Monday, December 21, 2020

Mank: No High Comedy

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in Mank. The film is now streaming on Netflix.

This review contains spoilers.

Pauline Kael’s essay “Raising Kane” advanced the idea that Herman J. Mankiewicz had written the screenplay for Citizen Kane, for which he shared screen credit – and a screenwriting Oscar – with the film’s director, Orson Welles. By the time she wrote the piece (which was published in The New Yorker in 1971 and later released in The Citizen Kane Book, side by side with the shooting script), Welles was in the habit of appearing on TV talk shows and protesting that he was the real author of the script – that all Mankiewicz had come up with was the “Rosebud” mystery, which Welles claimed he’d never cared much for anyway. But though “Raising Kane” infuriated Welles enthusiasts who wanted to believe he was the hero of the project, especially those who subscribed to the auteur theory of film criticism that rejects the notion that movies are a collaborative art form, Kael didn’t write it simply out of a desire to correct the misperception about the importance of Mankiewicz’s role in the making of the movie – and she certainly didn’t write it, as the filmmaker and Welles idolater Peter Bogdanovich and other have insisted for years, to denigrate Welles. (Anyone who thinks so ought to check out her review of his 1967 Falstaff, a.k.a. Chimes at Midnight, in her collection Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) The essay, an astonishingly perceptive and densely detailed piece of film scholarship and film criticism, argues that Citizen Kane is the most enjoyable of all great American movies because of the collaboration of two sensational artists, an iconoclastic prodigy making his first picture and a witty veteran who were both liberated by the subject matter to do glittering, audacious work. (Welles was twenty-five, Mankiewicz forty-three.) Welles, who came from New York theatre and radio and didn’t know the rules for making a Hollywood movie, went right ahead and broke them gleefully, and with the help of another pro, the extraordinary cinematographer Gregg Toland, he came up with fresh, innovative ways of using the camera. Mankiewicz, one of the many gifted east-coast playwrights and fiction writers the studios imported when sound came in, wrote a script that, Kael argues, is the culmination of the era, roughly the first decade of talking pictures, when the funny, clever contributions of Mank’s circle -- which included many of the most brilliant New York transplants, like George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur -- flavored movies in every genre but especially those that were tailored specifically for the talkies, like the newspaper picture. (One of the first newspaper pictures adapted Hecht and MacArthur's fabulous hard-boiled stage comedy The Front Page.) That’s what Kane is, and its subject, the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, is transparently William Randolph Hearst, who began an empire by popularizing journalistic writing. Kane is a film à clef that everyone in America could unlock from the opening sequence, set on a Gothic southern-Californian estate called Xanadu that anybody who read the papers could identify as Hearst’s San Simeon. What made the movie even more daring was that, while Kane dies in the opening moments of the movie, Hearst was still very much alive.

It’s obvious that David Fincher’s new movie Mank, written in the 1990s by his late father Jack Fincher (David Fincher’s frequent collaborator Eric Roth, who gets a producer credit, helped him polish it), was inspired by “Raising Kane.” What’s baffling is how the movie could have missed the main point of the essay so completely. Mank is a solemn, somber drama that conveys almost none of the fun that the combined talents of its writer and director and the chutzpah of making a fictionalized biography of one of the most recognizable celebrities in America generated. In fact, it’s not really about the making of Citizen Kane at all. The central narrative line is the writing of the screenplay (originally titled American) by Mank (Gary Oldman) in a cabin in rural Victorville, California, where he’s recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident and where his secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), and the nurse, Fraülein Freda (Monika Gossmann), are under strict orders from Welles (Tom Burke) and producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to keep Mank, an outrageous, mischievous drunk, away from alcohol. (Only when they violate those orders does the screenplay get into high gear.) A series of flashbacks cover Mank’s years at M-G-M working for studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and head of production Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and his introduction to Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress, the M-G-M star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), through her nephew, the screenwriter Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross). After Mank completes the screenplay, he resists the efforts of several people to get him to rewrite it rather than unleash the wrath of Hearst and Mayer, who is Hearst’s best friend. Then – amazingly – Fincher cuts straight to the awarding of the screenwriting Oscar in 1942. Everything those of us who love Citizen Kane were eagerly anticipating is missing from the picture: a dramatization of how Welles made it and how Hearst and his Hollywood gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, with Mayer’s help, tried to suppress it (it was made at RKO), not to mention the relationship between Mank’s circle, with their crazy, besotted antics and their dazzling wit, and the entertaining movies that came pouring unceremoniously out of Hollywood between the sound revolution and the Second World War. You’d never guess that, despite the fabled underappreciation of screenwriters by the studios, Mank and his friends were making a fortune in Hollywood and having the time of their lives, because nobody in Mank seems to be having much fun. Hearst hosted some of the most interesting people in America (and England) at San Simeon, but the only parties we see there are deadly; they resemble the beach outing of Kane’s waxworks guests at Xanadu, and that was meant to make a dramatic point, not to replicate the real atmosphere at the Hearst estate. And though we’re introduced briefly to Kaufman, Hecht, MacArthur, S.J. Perelman and others, the only time we see them put their heads together, with Mank and the newly arrived young Lederer, over a script, it’s some trite melodrama that hardly draws on the qualities that made so many of the movies they worked on so infectious.

