Mank is Walk Hard for the TCM crowd. While that might be a dismissive Film Twitter take, it’s not that far off. But, why? I’ll go one better. Why does it not matter?
Hollywood is in love with telling its own story to a point. That point being when it crosses over into trying to educate about something non political. But, a subplot of the movie was about the studio system trying to up-end Upton Sinclair’s campaign to be Governor of California. That is correct, but look at what he was campaigning on to fix Depression era lives.
Class relations in America is too large of a concept for the average American to wrap their head around. I don’t care what decade it is, the value concept of the matter still bewilders many. It’s how most people couldn’t tell the different between having a million and a billion dollars. They have ideas of what they want to buy and would need to have a better life. But, they can’t put that need into a number that is real.
Gary Oldman helps and hurts this matter as well. He plays Mankiewicz with the same approach that he took to Winston Churchill. However, he has that British disconnect that turns into more of a puffed chest piece. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it lends itself to the Golden Age nature of the film.
In spite of this, I do believe Mank will finally win David Fincher a Best Director Oscar. But, I don’t believe the movie will win Best Picture. Mank is not a cohesive film. Between watching Mank deal with being an old drink, Hearst toying around with the Hollywood studio system, the Gubernatorial race and the Marion Davies relationship…there is so much going on with very little resolution. But, the reality of the situation provided little finality.
David Fincher working on one of his father’s scripts is admirable. But, nobody should let dear ol’ dad know that Fincher had screenwriter Eric Roth punch up ol’ Pops’ decades-old screenplay. Why? Well, it’s hard to get an audience to accept a story that’s been sitting on a shelf since the Ford Administration. That and there was a lot of heavy Welles bias around the time of the story’s inception.
Pauline Kael famously dropped an article suggesting that Mankiewicz was far more responsible for Citizen Kane than Orson Welles. The idea caught fire in the early 1970s and then died off after a few years. It would pop up now and again during the early video years, but would then die hard by the rise of the Internet.
Orson Welles is a figure where the mythos overpowers the actual creative man for most people. It’s not uncommon to hear many film fans speak ill of the man without knowing a damn thing about his work. We live in a time when there has never been more access to information, videos, etc than ever before. However, you can’t get anyone to actually research a single damn thing.
While Welles can get hit with any paintbrush that the modern complainer has to splash at him, the guy was actually a creative maverick that helped redefine Golden Age Hollywood. He dared to kick open the doors that would eventually lead to the New School Acting style that would define Post War Hollywood. Plus, he showed that independent minded creators could thrive even when moguls and barons of industry targeted them.
Citizen Kane would go on to largely fall on its face at the Academy Awards that year, but won for Original Screenplay. The big winner that year was John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. While Valley is quite a capable movie, it was the early film history equivalent of giving Scorsese an Oscar for The Departed vs. everything he had done before.
Amanda Seyfried kills it as Marion Davies. It’s not hard, as the last actress to portray Davies in a major feature was Kirsten Dunst way back in The Cat’s Meow. She’s an actress I’ve watched grow since her debut in teen films and now Seyfried has proven capable of starring in a wide variety of things. What’s even better is that she plays a far more accurate Davies than I’ve ever seen before.
Too often people like playing Davies as some dumb moll to the evil Hearst. Life doesn’t work like that and playing to cartoonish caricatures helps no one. Davies was part of a Vaudeville family that left New York City to find her fortune in California. Hearst was the way for it to happen and she found herself enjoying his company.
Was it ideal? Well, was life ideal for any poor woman during the Depression? Whether it’s Tom Joad or the Showgirl kicking her heels up at a matinee show…everyone wanted a better life. Hearst held up his part of the bargain. Davies got to star in films, landed major projects and was considered to be a leading star of her time. It’s just that the rest of the studio system never let her break through.
Fincher tap dances through that fact by highlighting how Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg refused to give Davies substantial roles. Davies was pretty enough to open a mainstream movie, but the prestige roles were going to go to Garbo or Norma Shearer. Daddy Warbucks can buy you into a new life, but he can’t make the big wigs respect you.
In that way, Davies and Mank found themselves as kindred spirits. Especially after Louis B. Mayer has to lay down the law of the land to Mank after a San Simeon party. Basically, Hearst was helping to keep MGM open and make payroll. Hearst was effectively making Mank’s paychecks matter and that Mank was nothing but a jester for these wealthy men.
In that way, Mank was just as powerless as Davies when all of this came out in the wash. Just look at the scene where Mank has to get MGM security guards lend money to his newly homeless pals. Mankiewicz was only a paycheck away from joining most of California on Skid Row.
Viewing Mank through that filter makes the eventual creation of Citizen Kane work. However, it makes Mank’s decision to stick to the writing credit that much more heroic. RKO and Welles kept trying to buy Mankiewicz out of the credit, so the legendary writer didn’t lose his career. But, Mank knew at this point that the candle was burning at both ends.
Finally forced into one place after a car wreck, he sat in bed and longed for anything that could bring him satisfaction. John Houseman gets a fun tiny role playing observer to the process. I know that people have to be omitted to make a script work, but it felt like Jack Fincher slapped around one of the Mercury Theater’s founders for no reason.
So what does it all mean? Well, Mank is an attempt by a now deceased writer to understand another deceased writer. That take was then given to the most technically driven director this side of Lucas to process into a film with modern implications. All the while, the film uses editing, credit and sound techniques to evoke the RKO & MGM style of years gone by.
What Mank manages to accomplish is what The Good German failed to perform back in 2006. Soderbergh is one of the greatest living American directors. But, he still made a Soderbergh movie with a modern actor at his utmost Clooneyesque. Oldman while being big and boisterous played Mank closer to what a 1940s portrayal would have been.
The cult of fame produces a bizarre effect that hampers how the world sees Hollywood. In fact, it colors the history of the Hollywood experience in a way where whatever doesn’t play to the masses gets trimmed out. Upton Sinclair has too grandiose of a message about getting the poor back to the top of California society? Use the movies to beat voters into voting against their best interests.
Hitler threatens over in Europe? Change the party conversation and ignore those that suggest we help our Jewish allies overseas. The problems highlight in Mank do change, but the heart of the matter remains the same. You can have loud critics slamming their fists and demanding attention. But, they are creatures dancing for the organ grinder.
Even the people slightly above them follow a similar ill-defined caste system that keeps the bullshit repeating for generations. Why? Because there always has to be a ruling class for the wealthy to rule. Mank is about what happens when one day a writer wants to thumb his nose at the prick that lords wealth over him.
Marion Davies might be in love with Hearst, but Mank isn’t. Even when Thalberg and Mayer tell Mank to cool his jets, it doesn’t phase a writer that knows his time is limited. Pleasures of the flesh are many, but the opportunities to spit in the eye of giants…those are rare.
Netflix has had a killer 2020 for a variety of reasons. I just admire that streaming is opening up so many avenues for films that the traditional theater space has failed. Plus, there is the democracy of streaming that has killed limited release dates and coastal control of film. Anything that kills off taste makers is a good thing.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of Mank boils down to your appreciation of Classic Hollywood and if you can stand another male writer drowing in his misery. Lily Collins’ character might as well not exist, as she seems to be there to remind the bed ridden Mank that life exists beyond his desert cabin’s walls.
The very nature of that kind of story will keep it from appealing to a lot of the Film going Internet. But, the average person will bow out because it’s in Black and White. People stay predictable regardless of the year. Hopefully, that stellar Ross/Reznor score will win the Oscar and break out big. Incredibly stellar work from the composer dream team.