Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
When David Fincher’s Mank begins, we follow writer and famous wit Herman Jacob “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) to a secluded ranch in the desert. He is accompanied by producer John Houseman, as well as a secretary and a nurse. Mank not only sports a broken leg, but is clearly also jonesing for alcohol as he is put in a ‘dry house’. The real-life Mankiewicz was credited as co-writer for Orson Welles’ famous film Citizen Kane (1941), the movie Mank is about the creation of that screenplay, and about the controversy surrounding it, and him. As the story goes, Mankiewicz was the one who created Kane as a screenplay about media mogul William Randolph Hearst (we met him in The Cat’s Meow), whom by 1936 he had come to despise, after he was ousted from Hearst’s high-flying circle. Reportedly because Hearst objected to his excessive drinking around Marion Davis, by all accounts a bit of a drinker herself, much to Hearst’s perturbation.
Without directly stating why, Welles has said the real Mankiewicz was “his own worst enemy”, but he’d worked for Welles in radio and was by all accounts enormously talented. In addition, he knew all the ins and outs of juicy Hollywood gossip and had the network to match. In the end, there were apparently at least two separate versions of the script, Orson’s and Mankiewicz’s, and they reportedly didn’t have any real meetings about harmonizing the details of it. (“Nothing like a good noodle,” fictional Mank replies despondently after Welles informs him in the film there are “‘no notes”‘, and 30 days have just been lopped off of the writing schedule.) Producer John Houseman, played here as a bit of a fusspot by Sam Troughton, must have contributed massively to the script in real life. Orson has stated that, though by his own admission he “had trouble talking to Houseman”, he very probably was responsible for Mankiewicz’s enormous contribution. As Orson tells it, it was out of sheer perversity that Houseman, instead of taking credit himself, credited the whole script to Mankiewicz, just to make the point Orson did not write it. But then, that is how Orson tells it. Fincher’s version at least gives us an unambiguous idea of the state Mank was in, so we can well believe he was, at the very least, in trouble. And with that opening Mank is not so much about the dissolution of a genius, as it is about a genius who is already irrevocably lost, and determines to make one last shaky stand.
While the way the movie is shot, lovingly in black and white, may seem to hearken back to the era it refers to, namely ’30s and ’40s Hollywood, it doesn’t look one bit like the actual films of that era, nor does it look particularly like Kane itself, with its many famous innovations. It looks, in fact, like a Fincher period piece, and seems to signal that while the movie is certainly based on fact, it isn’t perhaps necessarily actual. So maybe it is slightly similar to Kane in the way Kane isn’t exactly about Hearst. And, as it keeps broadcasting, in the way Kane‘s Susan Alexander is in no way like Marion Davies.
Even if this film doesn’t aspire to documentary realism, there are many, many easter eggs and factoids to enjoy for fans of the era. Note the little circles in the top right of the screen, to indicate the reel needs changing, even though this entire piece was filmed digitally. Note the hilarious, though perhaps redundant, use of the word “flashback” in the title cards. A throwaway remark about a “tight sweater” is coffee-spittingly funny. For lovers of Welles’ Kane, we can even see versions of the type of split-screen shots which made that movie deservedly famous. But the best thing in this film is the dialogue. “Long night?” Louis B. Mayer asks Mank snarkily as he wobbles uncertainly unto a set where he doesn’t belong, “A short one. Plagued by spirits,” Mank retorts, giving us an idea of his penchant for quips, but also his massive talent for annoying precisely the wrong people. Not only did Mankiewicz drink way too much, but by 1936 he had also lost much of his tolerance. In his words: “The fire is laid and a single match will touch it off.” This did not necessarily make him a popular dinner guest, as the film makes uncomfortably clear.
Several reviewers have called Mank a love letter to Old Hollywood. I disagree. It is way too acerbic, and too conscious of the system’s many grave injustices, to be called a love letter. But, in the end, it also doesn’t quite constitute an indictment. At least not, as one might expect, of the famous studio moguls whom Herman considered fools at best.
In one of the final scenes, there is a big old stand-off between Orson and Mank about the writing credits to the film. Now, Welles has maintained he wanted Mankiewicz to have co-credit, but that Herman’s friends wanted him to have sole writer’s credit. If the matter had made it to arbitration – with which he also threatens Mank in this film – Welles was convinced he would have prevailed, but as it stands both men are credited with writing Kane, and Mankiewicz won an Oscar for it (of which he was extremely proud). This is the type of scene that makes me wonder why the film was made in the way that it was. It almost seems, right towards the end, it just wants to stick it to the late Orson Welles, and his version of the Kane story in particular. But will a modern audience care? Take the sequence, for instance, where Mank is absolved by Marion Davies herself, for the way she is portrayed in the script. She states – as she has done in real life – that she has come to really love Hearst (“I started out a gold-digger and ended up in love”, as she put it to Eleanor Boardman), and that she helped him out financially when he was broke. “You hocked your jewellery?” the fictional Mank asks, rather shocked “No, silly, just some real estate,” she retorts. Now, the way Orson tells the story about the remarkable Davies in real life: “… she pawned all her jewellery, when he was broke. She was an extraordinary girl.” Why so specific? Who would know? Isn’t it sufficient to remind viewers that many luminaries at the time believed Orson was simply usurping Mank’s masterpiece, and calling it his own, while Welles insisted it was ultimately his work?
So while the film works as long as it doffs its hat to the mordant Mankiewicz, and makes a slightly lovestruck attempt to rehabilitate the scintillating Marion (which I appreciate!), I cannot help but wonder who it is for. It was written by sometime journalist and screenwriter Jack Fincher, David Fincher’s father, and so it may be no more than a highly personal project for them both. But that on its own seems unsatisfying. Perhaps it was made simply to make us feel as the members of the Academy did, in awarding Mank his Oscar. As Pauline Kael puts it: “… their hearts have gone out to crazy, reckless Mank, their own resident loser-genius.” If so, I for one can appreciate this acidly sympathetic portrait of a forgotten man and his era, though I worry that, like our protagonist, this particular oft-repeated story may be past its prime.
– Orson’s point of view was distilled mainly from the recordings Peter Bogdanovich made for his book This is Orson Welles (1992). Here is the link to the Internet Archive.
– Mank’s point of view was distilled mainly from Mank: The Wit, World, and Life of Herman Mankiewicz, by Richard Meryman (1978). Here is the link to the Internet Archive.