By Lynn Venhaus
An unflinching look at the old studio system during the height of Hollywood’s Dream Factory persona, “Mank” is more than a backstory on “Citizen Kane,” pulling back the curtain on some unsavory wheeling-and-dealings of the era.
“Mank” follows screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s tumultuous development of Orson Welles’ iconic masterpiece in 1941, with flashbacks to old Hollywood in the 1930s, including labor disputes, politics and the studio tycoons.
Director David Fincher, known for his obsessive control, has carefully crafted a portrait of the complicated screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who died of alcoholism at age 55 in 1953. Mank, a newspaperman from New York, was one of the well-known Algonquin Round Table writers who migrated to Hollywood. He joined such luminaries as playwright George S. Kaufman, humorist S.J. Perlman and Ben Hecht as screenwriters under contract.
While recovering from a broken leg, Mank is set up at a dusty, desolate ranch in Victorville, Calif., to write the screenplay with a 60-day deadline, free of distractions and surrounded by secrecy.
John Houseman, who is part of Orson Welles’ fabled Mercury Players, has been assigned to watch over him. Houseman, who really won Best Supporting Actor for “The Paper Chase” in 1974, didn’t seem to be particularly fussy, but Sam Troughton plays him that way. Wunderkind Welles (Tom Burke) will tussle with Mank, but it is their crowning achievement.
While best known for winning an Oscar for the screenplay of “Citizen Kane,’ which he reluctantly shared with Orson Welles – and was the only winner out of nine nominations, Mank also wrote “Dinner at Eight” and “The Pride of the Yankees,” among dozens of titles, and produced such Marx Brothers movies as “Duck Soup.”
The man himself was a prickly personality, an uncompromising writer with a sardonic wit and a wicked pen, disgruntled by the studio system and the guys who ran them. He did not suffer fools and was wary of those in power. Heavy drinking and gambling had sullied his reputation, but no one could deny his talent.
The cast is one of the finest assembled this year, helmed by Gary Oldman as the bruising wordsmith. It’s a towering portrayal—would we expect anything less from the Oscar winner? Oldman has affected an old-timey delivery for his epic battles with just about everyone but his long-suffering wife, dubbed “Poor Sara” (nicely portrayed by Tuppence Middleton).
The multi-layered story focuses on the ruthless movers-and-shakers – including a terrific Arliss Howard as cunning Louis B. Mayer at M-G-M and a steely Charles Dance as shrewd newspaper publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.
At his castle in San Simeon, Hearst threw lavish dinner parties attended by the show business elite. One of his favorite guests, no matter how drunk or boorish he got, was Mank. The outspoken screenwriter was pals with Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies, who is played by Amanda Seyfried in her best performance to date.
Other noteworthy performances include Ferdinand Kingsley as producer Irving Thalberg, Lily Collins as stenographer Rita Alexander, Jamie McShane as Shelly Metcalf and Ozark’s Tom Pelphrey as Joseph Mankiewicz, Herman’s brother who was also in the business (and wrote “All About Eve.”)
The score by Fincher’s go-to duo of Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor captures the period jazz and Big Band, and
While the meticulous production values are stunning, with its luxe black-and-white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt, glamorous costume design by Trish Summerville and the grand production design by Donald Graham Burt, the dense plot of “Mank” is likely to keep some moviegoers at a distance.
As it sprawls beyond the studio gates, the filmd takes detours into the 1934 gubernatorial race in California and industry politics, convoluting an already verbose narrative.
If you are not familiar with the backstory about the making of “Citizen Kane” or the real people on whose lives the characters are based, this may be a problem in digesting “Mank,” a very inside look at Hollywood as an industry who aimed at a market devastated by the Depression.
The director ‘s late father, Jack Fincher, who died in 2003, wrote this screenplay in the 1990s, for the film originally was supposed to be made after “The Game” in 1997. Rumor has it that Eli Roth did some polishing, but whether that’s true, the original script must have had to be reworked at some point.
One thing is certain, Hollywood loves to make movies about the making of movies. Fincher’s lens creates a bigger picture while concentrating on a few key players.
Fascinating, infuriating and rich with details, “Mank” the film is like Mank the person – hard to pin down but worth the time.
“Mank” is a biography-drama directed by David Fincher and starring Gary Oldman, Charles Dance, Arliss Howard, Amanda Seyfried, Tuppence Middleton, Lily Collins and Tom Pelphrey. Rated R for language, “Mank” is 2 hours and 11 minutes’ long. Lynn’s Grade: B-
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.