With ‘Mank,’ the Jewish Genius Behind ‘Citizen Kane’ Finally Gets His Due

Screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s colorful life gets suitably cinematic treatment in David Fincher’s blissful Netflix biopic. Plus, reviews of HBO documentary ‘Baby God’ and the rom-com ‘Happiest Season’

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz in Netflix's "Mank," directed by David Fincher.
Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz in Netflix's "Mank," directed by David Fincher.Credit: Gisele Schmidt/AP
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

There are probably a few Netflix subscribers who think “Citizen Kane” is a character in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” If so, David Fincher is here to set them straight with his wonderful new biopic “Mank” – a funny, touching and captivating film about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his efforts to create the masterpiece that would ultimately be directed by “Boy Wonder” Orson Welles.

Mankiewicz was one of the “schmucks with Underwoods,” to borrow studio head Jack Warner’s derogatory phrase for the screenwriters (and their typewriters) who populated Hollywood’s back lots in the 1920s and ’30s. They were a largely Jewish, largely male group of journalists and playwrights who had abandoned their averagely paid jobs in New York and gone west to make their fortunes in Tinseltown.

It was “Mank” (Mankiewicz’s nickname) who best captured this new gold rush with his legendary telegram to friend and playwright Ben Hecht in 1927: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.” Hecht was clearly a fan of Mank’s, too, dubbing him the “Central Park West Voltaire.”

Along with the likes of Hecht, George S. Kaufman, brother Joe Mankiewicz (the less talented, more sober younger sibling who would go on to write “All About Eve”) and Sid Perelman, Herman Mankiewicz became Hollywood royalty long before the term even existed.

And though there was never a problem forming a minyan at the likes of Paramount, 20th Century Fox and MGM during Hollywood’s golden age, these hard-living writers were more likely to be found in the local dive than the local shul.

After arriving in Hollywood toward the end of the silent film era, Mank quickly became the preeminent writer of title cards (it paid around $2 a word, which quickly mounted up when you were as prolific as Mankiewicz). He then seamlessly transitioned to talkies, working with the Marx Brothers on “Duck Soup” and “Horse Feathers” and later on a host of now largely forgotten studio comedies.

Much of his work went uncredited because that was the Hollywood way in those days (it still is, of course – there were about 30 screenwriters involved in the movie version of “The Flintstones,” The New Yorker once revealed). But it’s not because of his career that Mank is belatedly getting the biopic treatment. After all, as the sexist Hollywood joke about the “dumb starlet” went, “She slept with the writer to get ahead.” No: it’s because he was the type of gregarious, larger-than-life character who is normally seen on movie screens, not laboring behind the scenes to create them.

Oscar-winning glory

The stories about Mank are legion, with many of them beautifully recounted in “Raising Kane” – Pauline Kael’s definitive 1971 essay about the making of “Citizen Kane.”

Quite a few are featured in “Mank,” too – including the screenwriter’s uncanny knack for accidents; his destructive addictions to liquor and gambling (Nathan Detroit-esque, he would think nothing of staking $1,000 on the toss of a coin); his insistence that, despite he himself being an atheist, his three children must be raised in a kosher household; and his momentary confusion when someone inquired about his wife, Sara – until the penny dropped and he corrected them: “Oh, you mean Poor Sara,” as he insisted that everyone call her.

As befits a film about the genesis of the king of all flashback movies, “Mank” flits between early 1940 – when Mankiewicz spent three months holed up in the Mojave Desert writing “Citizen Kane” – and a series of scenes detailing chapters from the writer’s life, in the lead-up to what would become his crowning, Oscar-winning glory.

The California guest ranch where he was stuck in bed with a broken leg – after yet another colorful incident – wasn’t chosen for its aridness, but as an attempt to keep the writer clean and sober as he produced all 327 pages of the first draft of “Citizen Kane,” which, in an act of supreme chutzpah, he originally titled “American.” Those efforts were, of course, doomed to failure, as Mank was never on the wagon long enough to fall off it.

As if to confirm that his life was made for the big screen, his incapacity meant he was actually forced to dictate the script to an assistant, Rita Alexander, while John Houseman (best known for his role late in life of the grouchy law professor in “The Paper Chase”) occasionally popped in and tried to chivy him along on behalf of his boss, Mr. Welles.

