Twenty-One: Mank, the Writer, the Holy Fool, and the Organ-Grinder’s Monkey

I’m sure there are critics, film historians, and “Fincher-heads” out there who have anticipated the release of David Fincher’s Mank more than I, but I haven’t met them. Since this project was first announced I’ve been on pins and needles, and why not? It’s a black and white movie about an unsung, self-destructive screenwriter in the “golden age” of Hollywood, and it’s directed by one of the finest (and most sardonic) contemporary auteurs we’ve got. As a card-carrying cinephile (and frustrated screenwriter) who was raised on classic movies like Citizen Kane (and would inject Fincher’s Zodiac into my veins were it possible), I felt this was being tailor made for me. Oh, also Gary Oldman stars as the title character. Did I make this materialize using my mind powers? Is this… MY design?

Well no, thank God. In many ways, Mank was not quite what I expected, but it’s all the better because of that.

Looks like we Manked it

It tells the tale of Herman J. Mankiewicz, a screenwriter on staff for MGM in the 1930’s who grows disillusioned with the movies and his own role in making them. Though he was a prolific writer, he was (by his own admission) fired from most of his appointments; he was also an unrepentant alcoholic and gambling addict. He’s kept around primarily because he’s a fun drunk with a quick wit– people liked him at parties. Mainly, millionaire newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst liked him at parties, but as the film unfolds, we discover that even Hearst tired of Mankiewicz’s smart mouth, and the writer was finally turned out in the cold, both literally and professionally.

Time for some Manky-panky.

But then a window opens, curtesy of young Orson Welles, the wunderkind who has been granted full creative control of a feature film. Welles wants Mank’s help to write what will become Citizen Kane, an offer that the down-on-his-luck writer can hardly refuse, but by accepting he also must agree to lay off the booze, abstain from social distractions, and produce a complete first draft of the script in a short period of time. What’s more, because this is Orson’s show, Mank must go uncredited for his work. That’s all fine with him– for awhile. As Mank works to construct what is now considered one of the greatest screenplays (if not THE greatest) of all time, he takes stock of his life and career, and must contend with Welles breathing down his neck as well as visits from figures from his past who attempt to dissuade him from going after his “great white whale.” If you know anything about Citizen Kane, you’re aware that the lowly Mank’s subject was one of the most powerful men in the world– his old party host, Hearst himself.

Mank is beautifully shot, rich in detail (complete with mono sound and unbearably wonderful touches like cigarette burns— in the style of films from Mank’s heyday), and packed with the sort of quick, witty dialogue that Mankiewicz would have been known for in the 30’s. While I think anyone curious enough may find themselves absorbed by all this (or at very least, the performances by Oldman and Amanda Seyfried), it is worth saying that this is very much a movie for cinephiles and fans of the period, and may prove to be a tad inaccessible to the casual viewer.

It’s Manksgiving, ya’ll.

It is a dense film– literary, long, and uninterested in explaining every little reference or Hollywoodland persona that passes through the narrative (there are many). Film buffs no doubt will be high-fiving themselves for the in-jokes that only Our People are hip to for many screenings to come (honestly, some of it went over my head). While there’s nothing really wrong with that, and the production should be lauded for its attention to detail, it would be grievously inaccurate to say that Mank is some sort of love letter to Hollywood or the art of filmmaking. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth.

Mank has its gloriously theatrical moments and at times mimics the revolutionary structure of Citizen Kane, but this isn’t necessarily the juicy biopic that I anticipated. Instead, it is a haunting tale about what it means to lose yourself in a world that doesn’t give a damn.

Do you hear that? It sounds like an Oscar is headed this way!

Note: This post is part of an ongoing project, the goal of which is to watch and contemplate every movie in which actor Gary Oldman has appeared (there are many, the man likes to work). Posts tend to contain reviews but are not excluded to that sort of framework– much like Gary’s career, I’m wildly unpredictable!

As with all MYWG entries, the following will probably contain spoilers!

  • Mank‘s ranking on the Oldometer: 10/10
  • Gary Oldman character quality: Gary plays Mank himself, the witty alcoholic socialist screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Like most interesting characters, Mank is his own worst enemy, and he’s got plenty of self-loathing going on, but he’s also delightful (a fun drunk), and Oldman shows both sides of that persona with ease. While being 20-something years older than Mank was at this time, Oldman fits the role like a glove. One of his best.
  • Does Gary Die in this one? No.

