David Fincher‘s Mank (2020), written by his late father Jack Fincher, now streaming on Netflix, if anything is a must-see just for for Marion Davies’s grand exit, and Louis B. Mayer‘s (Arliss Howard) quip on the relationship between the film studio and the film audience – giving people memories, while retaining copyright to them.
Mank‘s a story about authorship, lies, responsibility, public opinion, great talent, addiction, singing for one’s supper, screwing over of a popular progressive candidate by the Hollywood propaganda machine (before Sanders, there was Upton Sinclair), and finally, the making of Citizen Kane (1941).
Its focus point is Herman J. Mankiewicz, screenwriter (Gary Oldman, casually genius), the backbone of a good chunk of Hollywood narratives that were (actually) worth our time, and personal friend of infamous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, with amused gravitas) and his kindhearted, sassy mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, scintillatingly excellent), writing the first draft of the ‘Rosebud mystery’, while on his back with a broken leg after a car crash.
Orson Welles (Tom Burke, grand as he should be) enters stage door left, director, actor, and proto-hyphenate, twenty-four and with an unprecedented carte blanche on budget and story, using his charm to bully Mank into ghostwriting the entire script in sixty days while convalescing. When he gets what he had asked for, Welles proceeds to be outraged when Mankiewicz decides to keep the writing credits and not accept a handsome studio buyout. In peak diva mode, he then publicly tells his co-author to ‘go kiss his half’ of the award after the script wins Citizen Kane (a thinly veiled portrait of Hearst, and Davies) its only Oscar.
Neither man attended the ceremony.
Mank was a chronic, unapologetic alcoholic, yet also the finest brain in town, so his mic drop response is as outrageous as it is pitch-perfect, expressing his gratitude for receiving the Academy Award without the presence of Orson Welles – exactly the way the screenplay was written.
Other than the allegory about the monkey and the organ grinder (killer tale about the place of the court jester in social hierarchy, told by Hearst while he escorts Mank out the Sam Simien castle door, permanently), Fincher spins the entire moral core of the story around the writer’s opposition to the political character assassination of California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair by blatantly falsified newsreel. The studio (prompted by Hearst) gets the devious idea of casting Hollywood actors as authentic vox populi from an off-hand remark given by Mank himself, albeit subliminally, and unwittingly, hiring a left-leaning studio test-director to create the footage, as a step into the big league, to the man’s own ethical detriment.
The irony that seems most dear to Fincher’s heart, however, is that Hearst and Meyer’s triumph in convincing the public to vote against their own interests, and dump the progressive Sinclair in the midst of the Great Depression, most likely gave voice to arguably the greatest screenplay of all time on the power of media and its corruption. Mank, the repentant court jester, with a underlying granite sense of decency, made revenge in the way he knew best.
This film is a winding road, often revelling a bit too long in its own mythology, with a shiny lineup of familiar names in unfamiliar anecdotes, for Old Hollywood enthusiasts to decipher, but I enjoyed it for that very reason. As well as the wisecracks between Mank and his wife ‘poor Sara’ (Tuppence Middleton), and his energetic repartee with his secretary Rita (Lily Collins). At the same time, it’s a rare tribute to the importance of writing in film, and one of the most honest and subdued depictions of Hollywood that Hollywood ever delivered. Inevitably, shot in 1930s monochrome.
Sign of the times.
Author: © Milana Vujkov