December 2020 – January 2021

Arts & Letters

Citizen plain: ‘Mank’

By Shane Danielsen

Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz

David Fincher’s biopic of Orson Welles’s collaborating writer favours technique over heart

“Mank” was Herman J. Mankiewicz – screenwriter, critic, foreign correspondent and wit, once hailed as “the funniest man in New York”. A key figure in Hollywood’s golden age, contracted first to Paramount Studios and then to MGM, his contributions were often unbilled but usually crucial. The decision to shoot the Kansas framing sequences of The Wizard of Oz in black and white? His: precisely annotated in the 56 pages of script he churned out in a single week as one of the 10 writers on that project. He punched up gags, uncredited, on three Marx Brothers classics (Monkey BusinessHorse Feathers and Duck Soup), adapted George Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play Dinner at Eight into one of the funniest and best comedies of the 1930s, and gave my favourite actress, Carole Lombard, two of her earliest triumphs, with Man of the World and Ladies’ Man, both co-starring her future husband William Powell. Once the highest-paid writer in Hollywood – and by extension, the world – he was highly sought-after and widely respected, even if he didn’t always see his name onscreen.

He was also a severe alcoholic, “erratic even by the standards of Hollywood drunks”, as one biographer put it, which, given that his competition included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner, is saying something. And as the fortunes of the various Algonquin playwrights he brought to Hollywood began to rise – loquacious cynics such as Ben Hecht and S.J. Perelman – Mankiewicz’s own star began to wane. He was too outspoken, an unrepentant leftist in a largely Republican town, and too unpredictable. But talent still counted for something – at least to an outsider. When Orson Welles, just 24 and hot off the success of his Nazi-baiting Julius Caesar on Broadway, was invited to come west and make a film at RKO, with the promise of complete creative control, guaranteed final cut and carte blanche as to his collaborators, he chose Mankiewicz, whom he’d visited in hospital after the screenwriter had broken his leg in, yes, a drink-driving accident.

The result, of course, was Citizen Kane, a watermark in American cinema and, perhaps inevitably, a source of intense personal rivalry, since its director and writer subsequently quarrelled over who had penned the bulk of the script. Mankiewicz, perennially in debt, had signed away his rights to screen credit, but had a change of heart after Welles boasted to gossip columnist Louella Parsons that he’d written the entire thing himself. Pauline Kael later wrote a book about their battle, Raising Kane, which, like most things by Kael, I’ve never felt the urge to read. But when the film earned an Oscar for Best Screenplay – shared between the two men, following arbitration by the Screen Writers Guild – Mankiewicz’s brief acceptance speech showed that his New York reputation was well deserved. “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr Welles’ absence,” he said, “because the script was written in Mr Welles’ absence.”

Now the dispute is the subject of Mank, the new feature from David Fincher. Based on a screenplay by his father, Jack, who died in 2003, and starring Gary Oldman, you sense this is something of a passion project for Fincher, funded by Netflix and earned, I suspect, by his work on their series Mindhunter. I’m generally leery of movies about moviemaking, or tales of Hollywood in general. And as far as stories about dissolute screenwriters go, it’s hard to improve on Alfred Hayes’s 1958 novel My Face for the World to See, recently republished by New York Review Books, and a minor masterpiece. Yet this one piqued my curiosity, since what it comes down to, in the end, is a tussle over authorship, with a director wanting to claim credit for ideas rather than actual writing. (A fight in which I have some partisan sympathies.)

We see Mank being brought to a desert lodge in Victorville, in the desert north of Los Angeles, accompanied by Welles’s producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), Frieda, a German nurse (Kazakh actress Monika Gossmann, sounding about as German as I do), and Rita, a young British secretary (Lily Collins, channelling the cut-glass vowels of Deborah Kerr). He has 60 days to deliver a script for Kane. To do this, he also has to dry out – mostly. Welles, himself no stranger to over-indulgence, has also provided a case of whisky, with one bottle permitted as an end-of-day reward, provided the writing has gone well. (In fact, the booze is laced with the barbiturate Seconal, to help Mankiewicz sleep and forestall possible benders.)

Bedridden, Mankiewicz flashes back over various events in his life, and Mank’s structure soon begins to mimic that of the very script he’s writing, described by Houseman as “a hodgepodge of talky episodes, a collection of fragments that leap around in time like Mexican jumping beans” – one of many slightly-too-knowing lines here. In particular, we see his appalled realisation that newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane) is using MGM resources, with the blessing of Louis B. Mayer, to swing an election for state Republicans, in a sequence freighted with eerie and intended parallels to the 2020 presidential campaign and its sordid aftermath.

Shot in black and white, Mank has been hailed as a meticulous re-creation of classic Hollywood aesthetics. However, this is not the case. For one thing, Fincher’s decision to shoot in widescreen makes no historical sense. The format wasn’t introduced until 1953 – the same year, ironically, that Mankiewicz died. Films of the period depicted were uniformly shot in the boxier 1.37:1 ratio. And yet Fincher, ever pernickety about small details, even introduces the small circles in the upper-right corners of frames (remember them?) that signify reel-changes. Of which, of course, there are none.