An indication of quite how colorful Mank’s relatively short life was – he died in 1953 at age 55, a consequence of his chronic alcoholism – is that none of the following stories even make the cut here: his stint as a flying cadet in the U.S. Army; his spell as a foreign correspondent in Berlin from 1920-1922; his time working as a publicist for the ill-fated dancer Isadora Duncan; the time he missed a New Yorker deadline after drunkenly falling asleep face down on his typewriter; and how, after being punished for errant behavior by being forced to write the script for a Rin Tin Tin movie, he submitted one in which the titular canine hero carried a baby into a burning building’s flames.

I won’t spoil “Mank” for you by revealing any of the actual “flashback” stories we do see on screen, suffice to say that many revolve around his friendship with William Randolph Hearst and the publishing tycoon’s mistress, Marion Davies, in the ’30s.

Hearst, of course, was presented in thinly veiled form as Charles Foster Kane in the RKO classic, Welles’ movie chronicling his transformation from idealist to monster as his publishing empire grew. (There are, as you’d expect if you know “Kane,” more than a few mentions of a certain sled.)

Mankiewicz always denied that Davies was the inspiration for the talentless opera singer Susan Alexander, for whom Kane erects an opera house – but much like Mank himself, that’s not an argument that seems to carry much water.

Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in Netflix's "Mank," directed by David Fincher.Credit: /AP

Rapid-fire dialogue

I knew I was going to like “Mank” as soon as I saw the opening credits unfurl in glorious black and white, as if from some Howard Hawks or John Ford classic. But I knew I was going to love “Mank” as soon as the rapid-fire dialogue began and when I saw the occasional little dots in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, which were used to alert projectionists of the need to change reels. We even get a rough “cut” indicating where the reels would have switched over in a cinema.

Of course, Fincher knew his film was going to predominantly be seen on small screens. But this kind of detail highlights the efforts he undertook in order to create something that feels like it could have been made in, say, 1938.

Then there’s the casting of a predominantly British cast. Gary Oldman revels in the title role – alcohol addiction presumably not being something the 62-year-old had to spend too much time researching. The decision to cast someone about 20 years older than Mank reflects quite how battered the writer’s features had become by the time he hit his 40s.

Other Brits along for the ride are Charles Dance as Hearst, Lily Collins as Rita, Tom Burke as Welles and Tuppence Middleton as “Poor Sara.” And I didn’t even mention that Ben Kingsley’s kid is playing the legendary producer Irving Thalberg.

“Mank” has long been a passion project for Fincher – the script was penned by his late father, Jack – but it would be wrong to label it a love letter to Hollywood.

Yes, it’s a homage to the pioneering artists who toiled away in the early years to create films in a world without special effects. But it’s also a poison-pen letter to the studios that bankrolled those films, and the studio heads who tied their talent to restrictive contracts and tried to prevent the workers from unionizing.

It’s also a riposte to the auteur theory by which Fincher himself has benefited greatly over the years, saluting a screenwriter who had to fight tooth-and-nail to get a co-writing credit on the script he almost single-handedly penned – well, dictated – and which Welles sought to deny him. (Even late in life, Welles was still prone to spouting such nonsense as “Theater is a collective experience; cinema is the work of a single person,” which may explain why he never enjoyed a successful career in Hollywood.)

I’m a huge fan of Fincher’s work, but even I’m forced to admit that if for some bizarre reason Hollywood decided to remake “The Wizard of Oz” with three film directors following the Yellow Brick Road, he’d would be the one in search of the heart (Michael Bay, of course, would be after a brain).

There’s a cold, technical brilliance to his movies that’s rarely matched by warmth from the characters or dialogue – from “Alien 3” and “Se7en” right through to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl.”

But that’s not the case here: There’s a lightness of touch I’ve not found in other Fincher movies, and a playfulness we’ve not seen since “The Game” back in 1997.

Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz and Lily Collins as Rita Alexander in Netflix's "Mank."Credit: NETFLIX/AP

That’s not to say there’s no darkness in “Mank,” either, exemplified by the film’s villain – not Hearst, but MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (played by Arliss Howard).

Mayer is portrayed as a shameless money-grabber, which may lead to accusations of peddling in antisemitic tropes from some viewers. Yet Mayer’s antics have been widely documented over the years. A wonderful scene here, in which he gathers the entire MGM family together – MGM standing for “Mayer’s gantze mishpacha,” as he eagerly reminds the assembled talent – and asks them to take a hefty pay cut during the Great Depression, is featured almost word for word in Neal Gabler’s social history “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” including Mayer’s cynical comment to an aide afterward.

