter to a movie that he adored."
Mank is now available on Netflix.