Mank: A Great Screenwriter in Search of a Great Biopic

David Fincher’s ode to Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz revives an eighty-year-old debate over whether or not Orson Welles deserves a co-writing credit — and it’s exactly as entertaining as that sounds.

Still from Mank (2020), Netflix.

I thought Mank was an atrocious film, which is odd. I mean, surely this David Fincher–directed Netflix project was practically made for me.

I’m one of those freaks who really cares about the career of screenwriter Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his battle with media wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) over the writing credit on Citizen Kane. I can even get all worked up over the portrayal of Herman’s younger brother and professional rival Joe Mankiewicz, a legend in his own right.

And I’m fascinated by the movie’s weird, made-up plotline that has Mank angry and vengeful about the way Hollywood moguls, funded by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, knee-capped socialist Upton Sinclair in his 1934 bid for California governor. In Mank, it’s this right-wing sandbagging that pushes our screenwriting hero to skewer Hearst with his thinly veiled characterization of him as Charles Foster Kane.

Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) of MGM Studios, both of whom appear frequently in Mank, were the actual moguls who did indeed kneecap Sinclair. From their perch at MGM, they launched a nasty media smear campaign consisting of filmed interviews with supposedly ordinary citizens, many of them actors hired to represent Sinclair backers with “undesirable” qualities such as the appearance of ragged indigence or foreign birth.

But Mankiewicz — who in real life leaned anti-union and conservative — had nothing to do with any of it. His rival Orson Welles was the big lefty among this group of Hollywood figures, as it happens, and Hearst did his utmost to destroy Welles, too, effectively exiling him to Europe.

So my fascination turned to irritation as the script by Fincher’s father Jack kept distorting the truth of these events to create a pro-socialist Mank who simply didn’t exist.

It’s a shame, because Herman Mankiewicz’s story is an interesting one — a tale just as much about the man as the long-gone Hollywood studio system that made him who he was. He was an admired former reporter and critic, renowned for his lightning wit, as well as a failed playwright.

One of the many gifted writers of the late 1920s and ’30s lured from New York City to Hollywood by buckets of cash, Mankiewicz took to screenwriting with ease and reveled in the lush life of top film industry talent, while holding Hollywood and himself in such contempt that it spurred much of his scathing humor.

Both Herman and Joe Mankiewicz suffered torments because, for all their success, they felt as if they’d failed to live up to the lofty standards set by their harshly exacting father Franz Mankiewicz. A “German-Jewish émigré who worshipped German culture” as well as “a strict taskmaster who alternately bullied and ignored his sons,” he ended his teaching career as a professor of education at City College of New York, whose intellectual circle included Albert Einstein.

The “Mank” story hardly needs embellishment, but the Finchers, father and son, give it plenty anyway. There are about fifty published posts out there that explain which parts of Mank are factual and which are made up. The most impressively thorough of them, which includes a few of the anti–Upton Sinclair films, is compiled here.

The core of truth is that Mankiewicz was the successful Hollywood screenwriter of the 1930s and ’40s who wrote the endlessly quoted telegram to Ben Hecht that first brought him out west: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

But his relentless drinking and gambling and wisecracking at the expense of Hollywood big shots undermined his career, and soon his younger brother Joe eclipsed him with an impressive producing career followed by even greater success as a writer-director with hits like A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve.

Only one writing credit is the focus of Mank, the long-disputed credit for Citizen Kane. Broke as usual, Mankiewicz had agreed to write the script for money and simply forego credit, trapped in a house out in Victorville with a housekeeper (Monika Gossmann) to monitor his broken leg and his drinking, and a secretary (Lily Collins) to keep him on pace.

Then he changed his mind late in the process when he knew his massive three-hundred-plus-page first draft was the best thing he’d written and could revive his career, leading to a bitter fight with Welles, who wanted to claim total authorship of the film.

Pauline Kael, a relentless foe of “auteur theory,” famously reignited this war when she wrote a lengthy and influential 1971 New Yorker essay called “Raising Kane,” charging Welles with having hogged the credit for “authoring” Citizen Kane that rightly belonged to Mankiewicz.

Writer/director/professional friend of Hollywood legend Peter Bogdanovich collaborated with his pal Welles in a lengthy Esquire rebuttal, “The Kane Mutiny.” Now Mank turns up as a belated answer to Bogdanovich, taking Mankiewicz’s side and giving him the last word at the end of the film, another famous quip that Mankiewicz made after winning the cowriter Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1942. “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’ absence, because the script was written in Mr. Welles’ absence.”

It’s a silly debate, really. Mankiewicz did the bulk of the initial writing but Welles substantially revised and edited his first draft, and of course, had total creative control of the final film. How hard is it to just say that and walk away? Extremely hard for the people involved, it seems, and now here we are, pretty sick of the whole debate.