Most obviously, there’s the film’s cinematography, by Erik Messerschmidt, presumably meant to evoke Gregg Toland’s legendary work on Kane. There’s one nifty split diopter shot, it’s true, and some elegant deep-focus compositions, but overall, the lighting patterns more closely resemble Italian neorealism (one sequence, of Mank and Marion Davies walking together, reminded me of Visconti’s Le notti bianche) and, at certain moments, recall Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. The texture of the images is completely wrong: the lighting is opalescent, creamy, not nearly as sharp and hard-edged as Toland’s; the blacks are not black enough. A montage set on the night of the 1934 California gubernatorial election, meanwhile, is pure German expressionism. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a stunning display of digital cinematography. It’s just not remotely Wellesean.

Fincher has a virtuosic command of film grammar, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of film history. (His commentary, in Kent Jones’s documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, is easily the most erudite and insightful of any modern-day director’s.) So, these can’t be accidents or oversights – they have to be deliberate choices. But to what end?

Well, Christ, you might say – who cares? Indeed. This is, in fact, the great question that hangs over this entire enterprise. Who will watch a 132-minute black-and-white film about an almost forgotten screenwriter? Who, today, remembers fellow hack Charles Lederer or socialist author Upton Sinclair? Or even William Randolph Hearst, for that matter? The film seems made for people who live within a 10-kilometre radius of my apartment in Los Angeles. So why wasn’t I beguiled?

Part of it is its lead. As Mankiewicz, Oldman is good but never arresting. He’s an interesting case, a Great British Actor who, unlike his peers, lacks a memorable voice. There’s always something reedy and unemphatic about his tone, an essential absence, which, ironically, suits the hollowed-out husk that is Mank to a tee. He’s looking considerably older, here – at times, his mug resembles Tom Ewell. (When Mank notes, to Welles, that he’s only 43, it’s a moment of unintentional hilarity.) But his soft, rustling delivery occasionally seems at odds with the rapid-fire patter of Mank’s witticisms; some of his character’s best lines are mumbled, or lost.

Charles Dance is appropriately cadaverous as Hearst, his sharp eyes glittering with malevolence, and Lily James is perfectly fine as Rita, despite an underwritten role and some whackadoodle psychology. (She seems almost pathologically unbothered by a report of her RAF pilot husband’s likely death, returning in the very next scene to encourage Mank to do better, try harder etc.) But as Marion Davies, Hearst’s ill-fated lover and protégé, Amanda Seyfried has never been better, perfectly capturing the vulnerability of a woman several degrees more self-aware than she’s ever allowed to reveal. She alone makes the most of the dialogue: her every drawled Brooklyn diphthong is a delight.

But ultimately, it’s a film of brilliant scenes rather than a brilliant film. Some moments – the Paramount writers’ bullpen crowding into David O. Selznick’s office to improvise a monster-movie scenario, one sentence at a time, like a verbal game of Exquisite Corpse – fizz and pop, aided not a little by a surprisingly swingin’ score by frequent Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. And the scene where Mankiewicz meets Hearst for the first time, on the set of an MGM western, attests to Fincher’s remarkable talent for blocking and staging. 

Yet the big emotional beats – a suicide, a dining-table confrontation – seem muffled and remote. The contradictions of Mank’s marriage, to the long-suffering Sara (Tuppence Middleton), remain unexplored, and the conflict with Welles (adequately impersonated here by Tom Burke, so excellent in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir) is mostly absent. There’s no emotion to Mank, and no passion – just a surfeit of immaculate technique.

Last year, in Berlin, I had dinner with a friend, an actor, who told me about her recent experience shooting a feature there. The director – whom she’d known since film school – wanted multiple takes of every scene, and not just a few. “He’d been reading about David Fincher, you see. How he did 100 takes of that opening scene in The Social Network. And he’d convinced himself that this is how real filmmakers work.” The only fun in it, she laughed, lay in watching her scene-partner (whom she loathed) break down as the process wore on; by the end, four hours and 57 takes later, he was a wreck. “What does he want from me?” the actor howled. My friend just shrugged. “Something true, I said to him. Because, you know, I couldn’t resist twisting the knife a little.”

This is what Fincher is famous for: an obsessive desire to make reality conform precisely to his own vision. Sometimes this works brilliantly: Zodiac is a masterpiece and so is The Social Network, though neither is exactly warm or reassuring. But their forensic disposition, and that icy directorial virtuosity, is balanced by something else, a fascination with obsessive personalities moving through a world that steadfastly denies them answers. And tellingly, each film’s script is unusually strong. This one is not, and even as gifted a director as Fincher can’t quite overcome its shortcomings. Herman Mankiewicz, I think, would consider that a vindication.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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