Audrey Kupferberg: Mank | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: Mank

Jan 15, 2021

Audrey Kupferberg
Credit WAMC

When it comes to films about Hollywood history, the more cynical the presentation, the more audiences relish them.  That concept has influenced the creation of Mank, a recent black-and-white arty release, written and directed by David Fincher and being streamed on Netflix.

Mank gives viewers a stylized pseudo-insider look at Hollywood in 1933 and 1940.  Herman Mankiewicz, played exceptionally well by Gary Oldman, is seen writing the screenplay of  Citizen Kane in 1941 for young Orson Welles, who would co-write, direct and star.  The real Mank, was a contract screenwriter for Paramount from 1926-32, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1933-40, and RKO from 1944-48.  He was clever, literate, outspoken, apparently a generous guy, but, in spite of his talents, an unhealthy alcoholic.  As many other heavy drinkers, he only lived to age 55.

Other than his work on Kane, for which he won an Oscar along with Welles, Herman Mankiewicz has been overshadowed by his younger brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose work earned him four Oscars for directing and writing films such as All About Eve, the 1963 Taylor/Burton Cleopatra, and The Barefoot Contessa with Bogie and Ava Gardner.  One Joe Mankiewicz film that needs more recognition is People Will Talk from 1951 starring Cary Grant, an unusual story about a doctor who is a noble do-gooder and the miserable little rat who tries to take him down, a comment on McCarthyism.

Back to Mank…. In 1940, Herman broke his leg in a car crash and so has to write Citizen Kane from his bed at a rural sanitorium.  He struggles against Welles’ deadlines, but soldiers on.  That’s the unfolding story, but it is complicated by oodles of characters and many complex flashbacks.  Somewhere outside the basic plot, characters constantly plot and complain. 

Those who have seen Citizen Kane know that its characters include thinly disguised versions of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, In Mank they are interpreted by Charles Dance who was Lord Mountbatten in The Crown, and Amanda Seyfried.  They often are seen in flashbacks at the Hearst Castle, San Simeon.  If you have the inside scoop on who these two really were, then you are in a good position to enjoy those scenes.  Otherwise, you might be lost listening to one opaque reference after another, gossipy remarks critical of Davies’ career, political comments, and reflections about power.  Davies actually was an effective screen comedienne in such movies as Show People and The Patsy.  However, Hearst preferred her to perform in stuffy historical features such as Janice Meredith, a film I find mind-numbing.

We see Marion in pithy conversation with Mank.  She’s just a gal from Brooklyn, after all, and Mank at times is a considerate friend.

Then there is nasty Louis B. Mayer, supreme capitalist and greedy MGM mogul.  With Irving Thalberg, he plans to bring down the campaign of pro-socialist Democratic gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair.  In spite of the time spent showing Mank’s struggles writing Kane, which is Netflix’s selling point for Mank, the early ‘30s flashbacks about the election and the gatherings at San Simeon dominate.

Why did Fincher include so many appearances of studio writers and directors who do not impact on the plot? They don’t further whatever plot there is.  Other than avid theater and film history devotees, who appreciates seeing brief appearances of Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, S.J. Perelman, David O. Selznick, and Josef Von Sternberg?  Their conversation is snappy, but what does it contribute to the already lengthy chatter in Mank?  It might have been better for Fincher to have structured a more exciting storyline.  Even so, I enjoyed Mank very much for its moments of high energy interaction, the portrayal of Mank the man, and the fine production values.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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