Mank prints the legend of Hollywood as a gilded cage

David Fincher’s portrait of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the hard-drinking, hard-gambling screenwriter of Citizen Kane, enshrines the self-loathing myth of a studio-era Hollywood populated by idiots. History remembers it differently, says Farran Smith Nehme.

Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in David Fincher's Mank (2020)

▶︎ Mank is on Netflix.

The second-most famous thing Herman Mankiewicz ever wrote wasn’t a screenplay. It was a 1925 telegram to the writer Ben Hecht, quoted in Hecht’s autobiography A Child of the Century and by innumerable historians of Hollywood ever since:

“Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures. All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” 

In David Fincher’s Mank, the telegram is given a different destination, to brother Joseph ‘Joe’ Mankiewicz, 11 years younger and fated for a brighter Hollywood future. The message still appears in full in this tale of Herman Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman), his work on Citizen Kane (1941), and the studio era.

This feature also appears in our December 2020 issue

Plus: Steve McQueen talks Small Axe and the Britain it was born from with David Olusoga, and five writers’ personal takes on the films; Louise Brooks on Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo; Ennio Morricone; Roy Andersson; Pedro Almodóvar; David Byrne; Sarah Maldoror; Asta Nielsen; Total Recall; and notes from the Nigerian new wave.

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Filmed in black and white, the widescreen look of Mank is more Fincher than RKO, with a frequently smoky, silhouetted aesthetic, like the newsroom scene in Kane. But the aim clearly wasn’t to make a film that looked exactly like 1940 – or 1930 or 1934, when much of the action takes place in lengthy flashbacks. Instead the film casts an eye on a past as jaded as Mankiewicz’s own, breaking a man’s story into overlapping fragments, as did Mankiewicz’s greatest work. 

There’s a saying (often credited to Honoré de Balzac, though he didn’t put it so bluntly): “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.” Mank’s studio-era version might read: “Behind every great movie, there is a betrayal” – and Citizen Kane, being the greatest of all movies, had a great number of betrayals.

While the film sees the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s depiction in Kane as just deserts, Hearst (Charles Dance) could claim to have been betrayed by a writer who had been a frequent guest at his palatial San Simeon home.

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in Mank

Marion Davies, whose reputation was badly damaged by the assumption that the dilettantish drunk Susan Alexander in Kane was based on her, is played by Amanda Seyfried in a way that suggests Jean Harlow’s showgirl characters more than the actual Davies, who had a low-pitched speaking voice and a famous off-screen stutter. But Seyfried makes Davies as lovable as her contemporaries claimed she was, and Mank shows her being sacrificed to Herman Mankiewicz’s unusually naive assumption that people would realise the differences between the talented Marion and Charles Foster Kane’s talentless lover Susan. 

Mank argues for even more betrayals behind all of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It was really a Gilded Age, Fincher’s film contends, in which studio plutocrats merrily screwed employees out of their credit and their pay, and you never knew which colleague might be helping them do it. 

Herman MankiewiczGetty Images

There are only glancing references to the childhood that shaped Herman – in particular, the brothers’ relentlessly critical and exacting father, who emigrated from Germany and eventually became a well-respected professor, having put himself through Columbia University in his 40s.

Herman was by any standard a prodigy, passing the Columbia entrance exam when he was 13 years old. By any standard, that is, except that of ‘Pop’ Mankiewicz. “A father like that,” Herman said years later, “could make you either very ambitious or very despairing.” Pop seemed to make Herman both. The adult Herman measured himself against what he considered ‘real’ literature, repeatedly trying to write a successful Broadway play, until the out-of-town flop of the ironically named The Meal Ticket in 1937 caused him to concede defeat.

He began as a journalist in the early 1920s, and his wit gained him a spot as one of the youngest regulars at the Algonquin Round Table, an informal daily lunch gathering of writers, critics and actors at the Algonquin Hotel which at times included Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Parker and Harpo Marx. Mankiewicz worked at the New York Times and also as the New Yorker’s theatre critic.

But even at that point, he was acquiring a reputation for unreliability. In 1926, as Herman enjoyed his first sojourn in California, the New Yorker’s Harold Ross fired him with a letter that stated prophetically: “Your personality is such that you cannot be fitted into an organisation.” 

Drinking outside the box

Lily Collins as Rita Alexander and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in Mank

All of Mankiewicz’s demons have made it into the movie, and they were considerable. Foremost was his drinking, which Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s book The Brothers Mankiewicz traces all the way back to the beers Herman drank during a summer spent working because he was too young to take up his place at Columbia.

Mank shows how alcohol was dominating Herman’s life by adulthood, as he reels around parties, production offices, a couple of writers’ buildings and, despite attempts to rein in his consumption, the ranch at Victorville, California, where he wrote most of the first draft of Citizen Kane. 

