In David Fincher's new Netflix film Mank, Amanda Seyfried plays 1930s cinema starlet Marion Davies. Davies may not spark the same Old Hollywood name recognition of movie stars like Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, or Joan Crawford, but Davies was potentially more influential to film history than her scandalous biography suggests. So who was Marion Davies? As the mistress of millionaire newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Davies was dripping in scandal throughout her career. That career, however, would eventually tank thanks to a little movie named Citizen Kane.
Born Marion Cecilia Douras in Brooklyn, New York on January 3, 1897, Marion Davies was an actor, producer, and screenwriter during the early days of Hollywood's old studio system. She starred in a number of silent comedies before transitioning to the "talkies," though she had a stutter that she struggled to work through. "I couldn’t act, but the idea of silent pictures appealed to me because I couldn’t talk either," she'd later write in her biography.
In 1916, while dancing with the Ziegfeld Follies, Davies met multimillionaire William Randolph Hearst and became his mistress, according to Slate. Hearst financed her career through a production house called Cosmopolitan Pictures, and made his papers write favorable reviews of her performances. As Slate writes, "Davies’ involvement with the much older Hearst both ensured she would have a movie career, and also doomed Davies to ridicule and limited stardom." Yet over the course of her two-decade career, Davies acted in over 40 films, in addition to writing screenplays and producing films herself. Still, as is portrayed in Mank, her relationship with Hearst was arguably the most well known thing about her.
The backbone of Mank is screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, AKA "Mank," and the circumstances surrounding his writing of Orson Welles' 1941 classic film Citizen Kane. After suffering a broken leg due to a car accident, Mank holes up in the desert and writes a script for hire for Welles' film, for which he's been given carte blanche by RKO Pictures. The script Mank eventually writes tells the story of a character named Charles Foster Kane, a wealthy newspaper owner and politician who is loosely based on Hearst.
Mankiewicz based his story on his time spent with Hearst, Davies and other Hollywood royalty during their wild nights at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California in the 1930s. Davies was "Hollywood’s foremost hostess, throwing lavish parties at both Hearst Castle and at an extraordinary mansion on the beach in Santa Monica," her bio on Hearst Castle's history reads.
Citizen Kane went on to feature Susan Alexander, Kane's untalented mistress who is seen as a vapid gold digger. Though Mank (both Fincher's film, and the real person) asserts that Susan Alexander wasn't based on Davies, the connections are pretty obvious. As Slate writes, "the parallels between the film and Davies and Hearst’s lives were hard to ignore. It was in the broad strokes, like Kane’s habit of making up the news to further his own agendas, and it was in the little details, like the jigsaw puzzle that represents Susan’s passage of time in Kane’s castle, and her drinking — Marion did while away hours working on jigsaw puzzles, and she was a drinker."
According to Smithsonian Magazine, Hearst was so enraged by Citizen Kane that he ordered his newspapers to ignore the film, preventing any publicity from reaching the masses. Still, Davies' biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles alleges that after Citizen Kane was released, Davies was never offered a part in Hollywood again. Because of Welles' film, Davies reputation in Hollywood became that of a talentless opportunist for years, even despite Welles' assurance in his own book that Alexander wasn't based on her at all: "As for Marion [Davies] she was an extraordinary woman — nothing like [Susan] in the movie.... Marion was much better than Susan — whom people wrongly equated with her."
Yet many decades later, writers like Guiles have brought forth a new critical reassessment of her career. According to Guiles, Davies was a talented comedian whose films were successful and profitable. And perhaps Amanda Seyfried's charming portrayal of Davies in Mank will inspire people to reexamine the figure for themselves.