Sunday, December 27, 2020

Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: MANK writes Citizen Kane

 This post is written by our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

To report on director David Fincher’s MANK, a star turn for actor Gary Oldman and streaming now on Netflix, one needs throw bouquets at Mank’s opus, Citizen Kane, directed and starring Orson Welles, for which the witty, erudite Herman Mankiewicz, Mank, is hired to produce a script. Mank is the anecdotal tale of its writing, set against the machinations of the moguls that harnessed Hollywood in the 1930’s and rode it like outlaws. Although who wrote what is still disputed, it is thought that Mank laid out structure and detail while Welles infused the magic that has led to Citizen Kane’s reputation as one of the best films ever made. Both men (below) got Oscars for best original screenplay, its only win. Citizen Kane’s repute has grown since. 

We find our anti-hero laid up at a secluded desert ranch with a broken leg, waited on by a nurse and a secretary, the latter played by Lily Collins (below, l). Mank was in the middle of the movie food chain —a Hollywood transplant, jaded New York critic and playwright who wrote to his NY writer cohorts: “Come at once. There are millions to be made and your only competition are idiots”. 

What Mank lacks in a story arc is filled to the brim with an insider’s view of Hollywood’s studio renowned and other notables, particularly William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s Betty Boop (Amanda Seyfried) — who is getting awards buzz for her Marion Davies, played with warm intelligence. (Below, from l, Seyfried, Oldman, and Dance).

Citizen Kane
is a 1941 vision in black and white that excoriates news mogul Hearst and the American Dream as Hearst exploited it — Rupert Murdoch’s tabloidy mantle now. (Citizen Kane streams on HBO Max thru 12/31, but is available for rent/sale on Prime, elsewhere.) The two films are intertwined — ‘Kane’ is worth a watch/re-watch, there’s not much about it in Mank, yet the texture of it infuses the entirety. Mank is a 2020 vision in black and white of Citizen Kane (below). 

’s essence is the rich vs poor story of the flamboyant, depression era heyday of MGM’s Louis B Mayer and notables like Irving Thalberg, David O Selznick, S.J. Perelman and Joe Mankiewicz, all of whom and more appear here. Mank is the outsider, the joker who stumbles around drunk with writing skills and bon mots that have kept him in demand in the writers' room and in social company. 

Mank himself, a garrulous, overweight idealist, produces the original draft of the rise and fall of news magnate Charles Foster Kane for director Welles; it disparages the living Hearst and his castle of excess San Simeon — “Our little hillside home”. Mank “shimmers with knowing artificiality”, says A.O.Scott in The New York Times, as “the low motives and compromised ideals are articles of the annals of Hollywood self-obsession”. 

Mank himself is between a rock and a hard place: his own liberalism vs the oligarchic industry that employs him. Sympathetic to the exploitation of the have nots, he manages both to pal around with Hearst and use his words to throw Hearst under the bus. Citizen Kane becomes Mank’s mea culpa for having been a Hearst hanger on and court jester, damning both Hearst and tinseltown as oligarch. Says younger brother, Joe Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey): “I hear you’re hunting dangerous game; boy [Welles] wants to go toe-to-toe with Willie Hearst, and you’re helping in the kitchen” (below, brother Joe). 

David Fincher
’s detailed script for Mank was written by his own father Jack, who uses flashbacks in the manner of Citizen Kane but here replaces the abuses of Charles Foster Kane with the abuses of the filmmaking industry and local politics. (Below, Fincher directs Oldman). 

, however, suffers from the absence of the foreboding narrative that distinguished Citizen Kane. In one vignette, Mank is disgusted with Mayer (‘If I ever go to the electric chair, I'd like him to be sitting in my lap’) who drips sincerity pandering to his employees while cutting their pay in half. Actor Arliss Howard chews Mayer’s part with relish but no drama (below, c). 

Even the annihilating despair of a colleague who produced ads for a city mayoral race smearing the Democrat as a ‘lousy Bolshevik’ is affect-starved. That political campaign of self-interested lying to the public fueled Mank’s anger, propelling his revenge. (Here, the casting of Bill Nye, The Science Guy, as Upton Sinclair, the Democrat who gets beaten, is a clever poke at 2020 repression of science.) However the vignettes don’t build momentum. They are snapshots unmoored to a strong story arc. The power of Mank is in its imagery resembling Citizen Kane and as a singular character study that rakes over a man’s soul. It is lovely for all that, with Oscar buzz aplenty. 

Director of photography, Erik Messerschmidt, made a mesmerizing contribution here, creating the atmosphere of ‘Kane,’ perhaps to such an extent it leaves the viewer even more in want of old cars and old film — rich in moody blacks and whites, continuous long shots, immaculate lighting. Below, Marion glows. 

In short, cinephiles, watch and luxuriate. For those who feel no passion for the old film industry, the look, feel, and Mank’s bon mots will please, but no meal of a story is offered. Fincher has given us, writes David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter, a “high-style piece of cinematic nostalgia that's a constant pleasure to look at but only intermittently finds a heartbeat.” Mank himself died of alcoholism at 55. 

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