The film’s Orson Welles (Tom Burke) sends along a liquor cabinet full of bottles dosed with the sedative Seconal, to ensure that Mankiewicz, bedridden in a full-leg cast from an auto accident, can’t have a drink until the end of the day. This seems to be a fantasy; in real life, Mankiewicz was stymied by the ranch owner’s teetotal rental policy and the fact that his Scotch had been hidden by secretary Rita Alexander (played here by Lily Collins). He settled into a routine of being driven into town, along with editor and de facto babysitter John Houseman (Sam Troughton), for one drink per day, at about 6 pm.

That, save an abortive attempt to dry out via psychoanalysis in the late 1930s, was as abstemious as Herman Mankiewicz ever got. Even so, alcohol had competition in terms of his vices. Compulsive gambling has always been an underrated means of Hollywood self-destruction, with a large role in the melancholy last acts of such figures as Mickey Rooney, Chico Marx, Paramount head B.P. Schulberg and a one-time Paramount executive who Mank depicts in bitter terms, David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore).

Herman almost didn’t make it to Hollywood in the first place after he lost his ticket money in a $2-limit poker game midway cross-continent in Chicago. He got further in the hole to earn it back, and had to borrow to complete the journey. At one point Mankiewicz was the highest-paid writer at Paramount not because of his output, but because he had talked the front office into a $500-per-week raise which went directly to Ben Hecht to repay Herman’s poker losses. 

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in Mank

Once he was settled in, Mankiewicz wrote or had a considerable hand in writing a dizzying array of movies, including Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928); the delicious pre-Code Laughter (1930), starring Nancy Carroll, one of Herman’s many platonic crushes; and Million Dollar Legs (1932), an extravagantly funny W.C. Fields vehicle.

As the decade wore on, however, so did Mankiewicz’s welcome. His charm and underlying kindness meant he was loved by many in the industry, but the drinking became an ever-bigger liability. And his wisecracking amounted almost to a compulsion, as when he was asked about the day-to-day duties of MGM executive Benny Thau, and responded that Thau watched from his third-floor office for any appearance of the north wind.

Remarks like that got around. Sometimes Mankiewicz himself was the reason they did so, as Fincher’s movie accurately shows when Mank makes the near-suicidal decision to show a draft of Citizen Kane to friend Charles Lederer – who was also Marion Davies’s nephew. 

In 1939, the infrequently charitable Louis B. Mayer agreed to rehire Herman at MGM, in part, some said, out of sympathy for Herman’s wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton in Mank), a well-liked woman known for loyalty to her difficult husband. The job ended days later, when Herman looked up from his poker game in the studio commissary and met the eyes of L.B.

Arliss Howard as Louis B. May in Mank

None of that makes it into the new film; in their last encounter at San Simeon, which takes place earlier in the decade, Mayer (Arliss Howard) tells Herman he hired him as a favour to Hearst. But Mankiewicz is shown gambling in the writers’ room, with a nod toward Herman’s notorious bad luck; he’s called away to see the boss during his first good poker hand. 

Mank links Herman’s particular dislike of Mayer (and Irving Thalberg, played by Ferdinand Kingsley as Mayer’s suavely handsome minion) to politics, which may be a stretch. Among other underhand dealings, there is a subplot involving Upton Sinclair’s 1934 campaign for California governor.

Mank shows Mayer and Thalberg deploying anti-Sinclair ‘fake news’, Depression-style: alarmist newsreels scripted, cast and shot by the studios. This indeed happened, but Herman’s relationship with a studio cameraman tormented by his decision to direct the newsreels appears fictitious. There isn’t much evidence that Mankiewicz disdained the bosses for anything but the same reasons everyone else did: their avarice, their supposed lack of culture, their arbitrary and arbitrarily wielded power.

Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer and Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst in Mank

Herman’s real-life politics were consistently inconsistent. He was prescient and fiery enough to write an anti-Nazi screenplay called The Mad Dog of Europe in 1933, barely two months after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. But the movie was fated never to be made, and a few years later Mankiewicz was embracing Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist positions even as he privately acknowledged Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism.

Herman was not a signer or a joiner, a quality that saved him and brother Joe – the screenwriter of All About Eve (1950) and Cleopatra (1963) –  a lot of trouble in the post-war era, when having your name turn up on the wrong petition could end your career. That side of Herman does show up in the film, when Joe turns up to urge joining the nascent Screen Writers Guild, and Herman responds with a famous comment, that a writers’ guild should know they need an apostrophe in the name.

In real life, it was Dorothy Parker who sought Herman’s enlistment. Women screenwriters, even one as famous as Frances Marion, Herman’s co-writer on MGM’s smash hit Dinner at Eight (1933), are notably absent from Mank; the sole woman in the writers’ room is a secretary wearing spangled pasties. 

An eruption of trash

Mank (2020)

When Mankiewicz’s telegram arrived, his friend Ben Hecht, out of money and job prospects and two months behind on rent, had been spending days in bed reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an early indication of why Hecht was just one of the writers who thought of Hollywood as slumming. Hecht soon found himself in Hollywood and flush with cash alongside other Mankiewicz recruits such as S.N. Behrman, Oliver H.P. Garrett, Edwin Justus Mayer and Nunnally Johnson.

