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.