Old Hollywood is brilliantly brought to life in David Fincher’s fascinating true story entitled Mank, written by Fincher’s late father Jack. This amazing period-piece centers on drunken washed-up screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) who pretty much single-handedly wrote Orson Welles’ magnum opus Citizen Kane (released in 1941) yet was almost white-washed from receiving proper credit for reasons eloquently divulged in this movie. Script collaborations and ghost-writing are common occurrences in Hollywood but when the work turns out to be touted as the best movie ever made (a title still currently held as voted by the American Film Institute and others) it can haunt a person if their creative contributions are virtually invisible. Citizen Kane was nominated for a number of Oscars and won for Best Screenplay (Welles & Mankiewicz), with neither writer in attendance to accept the award. But Mank later commented, ‘I am very happy to accept this award in the manner in which the screenplay was written, which is to say, in the absence of Orson Welles.’ Ouch. Fast Fact: Orson Welles’ Oscar for Citizen Kane (1941) sold at auction in California in 2011 for $861,542.00 USD (£549,721).
Mank is such an appealing movie, and the invigorating cinematography alone is worth the watch. The only problem is that many modern-day viewers (minus movie buffs) might not completely appreciate and understand the backstory of this most captivating saga shot in black-and-white adding to its authenticity. Why? Because Mank’s script Citizen Kane, for all intents and purposes, was based on the real-life love affair between very young actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and much older married newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) who was age 53 when he met his 19-year-old forever muse. For those unfamiliar with the plot of Citizen Kane, it focuses on very powerful publishing mogul Charles Foster Kane (aka William Randolph Hearst) and his mistress Susan Alexander (aka Marion Davies). Movie character Kane ends up dying alone in his mansion Xanadu (aka Hearst Castle – San Simeon Castle) uttering on his deathbed ‘Rosebud’ (aka Hearst’s pet name ‘tender button’ for Davies genitalia) leaving reporters scrambling trying to decipher his dying words. Yikes. What a salacious scandal off screen more than on! One can only imagine how this portrayal was received by the real-life players, especially when one of them was writing many Hollywood cheques! In short, William Randolph Hearst not only controlled much of the media he also lent his heavy hand to promoting Hollywood movies and could make or break careers at his leisure. Therefore, not the best idea to reveal deep dark secrets about mighty media moguls like Hearst – a truth that still holds today. BTW it is rumored that Orson Welles did not know the true meaning of the word ‘Rosebud’ in Mank’s Citizen Kane but nevertheless Welles most likely meant for it to metaphorically represent life’s simplicity as experienced in one’s earlier years rather than its literal meaning projected to audiences as the name of Kane’s childhood sled.
All that to say, the film Mank does not focus on the backlash brought on by the production of the film Citizen Kane (Hearst’s wrath included forbidding any of his popular newspapers to run the movie’s ads), or its lasting negative effects (roaring 20s superstar Marion Davies’ reputation was ruined when labelled a gold-digging talentless hack after the film’s release) but rather the creation of the written story itself and how it came to be penned by Mank in the first place. Marvelous. That said, this movie is not for everyone and there are certainly a lot of twists and turns with some government politics thrown in for good measure. However, despite being a bit difficult to follow at times there are some very valuable life lessons embedded amongst the layers. The most obvious take-away is how personal vices (arrogance, alcohol, excess, affairs…) can overtake people’s sensibilities leading to questionable and sometimes regrettable decisions with the main message extending in the same vein. Specifically how desperate people (powerful or poor) seem to capitalize on others’ weaknesses to get ahead. It’s a vicious cycle. Exploit vs. Utilize – ‘Men are used as they use others.’ – Bidpai. Case in point, Orson Welles exploited a down-and-out Herman Mankiewicz almost scooping the best work of his life. Herman Mankiewicz exploited William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies betraying their close friendship by publicly exposing their affair. Media giant Hearst and actress Davies exploited… and so the story goes. A common problem then and now. Con ‘artists’ will double-cross anyone and everyone while climbing up their backs to squash and surpass them. Hollywood hospitality – don’t you love it – not.
Speaking of Hollywood, Awards Season is upon us kicking off this Sunday February 28th with the Golden Globes. The film Mank will certainly be raking in numerous accolades and not just because there is limited selection due to COVID-19. Other films in the running for best picture include The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Father, Young Professional Woman, and Nomadland, though true story Judas and the Black Messiah didn’t make the cut and that’s a crying shame. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see who takes home the gold. I will definitely be watching, and my money is on Mank winning big! This is a solid film worthy of recognition and after all Hollywood loves films about Hollywood. Also, Gary Oldman is really incredible as Herman J. Mankiewicz and will no doubt be duly rewarded for his outstanding performance.
P.S. I have stayed at William Randolph Hearst’s Warwick Hotel in New York many times. Interesting enough Hearst built the hotel in 1926 for the love of his life actress/mistress Marion Davies who was performing across the street at the Ziegfield Theater at the time. This fabulously quaint Manhattan hotel soon became the most preferred place to stay. To this day endless pictures of Davies are displayed throughout the hotel along with other famous legends who have frequented the place over the years (Elvis Presley, James Dean, Jane Russell, Elizabeth Taylor, The Beatles…). This famous haunt was even home to actor Cary Grant for 12 years who lived on the 27th floor in one of the executive suites! Of course it goes without saying that Hearst spoiled soulmate Davies with expensive homes, riches, and rooms upon rooms full of beautiful clothes and stunning shoes. Davies was quite the fashionista in her day with fabulous fancy footwear fashion-sense to boot. Therefore, it’s no surprise that swanky Spanish shoemaker extraordinaire Manolo Blahnik has openly voiced his infatuation with the late Hollywood icon and even set up one of his famous high-end shoe shops (with full-time security guard parked at the locked door) just steps away from the Warwick Hotel built just for her. Perhaps some of his exquisite world-famous shoe-art designs are inspired by her timeless style. On the topic of fashion, talented Mank costume designer Trisha Sommerville will likely receive acclaim for her vintage clothing and shoe picks used in this past-time picture. Ah what a memorable era!