The Writer

All Mank and no wank makes Herman… uhh, an alcoholic.

It’s a recurring Hollywood joke that writers make up the bottom of the totem pole despite being silently recognized as the smartest working pieces in the filmmaking machine. Mank doubles down on this idea in its depiction of Mankiewicz during his period of writing for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as we see the studio system through the writer’s jaded, detached purview. Mank works the system and his overlords in order to float by like the under-achiever he is, he has no respect for MGM or the movies, both of which are essentially compared to an assembly line designed to produce what appeals to the lowest common denominator. It’s not a system that cares about people– Louis B. Mayer reminds Mank and his cohorts that even the studio lot’s glamorous stars mean nothing when it comes to the almighty dollar.

Mank, like most creative writers, has nightmares about math.

It’s difficult, then, to take your own “art” seriously when you’re all too aware of how little it matters to the powers that be– and how easily those behind the camera can manipulate their audience. Mank’s position allows him to see the scope of Hollywood perhaps more clearly (at least, with less sentimentality) than those around him, and his own self-worth is whittled away as he is forced to understand that he is nothing but a small cog in the machine.

This reality becomes more pronounced as Mank, apparently a socialist at heart, becomes repelled by the political machinations of MGM during The Great Depression (this foray of the film is perhaps its only drag, however, it is important to understand where Mank is coming from). But his helpless disillusionment is sealed thanks to his time spent as a guest at William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon. Mank becomes a staple because Hearst and company adore the contrast of his levity to San Simeon’s opulance, but it’s clear that that is all Herman is allowed to bring to the table– his time spent there is merely a highly concentrated example of what Mank’s existence boils down to: a disposable jester to the king. His convictions are not wanted.

The Holy Fool

Welcome to the land of fame, excess- is he gonna fit in? [nope]

Mank hates himself for his vices (he asks his long-suffering wife “why do you love me?” more than once), but beyond that, he hates himself for being ineffectual. Yet, he continues to play the jokester because he is trapped with a dwindling career and mouths to feed in the midst of a crushing economic draught (he and his wife have two children). If I recall, Mank is actually referred to as a court jester or some variant of that title at several points in the film, and to Mayer and Hearst, that’s all he is. But we the audience know better. To us, Mank becomes more like the holy fool.

They see him rollin’. They hatin’. Patrollin’ trying to catch him writing dirty

The holy fool is an archetype rooted in Russian Eastern Orthodox asceticism, described as a “radical” under the “mask of foolishness.” Russian Orthodox scholar Svetlana Kobets writes that “By his feigned madness the holy fool opts to say that the lowliest of the low can be not the poor wretch he appears to be, but a holy one and a prophet. He shares his power and authority with all the weak, mocked and despised thus symbolically destroying clear-cut distinctions between the profane and the sacred.” Encyclopedia Brittanica defines this type as one who holds “the truth of the gospel, in the disguise of folly, before the eyes of highly placed personalities who do not brook unmasked truth.”

Mank is not a religious story, but for its secular purposes, Herman fits the bill. By necessity he intentionally dons the disguise of the fool, and this grants him a seat at Hearst’s table. He’s funny, so his tendency for the profane makes him amusing company, but he’s wiser than he seems. He sees the danger of Hollywood’s interference with California politics, the ridiculousness of Hearst’s power, and the value of the “little guy” that high society trods upon. He also sees the value in Hearst’s “kept” young mistress, starlet Marion Davies (played by an incredibly warm Amanda Seyfried).

When you’re feeling her vibe but her boyfriend is William Randolph Hearst

The moments when Mank really come alive are when Mank and Marion share the screen. Mank seems to be the only one who sees Davies for who she is, and the pair share a weird bond over their perceived weaknesses and overall humility in the shadow of Hearst’s overwhelming power. Together they laugh at the surreality of the empire Hearst and Hollywood have created, including their small roles in enabling it. Marion is also the only one to affirm Mank’s version of “prophecy,” they both agree, for example, that this Hitler guy sounds like bad news, but their concerns are dismissed as the mumblings of an airheaded girl and a funny washed-up writer, respectively. [I have so much more to say about Marion, who is sort of reclaimed from her place of mockery in history by this film, as well as the several other peripheral women of Mank who are all very compelling, but like I said, this movie is hella DENSE and there’s no time!]

Cool guys don’t look at explosions or chicks burning at the stake.

