On Cinema

His own best character

A new Netflix release has been trailed as a masterpiece, with myriad claims to Oscar recognition, says Christopher Silvester

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

A movie about the creation myth of “the world’s greatest movie”, Citizen Kane, a love letter to the form of 1930s movies, and a cynical poison pen letter about Hollywood’s power brokers — David Fincher’s Mank is all of these and more.

Released on Netflix on 4 December, it already leads the streaming giant’s slate of Oscar bids for 2020. It has been trailed as a masterpiece, with myriad claims to Oscar recognition, yet it turns on that most quotidian of Hollywood experiences, the screen credit dispute, the mediation of which was the primary purpose of the Screen Writers Guild, founded in 1933.

Originally a director of commercials and music videos, David Fincher made his mark with Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999), and sealed his reputation with The Social Network (2010), a biopic about the emergence of Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg, which garnered an Oscar for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, though not one for Fincher.  Now he has turned his attention to Herman J. Mankiewicz, who alongside its director, Orson Welles, was the screenwriter of Citizen Kane (1941), for many years the choice of most international critics as the greatest film ever made.

But Mank also harks back to a seminal moment in the history of film criticism. In February 1971, the New Yorker’s sassy film critic Pauline Kael published a controversial 50,000-word article entitled “Raising Kane”, in which she argued that Welles did not deserve to share the screenwriting credit for Kane with its true creator, Mankiewicz.

What followed was a schism between two sects: those who championed the auteur theory that directors were the true geniuses of cinema, led by Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, and those, like Kael, who championed the screenwriter.

What makes the story even more piquant was that Kael was subsequently found to have acquired much of the research for her article from a UCLA scholar named Howard Suber, to whom she gave a fee but no credit. (In a 2011 interview, Suber said, “If I’d only known what I know about copyright now, I would have sued her ass, but I didn’t.”)

In “The Kane Mutiny”, an October 1972 article for Esquire, Peter Bogdanovich excoriated Kael for her pitiful research and scholarship (the parts that she had not bought from Suber). Most critics weighed in behind Bogdanovich, while Bernard Herrman, who composed the score for Kane, was dismissive of her thesis: “She tries to pretend that Welles is nothing and that a mediocre writer by the name of Mankiewicz was a hidden Voltaire. I’m not saying that Mankiewicz made no contribution … but he could not have created Citizen Kane.”

The idea for Mank, and the first draft of nine screenplays, came from Fincher’s father, Jack, who was San Francisco bureau chief of Life magazine. Given the premise of Mank, it would be churlish not to give credit to screenwriter Eric Roth for shepherding Jack Fincher’s script to the screen and for ensuring that the final result does not demonise Welles too much.

“Movies are complicated,” David Fincher has said. “There’s a lot of money, and there are a lot of big egos, and when those get folded into the soufflé, it’s still expected to be lighter than air. Welles and Mankiewicz were people who desperately needed one another.”

Fincher shot in black and white but also in high definition and widescreen, then softened the resolution massively, adding scratches and “cigarette burns”

The son of German Jewish immigrants, Mankiewicz graduated from Columbia University and started out as a newspaper-man. He was briefly Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, the first drama critic of the New Yorker, and a member of the Algonquin Round Table.

Lured to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, he urged his fellow newspapermen to join him, famously sending a telegram to Ben Hecht in 1925: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

Holed up on a desert ranch with only his secretary for company, Mankiewicz had to turn out the Kane screenplay in 90 days, goaded by Welles and his producer, John Houseman. Part of the inspiration for it, according to Mank, was the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign, in which media mogul William Randolph Hearst conspired with MGM bosses Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg to discredit the Democrat candidate Upton Sinclair, a self-professed “socialist” novelist, by creating fake newsreels. (Thalberg referred to Sinclair as “that Pasadena Bolshevik”, because he lived in a rich people’s town.) In homage to Kane, this part of the story is told in flashback.

There is plenty of British acting talent on display in Mank, with Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz, Tom Burke as Welles, Lily Collins as Mank’s English secretary, and Charles Dance as Hearst. There is a standout performance from Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, the silent movie actress who was Hearst’s maîtresse-en-titre and, incidentally, one of Hollywood’s most popular party hosts. And there is a slew of cameo turns for actors playing Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, Josef Von Sternberg, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, et al.

Oldman, who was 61 at the start of production, plays a 43-year-old who was ravaged by alcohol and tobacco and pickled in his own cynicism. Fincher asked all his actors to avoid Method-style acting and “upspeak” — that annoying modern habit of allowing one’s voice to rise at the end of a sentence, as if asking a question.

With his sound designer Ren Klyce, Fincher “started talking years ago about how we wanted to make this feel like it was found in the UCLA archives — or in Martin Scorsese’s basement on its way to restoration”. They used mono recording equipment. With his cinematographer Eric Messer-schmidt, Fincher shot in black and white but also in high definition and widescreen (although CinemaScope was not invented till 1953), then softened the resolution massively, adding scratches and “cigarette burns”: spoof reel-change circles with accompanying pops on the soundtrack (“one of the most comforting sounds in my life,” Fincher has said).

As for Mank himself, you should read Richard Meryman’s 1978 biography, or The Brothers Mankiewicz, last year’s study by Sydney Ladensohn Stern of Herman’s sibling rivalry with his younger brother Joseph, a writer-director who reached a less rancorous accommodation with the studio system. Fellow screenwriter Samuel Marx wrote of Mank: “He had the body of a pugilist, a disarming grin, and the soul of a Voltaire. In his lifetime he would write 75 produced screenplays, but of the countless folk he created, he was truly his own best character.”

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