It’s a sad irony that Mank even looks bad, if you care anything about the glories of black-and-white filmmaking. Hell, watch Citizen Kane if you want to see the glories, because Welles was determined to demonstrate the state of the cinematic art in year 1941, plus add a few gorgeous experiments devised by himself and brilliant cinematographer Gregg Toland. But Mank in general is flatly lit and uninteresting in its compositions. Gary Oldman flails around in the middle of those compositions, doing his utmost to make the movie cohere around him. He’s a great actor, and of course he scores a few illuminating moments, but it’s largely a wasted effort.

Like so many movies about life in old Hollywood, this one is elaborate, overstuffed, and dead inside. Fincher tries to demonstrate the insane inner workings of the studio system in those days and can’t come up with anything better than a story conference full of shouting men whose remarks are taken down by a typist wearing nothing from the waist up but sparkling nipple pasties.

For a much better idea of the maelstrom in which screenwriters under studio contract were asked to function, see what the Coen brothers do in Barton Fink (1991). In Fink, the studio head named Jack Lipnick represents a prime mover of the Hollywood madness. Probably a composite of Louis B. Mayer of MGM and Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, this character induces an epic case of writer’s block in tyro screenwriter Fink, a snob playwright from New York City who finds his supposedly superior intellect will not avail him in this brave new world.

Character actor Michael Lerner won an Oscar performing Lipnick’s mercurial spewing of bathos, towering ego, and sudden rage. The delivery is probably based on Mayer’s legendary office performances which included rivers of tears, fainting spells, and terrifying bursts of profanity that discombobulated even the toughest. Cowed employees called him the best actor in Hollywood.

So how does Fincher deal with Mayer? He casts Arliss Howard, who looks like a wizened, resentful office clerk, the Uriah Heep of Hollywood. His one-note rasping delivery wouldn’t persuade anybody to do anything. Yet somehow he’s shown getting a standing ovation after talking the assembled actors at MGM into taking a big pay cut to help the studio survive the Depression, promising to restore their old pay levels as soon as better times arrived. (That actually happened, and of course Mayer never fulfilled his promise.)

To see the Mank problem in miniature, watch the truly terrible climactic scene near the end, an interminable dinner party fiasco at San Simeon, the massive home of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his actor-mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), as well as the model for Xanadu, the monstrous mansion of Citizen Kane. Again, Fincher strains to convey Hollywood excess, emphasizing the baronial splendor of the dining hall, the immense length of the table, and the crazy circus costumes the guests are wearing, who are all supposed to be top Hollywood people though they’re mostly unidentified.

Mank, drunk off his ass, crashes the party and commands center stage, embarrassing everyone as he slurs out the plot of his new screenplay, which we’re meant to recognize as an early version of Citizen Kane, thus making the argument for Mankiewicz’s prior claim of authorship over Welles. This version of Citizen Kane though is all mixed up with Don Quixote and is also supposed to indict the toxic interdependence of Hearst and Mayer’s business relationship, working in tandem to make and break film industry careers as well as decide who gets to be governor of California.

The scene ends when Mankiewicz pukes on the floor. This actually did happen to Mankiewicz at some Hollywood gathering, prompting one of Mankiewicz’s famous ad-libs when he said to the etiquette-conscious host regarding him in horror, “Don’t worry, the white wine came up with the fish.”

The dinner party scene is a garbled mess, though Fincher seems to have lavished elaborate care upon it. It’s hard to know what exactly he was going for, when the result is cumbersomely shot and paced like a funeral. I had lots of opportunities to pay attention to the extras in the scene, looking for a friend and former student of mine named Scarlet who happened to be playing Bette Davis dressed as a bearded lady. She gets a few extended shots in the background. (Hi Scarlet! You looked great! Shooting that scene must’ve been hell on the extras!)

Even if the script had been powerful — written by Fincher’s father Jack back in the 1990s, and carefully preserved by his son — the way it’s filmed is so blandly unmemorable, it would’ve done much to undercut it. The film’s lax flashback structure from Mankiewicz’s point-of-view seems to be in contrast to Citizen Kane’s dynamic flashback structure from multiple, contradictory points-of-view, just as Mank’s blah cinematography could be run alongside Citizen Kane to demonstrate what not to do with black-and-white film. Weird gimmicks like the “cigarette burns” in the upper right corner of the frame and soundtrack pops which characterized the movie projection process in 1941 are included in Mank to no real purpose other than to make you think momentarily that there’s been some mistake.

Both Mank and Citizen Kane feature legendary, tormented, contradictory men at the center of the narrative. But Mank is so insistent that its hero was a total mensch maddened by the vile power politics of Hollywood that it undercuts the fascination of Mankiewicz’s obsessive drinking, gambling, and wisecracking. All this stylistic and narrative evocation of Citizen Kane to no clear purpose is maybe the biggest irritation in a mass of Mank-related irritations.

The best advice is probably just to skip Mank, watch Citizen Kane (or Barton Fink), and read a biography of the Mankiewicz brothers. You’ll have a far better time.