Though she takes no action on Mank’s behalf (she’s a cog as much as he is, after all) Marion is also the only one who seems to grasp the importance of Mank’s climactic exposure of the truth about the Hearst-Hollywood elite. In the style of the holy fool, this truth is embedded in a profane drunken rant.

The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey

Manners Manketh Mank

Near the end of the film, as with Citizen Kane, we come to the crux of Mank’s origin story (or his undoing-story): while drunk, Herman crashes a party at Hearst Castle and speaks violent truth to power (adding to the whole holy fool thing, this is a circus-themed party, and all of the guests are dressed accordingly– Mank is not, for which he is shamed, though obviously he is the only one in the room with a grip on what is Real). When he concludes his word vomit with ACTUAL vomit (check out that Mean Girls tie-in, Seyfried!), he gets told off by Mayer, but the more chilling kiss-off is yet to come.

Hearst escorts Herman to the door, and on this literal and metaphoric long walk to Mank’s soon-to-be-obscurity, the millionaire tells the parable of the organ-grinder’s monkey– a silly animal who presumes in its idiotic narcissism that he commands the organ-grinder, when in reality of course, the monkey exists to dance for the man’s pleasure and profit only. Mank, not to put too fine a point on it, is this monkey.

Now yoooou Mank that

When Mank is assigned his work by Welles, he is given the old adage to write what he knows. Haunted by Hearst’s dismissal of him as the dancing monkey, the screenwriter does just that. As he attempts to manage his alcoholism and write like his life depends on it (which it sort of does), it begins to dawn on Mank that his latest work is actually really something. He says it’s the best thing he’s ever written, and no wonder; here, even while a servant to Welles, he’s finally allowed to be more than a cog. He is pouring out everything he’s gained from his life experience, and it finally has a chance to matter.

Here there is also an interesting similarity to Fellini’s 8 1/2 (what’s up, cinephiles), in that while Mank sweats over his magnum opus and draws from the memories that brought him to this point, wondering if he has something to offer after years of believing himself to be valueless, he is visited by the important figures of his past that alternately build and question his resolve. This includes his brother (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who would go on to completely eclipse him professionally), his wife Sara, and Marion Davies. He’s offered a picture deal by the studio, which he turns down upon learning that the offer comes with the implication that he would leave Citizen Kane unfinished. In 8 1/2 the Fellini character is told that it is “better to destroy than to create the unessential,” an idea the character turns over until he is met by the full force of what his life has amounted to. In that movie, this comes in the form of a spiritual parade– in Mank, this realization comes to Herman in his script. It’s simply good, and HE wrote it, and that’s worth fighting for, even if no one else thinks so (I FEEL THAT).

It’s called a fountain, Marion. Girl you have like 50 of them.

So when Welles arrives like God at the humble bungalow he’s assembled for his hired writer (fittingly, as Mankiewicz once slyly commented on Orson in passing “there but by the grace of god goes god”) Mank requests a change in their contract. He wants credit for his contribution. Welles calls him ungrateful, and hints at the fight that lies ahead for the two of them, but he does admit it– Mank will get what he wants.

The very end of the film serves up a reenactment of Mank’s off-site, post-Oscar win acceptance speech in which the screenwriter says he’s happy to accept his award in Welles’ absence, as the script was also written without his presence. This is less a statement about the “true” authorship of Citizen Kane (a weirdly sensitive topic for film historians who have effectively debunked Pauline Kael’s claim that Herman deserved sole credit), the movie is pretty clear on the fact that Welles collaborated on ideas for the script before Herman set pen to paper, and what Mank gives him in the end is only a first, very long first draft, after all– Welles surely made many alterations to suit the final production. Herman’s speech then is more of his claim not so much to the script, but to his life, which he has finally taken back in the only way he possibly could.

Without him, there’s no Citizen Kane as we know it, nor is there Kane himself– aka Hearst’s avatar. Thus, in terms of celluloid… without Mank, there is no Hearst. So Mank really does have the last laugh– not by making himself into the organ-grinder, that’s not possible– but by making true what the monkey believes: the organ-grinder is nothing without the monkey’s dance.

More like Citizen Bane of Hearst’s existence

At an early point in the film, Mankiewicz says “you cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours, you can only hope to make the impression of one.” Mank uses this as its mission statement. In contrast to Citizen Kane, the film leaves out the bookends of Mankiewicz’s childhood and death. What the film instead attempts to impart is the impression of Mank’s identity, represented as the one thing he was capable of fighting for, and, fittingly, the film’s title– his name.

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