Hollywood loves to make movies about its own history – and audiences and reviewers, generally, have liked them. Witness Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” last year, “La-La Land” and “Stan & Ollie” before it, and the Best Picture Academy Award-winning “The Artist” prior to those.
A major contender in the next Oscar round is “Mank,” which already has racked up a leading six Golden Globe nominations. Gary Oldman has the title role in the David Fincher-directed story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man behind the script for Orson Welles’ immortal “Citizen Kane” (1941).
How much of “Kane” – perhaps the greatest of American movies – was a creation of director-star Welles has always been something of a mystery. Mankiewicz was hired to ghostwrite the script for Welles, and the two men spent months refining it. In the end, they shared screen credit (and a screenplay Oscar, although Academy voters otherwise shunned the film). “Mank” argues that the script was much more Mankiewicz than Welles – although scholars who have examined records of the actual writing process might be inclined to disagree.
“Mank” tackles the question of why Mankiewicz wrote his roman à clef on media czar William Randolph Hearst by using the writer’s 60 days in contract-enforced seclusion for Welles as a framing story with flashbacks to Mankiewicz’s history with Hearst (Charles Dance) and his actress paramour, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). The recounting begins with Mankiewicz’s circa-1930 arrival in Hollywood – where he has been encouraged to come from New York because “the competition is idiots.” It winds through issues of Depression-era labor relations, involving moguls like MGM’s facile and pandering Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and politics, notably the controversial 1934 California governor’s race in which socialist Democrat Upton Sinclair was narrowly defeated. (We are reminded that anti-communist hysteria did not begin with Joe McCarthy, the plot to fluoridate water, or Trump-era concerns.).
The glib Mankiewicz is depicted as a jester in the court of the powerful whose revenge is the Welles-commissioned script initially titled, “American.” It is left for us to decide where “Rosebud” comes in.
Oldman is a shade too old to play the forty-something Mankiewicz, but he carries off the writer’s faux-jaunty cynicism. The film’s best scenes involve him and Seyfried, whose deceptively smart Davies hardly seems to merit the barely cloaked depiction of her as the shrill “Susan Alexander” of “Citizen Kane.” As to how accurate “Mank” is about its subject, remember the film’s own spoken warning about “Kane”: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours; all you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”
“Mank” is streaming on Netflix as I write this, and that is likely to remain the case at least until the virtual Oscar ceremony is staged April 25. Have at it!
Meanwhile, this month’s Friends of Modern Art schedule at the Flint Institute of Arts includes films from Australia, the U.S., Italy and Israel. They are, respectively, the mystery drama “Jasper Jones” (streaming March 5-7); “That Click” (March 12-14), a documentary on “Photographer to the Stars” Douglas Kirkland; “Martin Eden” (March 19-21), in which Jack London’s novel is transported to Italia; and “God of the Piano” (March 26-28), a music-related drama.
Because of the pandemic, FIA screenings will remain virtual until further notice. Information and updates can be found by visiting flintarts.org.