Movie of the Week: Mank

Is there anything better than Golden Age Hollywood? From the early days of silent pictures to about the mid to late sixties (the standard defining time), the Dream Factory of La La Land, with its studio kingdoms, was the home of American royalty.

The Golden Age, especially the thirties and forties, to my mind, is when the glamour was at its zenith. Those years are classic Hollywood for me, when the silver screen was blessed with the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Citizen Kane. And don’t forget the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello.  The stars shone brighter, the drama was more dramatic, and the zingers zung zingier.

Innovations were made, as well, to further the medium of motion pictures. Citizen Kane broke the mold and broadened the possibilities of what a film could do and be. It wasn’t the first to nearly reinvent the wheel, but it was, and remains, one of the most innovative and revolutionary films ever made. It also remains one of the classics to be forever shrouded in controversy.

Orson Welles produced it, directed it, and starred in it. There is no question of that, those are the facts. The authorship of Kane‘s screenplay remains, more or less, a mystery. He no doubt wrote some it, did some rewrites, certainly, gave the thing a polish. But credited as cowriter was Herman J. Mankiewicz, known as Mank to everyone who knew him. Mank insisted, contrary to Welles protestations, that he was the sole author. And there’s a good chance he was.

David Fincher’s Mank doesn’t try to persuade or give proof one way or the other. It simply tells a good story about a writer trying to excise some demons by way of the page.

While recuperating from a from a broken sustained in a car accident, Mank is procured by wunderkind Welles to write a screenplay. Welles has been given free reign by RKO do make whatever movie he wants. Mank seizes on this opportunity– he needs the money and is even willing to forego credit.

With housekeeper Frieda and secretary Rita to act as handlers and nursemaids, the liquor-loving Mank sets about trying to work. He taps his past to fill the blank pages. Inspiration comes from his time rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite and being in the inner circle of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst is the inspiration for the character of Kane and his mistress, actress Marion Davies, inspires (mostly, sort of) the character of Kane’s second wife.

The movie switches back and forth between Mank writing Citizen Kane and his time with Hearst and Marion, for whom Mank has a genuine affection. Mank spends a lot of time navigating the studio system and its political intentions, even though his own ideals and ethics run in opposition to Hearst. When his Kane script raises the ire of Hollywood and Hearst, it’s his friendship with Marion that Mank wishes to preserve.

Mank is a funny, touching tribute to Old Hollywood, a great writer and harkens back to the films of yesteryear in both sound and vision.