Mank is also a melodrama, with Hearst and Mayer as the tyrannical, conspiratorial villains whom Mank finally exposes by turning them into Charles Foster Kane and the loyal financial manager of his flagship San Francisco paper, Bernstein. (This will be news to anyone who’s seen Citizen Kane, where Kane is complex, ultimately a mystery that can’t be unraveled, and Bernstein is the most likable character in the story.) Jack Fincher’s script incorporates the tale of Hearst and Mayer’s undermining of leftist Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor of California through Mayer’s production of a series of phony newsreels. It transposes this little-known piece of political history onto the Mank narrative: he gets wind of the link between M-G-M and the newsreels and, when Mayer’s dirty trick works and Sinclair’s Republican opponent, the non-descript Frank Merriam, carries the election, and then the underling Mayer elevated to direct them kills himself, Mank feels guilty for having been nothing but a court jester at Mayer’s court and Hearst’s. (The image isn’t mine:  not one but two characters refer to Mank as a court jester, in case we miss the point.) In Fincher’s movie Herman Mankiewicz doesn’t write Citizen Kane because he’s a daredevil wit who can’t resist the chance to turn Hearst’s story into the grandest and juiciest and most theatrical newspaper picture ever made but out of a combination of guilt and righteous fury.

The movie doesn’t try to whip up motivation for the one aspect of Citizen Kane that might be called reprehensible – his conversion of Davies, a bright, talented comedienne who was deeply loyal to Hearst (even though, at Hearst’s behest, Mayer wrecked her career by starring her in a series of highfalutin costume spectacles, playing dreadful grande dame roles Hearst wanted to see her in), into the talentless, ridiculous singer Susan Alexander, for whom Kane builds an opera house. Mank finesses it by having Marion visit Mank after she’s read the script and plead with him to change it. But for Hearst’s sake, not her own: she’s such a good sport that she doesn’t mind the burlesquing of her character at all. (It appeals to her sense of humor.)

Mank, which was designed by Donald Graham Burt and photographed by Erik Messerschmidt, is certainly an impressive piece of filmmaking, but I’d say that the picture is as misbegotten in its visual conception as it is in the writing. Perhaps to compensate us for the omission of any scenes about the filming of Citizen Kane, Fincher has made it look like Welles’s movie, but since there’s no playfulness in the use of expressionism, the way there is when Welles and Toland employ it, and no greatest-show-on-earth bravado about the visual tricks, the film appears to have been set up for us to admire. The accomplished replication of Kane doesn’t function dramatically. (I thought of the way Hal Ashby and his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, used the Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans Depression-era photographs in the 1976 Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, another movie that felt dead at the center.) At least, though, viewers who know Kane will be able to make the connection; I can’t imagine what a contemporary audience without a detailed knowledge of Hollywood in the early sound period will make of the uncontextualized allusions to the director Josef von Sternberg and Hecht and MacArthur and others. They’ve been made up by a clever make-up department to look like photographs of their real-life counterparts – at least, the ones I recognized – but if you don’t know who the hell George Kaufman is and the movie doesn’t bother to tell you, then it doesn’t matter how closely the actor Adam Shapiro resembles him.

Oldman gives a very creditable performance, but it’s only in his scenes with Amanda Seyfried that he really comes to life. Seyfried is vivacious as warm, bighearted, down-to-earth Marion, who sneaks drinks to the guests at the Hearst castle because its host has imposed a single-cocktail limit on their imbibing. (This is an oft-repeated factoid about Hearst, but I don’t think the movie offers it – though I may simply have missed it, since the chatter at the Hearst gatherings isn’t exactly calculated to perk up one’s ears.) Every time Seyfried comes into a scene her presence practically levitates it, and she and Oldman have wonderful chemistry. My favorite scene in the movie is the one where Marion and Mank slip out of one of Hearst’s dinners and stroll along the grounds at San Simeon, past the various exotic animals Hearst has collected. There’s not nearly enough of her, but Tuppence Middleton is sassy and sexy as Herman’s wife Sara, and Joseph Cross manages to do something with the role of Charles Lederer. Tom Pelphrey has less luck with his part, Joe Mankiewicz, Herman’s kid brother, who (past the time frame of the movie) went on to write and direct A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve and other famous pictures. (You can read all about them both in Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s lively recent dual biography, The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics.) Tom Burke is adept at getting Orson Welles’s celebrated vocal quality but no one wrote a character for him to play either. Mank is one giant missed opportunity.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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