Herman J. Mankiewicz was the kind of character Hollywood couldn’t make up. On the contrary, it was Mankiewicz who made it up for Hollywood. Once the highest-paid scriptwriter in the business, ‘Mank’ is said to have worked on 95 movies, although he spent much of his time fixing other people’s scripts and often went uncredited.
David Fincher’s Mank, expected to do nicely at this year’s Academy Awards, tells the story of one script in particular, written at the behest of a young cinematic tyro named Orson Welles. That project, Citizen Kane (1941), would become the most highly mythologised film ever produced by a Hollywood studio. Although it was his first outing as a director, Citizen Kane is generally accepted as Welles’s masterpiece. For decades it topped the polls as the greatest movie ever made.
Gary Oldman gets to play Mank, even though he doesn’t much resemble the pudgy, gnarled scriptwriter who aged himself prematurely with his addiction to the bottle. It’s a wonderful role because Oldman features in almost every scene, spouting lines that bristle with wit and cool disdain. We hardly notice that a 63-year-old is playing a 30-something. Oldman will have a shot at a second Academy Award for Best Actor if he can get past the aged Anthony Hopkins and the late Chadwick Boseman.
It’s talk that drives this unorthodox bio pic made for Netflix, based on a script by the director’s father, Jack Fincher (1931-2003). Mank pays homage to those days when movies were bubbling with memorable speeches and witty repartee. The film is full of chat, mostly delivered by a lead character who is able to turn anything into a joke. It’s a refined rather than vulgar wit, studded with references to Shakespeare, Cervantes and Pascal, delivered at speed, without fear or hesitation. For the sake of his own career it might have been best if Mank had paused once in a while before launching some corruscating diatribe, but any inhibitions were drowned at birth – in alcohol.
Nor does the nostalgia end with the dialogue. Fincher has shot the action in black-and-white, with an emphasis on the darker end of the spectrum. The interior scenes are so gloomy viewers might feel tempted to reach for the flashlights on their mobile phones. It lends the story a dreamy, almost hallucinogenic quality, as if we’ve joined Mank in a state of semi-permanent inebriation. The idea, presumably, is to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, between the script Mank is writing and the real-life events that provide him with his subject matter. I had a strong sense that the film was filled with sly visual references to Citizen Kane, but many details slipped by in the darkness.
For most of the film Mank is laid up in bed, recuperating from injuries received in a car accident, while he tries to churn out a script within 60 days to meet Welles’s deadline. He has been dumped in an isolated rental house in the desert under the supervision of producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), who has been given the task of keeping the writer off the booze.
In his isolation, Mank’s constant companions are his amanuensis, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), and his nurse, Fraulein Frieda (Monika Gossman), although he receives a range of visitors, from his brother, Joe (Tom Pelphry), to Welles himself (Tom Burke). His minders’ biggest challenge is to convince Mank he doesn’t need the old familiar rocket fuel to kick his imagination into gear.
The story proceeds by means of flashbacks, each introduced by a neat, type-written caption. In short order we learn about Mank’s habitual drinking and gambling, which have made life a trial for his wife, whom everyone refers to as Poor Sara (Tuppence Middleton). We see him sharing wisecracks with a group of famous colleagues, including S.J. Perelman and Ben Hecht. We see his irreverent attitude towards the legendary studio bosses such as David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer. He’s a man with immense talent and charm, great compassion, a knack for friendship, and possibly a death-wish.
Mank provides a scathing portrait of Mayer (Arliss Howard) as a penny-pinching hypocrite happy to squeeze his own employees while toadying to wealth and power. The shining light around which he flutters is newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, paternalistic and slightly sinister), who bankrolls Mayer’s movies and his political activities on behalf of the Republican Party.
Hearst’s companion is Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), a glamorous young comedienne, whose acting career owed more to influence than talent. Mank’s friendship with Marion will draw him into Hearst’s circle, making him a regular attendee at dinners and gatherings at the castle-like San Simeon, where he manages to offend most of the other guests. It’s precisely this propensity for speaking out, this flow of savage humour, that Hearst seems to enjoy. It’s the same thing that drives Mayer nuts.
Each flashback reveals a little more about the script upon which Mank is working and the complex motivations he brings to the job. We see that his mask of cynicism hides a genuine loathing for Mayer and his opportunistic ways, most notably a “fake news” political campaign against the novelist and Democratic candidate, Upton Sinclair. Mank is more ambiguous in relation to Hearst, framing him as a Don Quixote figure, with Marion as Dulcinea. As for Hollywood in general, it’s a classic love-hate relationship.
The character that emerges from this film is a sensitive personality shaped by literature, driven to play the court jester through his own feelings of thwarted idealism. In Hearst he recognises another thwarted idealist and this insight inspires the creation of Charles Foster Kane. It’s an epic tale waiting to be told, an expiation of the writer’s own sins and a sublime act of revenge on the dream factories of Hollywood. His final battle will be with Welles, who reserves the right to alter the script to suit himself and doesn’t expect Mank to share in the credits.
Fincher has made a glorious fable of Hollywood and a significant contribution to one of the cinema’s most beloved conundrums: “Who wrote Citizen Kane?” How much is down to Mankiewicz, how much to Welles? The Finchers, father and son, have given us Mank’s side of the story but they’ve done it in the form of fiction not documentary. Every scene in this movie is exquisitely polished yet plunged into darkness, leaving us feeling we’ve just seen the truth simultaneously revealed and concealed.
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Jack Fincher
Starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance, Arliss Howard, Lily Collins, Sam Troughton, Tom Pelphry, Tuppence Middleton, Joseph Cross, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tom Burke, Monika Gossman
USA, rated M, 131 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 April, 2021