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Mank: Did Shelly Metcalf Exist in Real Life? Who Was He Based on?

December 4, 2020
3 min read

Directed by David Fincher (‘The Social Network’), ‘Mank’ is a wondrous exploration of the golden age of Hollywood. At the center of the story, is veteran screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s (Gary Oldman) efforts to write the script for what will be arguably the greatest film of all time, ‘Citizen Kane’. Mank was a Hollywood insider and had access to some of the most influential people in Tinseltown, including William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the biggest media mogul of the time, and his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

It is generally believed that Mank and Welles based the titular character of their film on Hearst. Fincher’s movie seeks to provide reasons for this and shows a tragedy involving a friend named Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane) that prompted Mank to confront Hearst at his dinner party and later write the script. If you are wondering if Metcalf is based on any real-life individual, here is what we know.

Did Shelly Metcalf Exist in Real Life?

No, Shelly Metcalf is merely a fictional character. In the film, Metcalf is a test director and one of Mank’s closest friends. The film uses the 1934 California Gubernatorial Election as the backdrop for the developing contention between Mank and Hearst. Based on an offhanded suggestion that Mank makes to Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), the studio develops propaganda newsreels in which actors are shown as real people to depict the Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye) in a negative light. The film correctly portrays that the top-tier of Hollywood was terrified of Sinclair.

An accomplished author, he was also the country’s leading socialist. The studios started raising money for his opponent, Frank Merriam and released the newsreels, which had a catastrophic effect on Sinclair’s campaign and led to his defeat. In the film, Metcalf is a Sinclair supporter but accepts the job of making these videos for the opportunity of directing a project. However, the results of his actions horrify him. Along with a Parkinson diagnosis, it drags him down to the hellish depths of depression. Despite Mank’s best efforts, he is unable to prevent his friend from killing himself on election night.

Who Was Shelly Metcalf Based on?

Image Credit: IMDb

While Metcalf didn’t exist in real life, Thalberg’s newsreels did. They were made by Felix Feist Jr., who was a test director himself. Unlike Metcalf, however, he was never accosted by his conscience for these videos. He went on to have a decent career in Hollywood, leaving his imprint on both films and television. Felix Feist Jr. passed away of natural causes on September 2, 1965. He was 55 years old at the time.

Read More: Where Was Mank Filmed? 

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