The reviews of Mank are mixed, but everyone agrees that Amada Seyfried is the heart of the film as Marion Davies, movie star and long-time love of the wealthy media powerhouse William Randolph Hearst. Mank is the story of Herman Mankiewicz as he wrote the original screenplay for Citizen Kane, inspired in part by Hearst and Davies. Today Marion Davies is better remembered as the inspiration for the untalented Susan Alexander character Kane tried to make into an opera star in Citizen Kane than for her own very appealing appearances in film. So, I wanted to hear from film historian Lara Gabrielle, author of a forthcoming book about Davies, about the real-life actress. In an interview, she identified her favorite Davies’ performance and Davies’ own and what she thought of the portrayal in Mank.
Nell Minow: When did you first get interested in Marion Davies?
Lara Gabrielle: I’ve been interested in Marion since I was a young teenager. I read The Times We Had, which is marketed as her memoir and based on her autobiographical tapes, when I was 13 and she always stood out to me as someone who led a very interesting life. When I started my blog back in 2011, I realized how much I loved the process of research and writing. Long story short, I decided I would love to try something bigger, and started thinking of people whose story would be interesting to explore. Marion’s was the first that came to mind and when I started to think of others, I couldn’t think of anyone whose life had been as fascinating as hers. I figured that was a sign, so I went down to LA for initial research, not knowing what this project would look like or if it was even possible. Everything came together very quickly, and in the past 8 years I have been all over the world researching and interviewing, for a full-length biography that is going to be published by UC Press in 2022. I could not have chosen a better subject. Marion has been pure joy, I hit the jackpot with her.
Minow: How has her reputation been affected by the portrayal of Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane?
I can tell you that when I talk to people about my project, people who are outside of the film world, I almost always get a variation on “Oh, wasn’t she that woman from Citizen Kane?” Then I have to explain it—people believed it was Marion, people still believe it was Marion, but she was really a composite character. Susan Alexander was much more like Ganna Walska than anyone, but few people know Ganna Walska so they go to the person they know…and if I can deconstruct it enough to people, they change their perception. But there are still some people who can’t shake it. I was giving a talk about Marion once and someone came up to me beforehand and said “What is it like to be the biographer of a concubine?” I was shocked and tried my best to address him, but I couldn’t help but think “This is what Marion went through constantly in her life.” People’s misconceptions of her, Susan Alexander included, really affected her legacy. Marion herself, though, shrugged it off. One of the things I love about her is that she let very little bother her—at least outwardly. Psychologically I know it did have an impact.
Minow: How did she get started as an actress?
She always wanted to be a dancer, from the time she was a young child. She watched her sisters onstage and wanted to do what they did. So, when school started to fail her (she had a stutter that could be severe, and it affected her school life), she turned to the stage and became a chorus girl. Marion loved her life in the theatre and the theatre traditions and culture stayed with her throughout her life. As to how she got into the movies…well, stay tuned for the book, because I’ve got some great stories!
Minow: How would you describe her relationship with Hearst?
Gabrielle: Marion and Hearst were soulmates. Their life together was not always easy, but they loved each other unconditionally and were devoted to each other. I’ve heard a lot of people say “Hearst can’t be all bad because Marion Davies loved him.” I’ve come to an understanding of Hearst, through Marion, that is quite contrary to how he’s generally perceived. Many people think he was a mercilessly cruel and unfeeling man—-and in his business life, he could be very iron-willed. But in his personal life and his relationships, he could also be very tender and loving.
Minow: How did Hearst want people to see her?
Gabrielle: Hearst wanted to make the public see what he saw in her—a perfect angel. He tended to be blind to other perspectives, and couldn’t really see that his perspective might be different from others, or that Marion had talents that weren’t being utilized, like her talent for comedy and mimicry. Everybody knew that Marion was a comic, but Hearst didn’t want to act on it—he thought comedy was beneath her.
Minow: What happened to her after Hearst died?
Gabrielle: Marion’s life after Hearst changed entirely. It became consumed with a lot of difficulty, health-wise and relationship-wise. A few of the Hearst sons turned against her after Hearst’s death, which broke her heart because they had always been very close and she had gone to bat for them. She married not long afterward, for the first and only time, and it was not a happy marriage. She died 10 years later.
Minow: How accurate is the portrayal of her friendship with Herman Mankiewicz in Mank?
Gabrielle: When I heard about the plot of Mank, I had to think on whether Marion and Herman Mankiewicz ever even met. Marion knew Sara, his wife, a bit, but I had never heard any stories about Marion and Herman. Charlie Lederer, Marion’s nephew, brought Herman to San Simeon from time to time, and I know he came to one of the parties there, but there was never any relationship forged between them. I know that the script was written in the 1990s, and think Jack Fincher may have been envisioning Mank as a creative piece on the era rather than a factual recreation.
Minow: Did she have a favorite of her roles? Do you have a favorite?
Gabrielle: Marion’s role in Peg O’ My Heart was her personal favorite. Hearst loved it, too. She’s very good in it, I agree—it’s a very nuanced performance. I also love Blondie of the Follies. It’s rare that Marion got to play a truly 3-dimensional, complex character like Blondie, and that’s really through the help and advocacy of Frances Marion, who pushed for Marion to be able to play those kinds of roles. Hearst was afraid of them.