‘The Herman Mankiewicz Fresh Air Fund for New York Writers’ was the nickname given to his recruiting expeditions, carried out in person on an expense account funded by B.P. Schulberg of Paramount. These New York newspapermen brought their astringent wit and cynicism with them, observes Stern, and thus they became “one of Herman’s more lasting contributions to Hollywood’s Golden Age of films”.

Their other contribution was a contempt for the medium they were working in. The most gifted of all, Hecht, exhibited the worst snobbery. “An eruption of trash,” he called the movies, “that has lamed the American mind and retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people.”

Yet Hecht’s screenplays, which he claimed “required no more effort than a game of pinochle”, have already decisively, and justifiably, outlived his literary output. Even his play The Front Page (written with Charles MacArthur, who is played by John Churchill for a brief appearance in Mank) survives most brilliantly not in revivals, but in Howard Hawks’s gender-flipped film version, His Girl Friday (1939).

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies

Ben Hecht’s attitude toward studio-era Hollywood was shared by Mankiewicz and by Mank. The writers are gleeful paycheck whores, the producers are greedy philistines when they aren’t torpedoing political reform, and most of the actors appear as overdressed mutes. It’s a frustrating thing to watch for those who could easily name several good or even great films made by virtually any real-life character in Mank (and that certainly includes Marion Davies).

Admittedly, the studio era’s factory-like uncertainty about which piece came from which worker added to writerly discontent; playwrights and even theatre critics control their output. Herman’s name, for example, appears nowhere on The Wizard of Oz (1939), the cloud-swept credits of which Mank evokes. Yet he almost certainly came up with the idea of contrasting drab, sepia Kansas with Technicolor Oz, a stroke of genius if ever there was one.

One of his relatively few post-Kane credits was for the beloved 1942 baseball drama about Lou Gehrig, Pride of the Yankees; but uncredited co-writer Richard Maibaum claimed years later, with sad plausibility, that Mankiewicz was drinking too much to contribute more than a few pages.

Mankiewicz was known in the industry for being a wizard at ‘punching up’ dialogue. But whether or not that resulted in a screen credit, how do you point to his specific effect on the movie all these years later, even if it rescued a whole scene or sequence? Did his writing credits indicate more or less input than his work as producer of the Marx Brothers’ immortal Monkey Business (1932) and Horse Feathers (1931)?

Mank (2020)

Kane, of course, was different. Mankiewicz spent years attending dinner parties and weekends at San Simeon, with ample opportunity to study its mercurial owner. Like everyone else, he was fond of unsnobbish Marion Davies, and their shared alcoholism also created a bond as they strove to hide their stashes from disapproving W.R. Hearst.

Herman had a wealth of pent-up ideas – about lonely boyhoods, about newspapermen, about loyalty and hubris. Over the course of his stay in Victorville, Mankiewicz poured it all into 325 pages of a script called ‘American’, the extravagant title seeming to confirm that there was too much material for one movie to contain. In Mank, brother Joe tells him: “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done,” and for Herman, the confirmation is already superfluous. 

Mank shows that Herman had signed a contract and accepted a bonus on the condition that Welles would get sole credit, but once the work is done, Herman reneges. The movie implies that in this instance, it was Welles punching up the script: “I’ll just run it through my typewriter,” he tells Herman.

Tom Burke as Orson Welles with Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz

People who revere Citizen Kane can choose whether or not to accept this scenario. Those who have read scholars such as Robert Carringer and Harlan Lebo excavating the surviving scripts and records at RKO, or essays by Joseph McBride or Jonathan Rosenbaum on the topic, almost certainly won’t.

In his 1978 biography, also titled Mank, Richard Meryman estimated Herman’s contribution to the final Kane script at 60 per cent, plus revisions he contributed later. Critic Pauline Kael, in her essay Raising Kane, put it at virtually 100 per cent, which even John Houseman said went too far. Houseman added, more to the point, that Citizen Kane “is Orson’s picture just at Stagecoach is John Ford’s picture, even though Dudley Nichols wrote it”.

Wheeling around to that telegram once more, we see Mank enshrining the myth of a town full of idiots. But myth it is. For one thing, Herman’s main credit competitor in the eyes of history remains Orson Welles, the furthest thing imaginable from an idiot.

In a 1978 interview, Meryman said of Herman: “I wanted to find out how, when he was all but finished as a writer, he could turn around and write Citizen Kane.” Mank’s answer is that, like Dorothy’s return from Oz, Herman Mankiewicz always had the ability to write something that good; it was Hollywood holding him back. Perhaps, but it was also Hollywood that gave him immortality.

Further reading

Mank nips itself in the Rosebud

David Fincher’s Netflix production sanctifies the co-writer of Citizen Kane, but seems blind to what made that film great.

By Henry K Miller

Mank nips itself in the Rosebud