Monday December 14, 2020
Movie Review: Mank (2020)
For a movie on such a provocative topic (who is the true author of “Citizen Kane”?), with such a provocative director (David Fincher of “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” et al.), and starring the British version of Nicolas Cage (Gary Oldman, reformed), “Mank” is a bit limp.
It’s not really about who wrote “Citizen Kane” anyway. Early on, it puts its chips on screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Oldman) to better explore the why of it. Why would Mank write a movie that disparages his old society friends William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried)? It didn’t have to be them, after all. According to The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, the movie that Mankiewicz called “American” was only one of several projects Orson Welles (Tom Burke), radio’s boy genius, was working on at the time for RKO Studios. Most intriguing among the others? An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in which Welles would play both Marlow and Kurtz—but Marlow would never be seen. He would be the camera.
Point of view was also the point of this other film. The initial idea was to explore the life of a powerful person from different perspectives. But which powerful person? Brody writes that Welles and Mank ran through several options—including John Dillinger—before Mankiewicz. suggested Hearst. He was the one who actually knew the man and had been to his castle. “He had suffered and bitten his lip at San Simeon, trying to scrounge drinks,” writes David Thomson in “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles.” An amusing quote for anyone who’s watched “Mank,” where lip-biting is the last thing Oldman’s Mank does.
So if not lip-biting, what reason does the movie offer for Mankiewicz’s desire to tear down Hearst? What is Mank’s “rosebud”—the thing that explains everything?
Why, the 1934 California gubernatorial race, of course.
For more on that election, see Jill Lepore’s excellent 2012 New Yorker article, “The Lie Factory,” about how political consultants Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker ended Upton Sinclair’s progressive candidacy and ushered in the age of right-wing attack ads. Worth reading and wringing your hands over. Worth making a movie about. But that’s not this movie. In “Mank,” the people we see manipulating the 1934 race for governor of California are not Baxter and Whitaker but MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and his right-hand man—and another boy genius—Irving Thalberg. They attack Sinclair with fake newsreel footage: actors playing hearty, just plain folks who calmly voice support for Republican governor Frank Merriam, while commies and Negroes talk up the radical policies of Sinclair.
All that’s apparently true. They did that. What isn’t true? That Mankiewicz gave a shit.
From Slate’s Matthew Dessem:
I couldn’t find any evidence Mankiewicz supported Sinclair, much less that he carried a grudge for years over the campaign—and it seems likely he would have opposed him on the basis of prose style alone. Still, you can’t pattern a movie after Citizen Kane unless your protagonist has an unhealable wound, so Mank seems to have made this one up.
In other words, the thing that explains everything in “Mank” explains nothing.
But that’s not the problem. It’s a film. Make up what shit you want—just make it resonate. This doesn’t.
The movie makes up more stuff. It pretends that a drunk, cynical Mank gave Thalberg the idea for the fake newsreels in the first place. “You can make the world swear King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40,” he sneers, “but you can’t convince starving voters that a turncoat socialist is a menace to everything Californians hold dear? You’re barely trying.” And the light goes on for Thalberg. It’s good scene.
The other, greater fiction is Mank’s fellow screenwriter Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane). Early on, we’re introduced to the writers room at Paramount, and it’s like a Who’s Who of great 1930s screenwriters: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, S.J. Perelman, Charlie Lederer, the Mankiewicz brothers, and Shelly Metcalf. My first reaction was to doubt that all those guys were ever in the same room at the same time. My second reaction was: Shelly Who? Yes. He’s the fictional creation—the guy to make the plot work. He wants to direct, see, and Thalberg finally lets him on the fake newsreels, and he’s so intent on the job he doesn’t realize the immorality of what he’s doing until Mank brings it up; and then he’s so distraught that he kills himself on election night. Shelly’s wife sends Mank to find him, and he does, at the studio, and talks him off the metaphoric ledge. Resigned, Shelly empties the bullets from his gun and hands them over. Mank then goes to the wife and proudly hands her the bullets. “But he had a whole box!” she cries. We can see it coming a mile away. It’s the stuff of melodrama. Not just not true: melodrama.
Here’s the awful thing: They made up all this and it still doesn’t fit. If Mank is angry over the ’34 election, why go after Hearst? Why not make “American” a thinly veiled takedown of Thalberg? Or, since Thalberg was dead by 1940, how about taking potshots at Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard)? Talk about a miserable SOB! Hearst and Davies are at least fun. They admire Algonquin Roundtable wit and Davies shows off some of her own. Mayer is just awful—frowning, knowing none of the talent, understanding zero jokes, and cutting MGM salaries by 50%.
So much of the movie seems just a little off. It opens in 1940 with an injured Mank being helped into bed by a nurse in a hotel in Victorville, Calif., where Orson and RKO have put him up so he can dry out and work on the screenplay. That’s fine. Then we get two flashbacks: the first is just before the crash, when he’s drunk and helped into bed by his wife; the other is the crash. That feels like a flashback—and a bedridden scene—too far. Why not go straight to the jazzy 1930 intro of Charlie Lederer (Joseph Cross), since he’s the through line: the fellow screenwriter who, as Marion Davies’ nephew, introduces Mank to that crowd. And while we’re on him, why repurpose Mank’s great telegram to Ben Hecht (“You must come out at once. There’s millions to be made and your only competition is idiots.”) as if he sent it to everyone, including Lederer, who, as a Hollywood resident, certainly didn’t need it?
Why fictionalize the secretary’s husband into an RAF pilot? So Mank can misread the room while she’s reading the MIA letter? It’s just another scene we see coming a mile away. Why pretend John Houseman (Sam Troughton) didn’t stick around and nurse the script? And why have him tell Mank: “Write hard. Aim low.” The whole point of “Kane” is that Welles had carte blanche at RKO. They could write as high as they wanted—and did. More, “Aim low” feels like the last thing John Houseman would ever say. Right, Mr.…Hart?
At least, we hear some great lines. After LB gets MGM staffers to cut their salaries by 50%—and to applaud their own disenfranchisement—Mank gives a drunken shrug: “Not even the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen.” I also like LB’s line on the way to the fleecing:
“This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
Or how about Thalberg’s line to Mank about how at least he believes what he’s doing. “But you, sir. How formidable people like you might be if they actually gave at the office.” Another line, similar in spirit, is Mank’s about his Hollywood career:
“I came for a few months. I don’t know how it is that you start working at something you don’t like, and before you know it, you’re an old man.”
That’s from Brody’s article but it should’ve been in the film. That’s the heart of it. Mank knew he’d wasted his life, “Kane” was redemption, but he’d agreed to keep his name off it; so he sued to get it back on. Because it was the moment he gave at the office. And he knew the office would never let him give that much again.