Big personalities and politics: ‘Mank’ offers hijinks from old Hollywood

Gisele Schmidt/Netflix
Gary Oldman (left) and Sean Persaud star as Herman Mankiewicz and his colleague Tommy in “Mank.”

“Mank,” directed by David Fincher, is a Hollywood movie about the Hollywood that gave us “Citizen Kane.” The eponymous Mank, played by Gary Oldman, is Herman Mankiewicz, the legendary wit and carouser who, in his pre-“Kane” heyday, worked on the screenplays for everything from Marx Brothers movies to “The Wizard of Oz.” Later on, his star fallen, and against all expectation, including his own, he co-wrote with Orson Welles a movie so often referred to as the greatest ever made that the acclamation is practically part of its title.

The rub, of course, is that Mankiewicz claimed he was the film’s sole screenwriter and that Welles was nothing more than a glorified credit hog. Fincher’s late father, Jack, a journalist who wrote the screenplay for “Mank” in the 1990s, largely endorsed Mankiewicz’s claim. (His main source was Pauline Kael’s explosive pro-Mank book-length 1971 New Yorker essay “Raising Kane,” which has since gone in for its share of debunking.) Fincher’s movie mostly sides with Mankiewicz – hence the title – but the surprise here is that it deals only glancingly with the credit controversy. Welles himself (played by Tom Burke) barely rates a cameo.  

What the movie instead focuses on, in a circuitous flashback structure somewhat resembling “Citizen Kane” itself, is Mankiewicz’s love-hate relationship with Hollywood and the bigwigs who ran it. The film, shot in lustrous black and white by Eric Messerschmidt, begins in 1940 with Mankiewicz holed up in enforced, boozeless semi-isolation in small-town Victorville, California. Abetted by a secretary (Lily Collins) and a nursemaid, he has been consigned there by Welles’ people until he knocks out the “Kane” script that will mark Welles’ debut as a Hollywood director.

Why We Wrote This

Is the history of Hollywood’s Golden Age timely for today? “Mank,” a possible Oscar contender about one of the screenwriters of “Citizen Kane,” is at its most enjoyable when it explores the people behind the tinsel.

Much of the film’s action, though, takes place in the 1930s, when Mankiewicz was riding high at MGM. He alternately clashes and hobnobs with its autocratic studio chief Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and its wonderboy head of production Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and also with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), whose production company, highlighting his actress mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), is based at the studio. Whether toiling within MGM’s inner sanctum or dining, with his exasperatingly understanding wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton), at Hearst’s mansion, Mankiewicz – crank, cynic, rogue, covert romantic – was indelibly aware of the court jester role he was born to play in this fiefdom. That his “Kane” script was a scurrilous, thinly veiled jab at Hearst was entirely in keeping with his renegade temperament. 

The film’s most interesting aspect is the ample time devoted to the 1934 California gubernatorial race in which the Socialist Upton Sinclair, running as a Democrat, was the subject of a vicious spate of fake-news newsreels commissioned by Mayer and Hearst. It’s all too easy to draw parallels to today’s media circus. 

The film’s least interesting aspect, it turns out, is the strictly Hollywood material. The staging and performances, though intermittently effective, have an over-rehearsed, deliberately retro quality. 

Movies about Hollywood don’t have to be so insular. The best of them, like “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “The Player,” and “Sunset Boulevard,” are about so much more than the machinations of the movie business that, in a sense, Tinseltown essentially serves as a backdrop to the human drama. Since Hollywood loves to give itself prizes, “Mank” will probably grab more than a few come Oscar time. But for all its skill and scrupulousness, I found the film a strangely remote emotional experience – a slice of black and white that never quite bursts into living color.  

Peter Rainer is the Monitor's film critic. "Mank" is available on Netflix starting Dec. 4.

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