By Eleanor Ringel Cater
The title of David Fincher’s much-anticipated new movie is “Mank.”
As in “stank.”
Actually, as in Herman Mankiewicz. As in Joe (“All About Eve”) Mankiewicz’s brother. As in Orson Welles’ collaborator on what many consider the greatest movie ever made, “Citizen Kane.”
The nature of that collaboration is the subject of Fincher’s film. Never mind a pandemic and political chaos. Who really wrote “Citizen Kane?”
Granted, there are cinephiles of all sorts who care about this. There are also those who like to debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Perhaps if the times were less, well, perilous, or if I were a few decades younger, “Mank” would have more appeal. It’s an exceedingly well-done pastiche – in silvery black-and-white, with little nods to concepts like “deep focus,’ which were pioneered in “Kane.” And it’s so much better than the recent rancid “Hollywoodland” that I’d recommend it to buffs just so they can see the difference for themselves.
But mostly “Mank” made me impatient – that so much time and care and money were being spent on a sliver of Hollywood history that doesn’t have much resonance beyond, well, being a sliver of Hollywood history.
Once upon a time in Hollywood, a boy–genius named Orson Welles was granted carte blanche to do whatever he liked to make his first movie. “I have final cut. Final everything!” he exalts to Mank (Gary Oldman), who is currently laid up with a broken leg after a car accident.
Final control as well (or so Welles thinks) over the notoriously cantankerous and alcoholic Mank who’s been isolated from booze on a ranch in Victorville, Calif., where he he’s supposed to recover and write “Kane.”
Fincher, who’s working from a 2003 screenplay written by his late father, then flashes back and forth between Victorville and the bustling, glamorous Hollywood of the 1930s, with side trips to San Simeon, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s magnificent retreat where the crème de la crème of Tinseltown party hard.
Mank is one of the partiers, his acerbic wit making him Hearst’s personal jester. He’s also a special friend to the great man’s devoted mistress, the actor Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). That “Kane” is seen as a poisonous expose of Hearst is thus a kind of personal betrayal.
The movie is littered with the Hollywood Bigwigs of the era – everyone from Hearst (Charles Dance) and Davies to mogul Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and his right-and man, Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley). Fincher has a grand time roaming the backlot of MGM. He also focuses, with less success, on the failed gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair, who – I think – is meant to come off as a kind of Depression-era Bernie Sanders.
Oldman, who recently won an Oscar for his Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” makes a credible Mankiewicz – if, for no other reason, than because he’s rendered as a kind of generic smartest-alcoholic-in-the-room Hollywood wit.
However, the real find – and bonafide movie-stealer – is Seyfried, an underappreciated talent who’s been splendid in everything from “Les Miserables” to “Dutch Reform.” She makes Davies the most memorable presence in “Mank” – as vibrant as she is honorable.
Maybe one day, someone will make a movie about her.
“Mank” is available to view on Netflix and in metro theaters.