I wasn’t so convinced by a few other scenes in which Mayer is portrayed as an absolute farshtinkener, but I’ll give Fincher the benefit of the doubt that, given what we know, this Mayer is a pretty accurate representation.

One thing that’s not shown here, however, is how Mayer was prepared to pay RKO over $800,000 to not release “Citizen Kane” and then destroy the negative, in order to safeguard the reputation of his longtime friend Hearst, and also to ensure that the publisher didn’t sic his army of journalists onto any Hollywood stars.

At one point, a character says in relation to “Kane,” but also in a knowing nod to the challenges of making “Mank”: “You cannot capture a man’s life in two hours.” Fincher demonstrates, though, that by offering us a few of their greatest hits, you can at least capture the spirit of the genius.

HBO’s ‘Baby God’: Come again?

Some documentaries just scream out for a fictional adaptation to bring them to the widest possible audience, and that’s definitely the case with the new HBO film “Baby God.”

Making her feature debut, director Hannah Olson starts with ominous scenes showing a disused hospital and a man asking in voiceover, “How did we get here? How did this happen? Was it something unlucky? Something circumspect? Something that was evil?”

Over the next 80 or so minutes, we learn the answers to those questions and leave with a few of our own, the main one being “What the actual fu--?”

This is an amazing story, one that isn’t exactly being broken here but is being brought to a wider audience for the first time. It’s about the late Dr. Quincy Fortier, a fertility specialist who took a disturbingly hands-on approach to ensuring that his female patients got pregnant.

I don’t want to reveal too many details about this increasingly disquieting tale, but this quote early on from one of Fortier’s patients tells you all you need to know. Discussing her daughter, a mother recounts how she once thought: “Gee, it’s really funny that she doesn’t resemble her father’s side of the family at all. Where did she get all these brains? She didn’t get them from me, and I didn’t think her father was all that smart.”

Retired detective Wendi Babst in "Baby God." "I'm one of those people, I like to solve the mystery," she says in the documentary.Credit: Yes Docu/HBO

“Baby God” is at its best when interviewing some of the people who got a very nasty surprise when they conducted a cheap online DNA test. Pick of the bunch are former Portland, Oregon, detective Wendi, who describes herself as the type of person who “wants to solve the mystery” – making her a shoo-in for the lead role in any subsequent adaptation.

Then there’s Brad Gulko, a sensitive soul whose interest in human genomics couldn’t be more ironic given his family circumstances. “People who don’t share DNA with their parents, and don’t know they don’t share DNA with their parents, may feel that they’re not just different but somehow wrong,” he laments at one point – highlighting just one aspect of the crime perpetrated against these people by a doctor who, as another victim ponders, was perhaps “trying to see how many people he could have on this Earth before he left it.”

There are so many moving interviews here (one man explains how it finally made sense to him that he was able to do needlepoint at age 3), but what’s lacking is the bigger picture.

Mike Otis in "Baby God." Knew something was awry when he thought back to being able to do needlepoint at age 3. Credit: Yes Docu/HBO

We get lots of artistic shots of the bright lights of Las Vegas, where Fortier had his clinic, juxtaposed with footage of sperm and eggs (not to be confused with Spam and eggs – trust me, you only make that mistake once), but there’s nobody to put Fortier’s actions into context.

What crimes do law enforcement officials think he actually committed here? Why do psychologists think he did it? And will the rise of DNA websites reveal that this is actually an even wider problem? Maybe they’re questions we’ll finally get answers to in an inevitable Netflix dramatization in a few years’ time.

‘Happiest Season’: More rom than com

Mildly edgy Hallmark seasonal movie meets “Meet the Parents” in Clea DuVall’s sweet romantic comedy “Happiest Season,” starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a couple trying to keep their relationship a secret – in what could alternatively have been called “Guess Who’s Coming Out to Dinner.”

Stewart is capable of elevating most things she’s in these days (though she’ll face a bigger challenge next year playing Lady Di in “Spencer”), and it’s her scenes with gay best friend John (Dan Levy) that deliver the biggest laughs here.

The central relationship between Stewart’s Abby and Davis’ Harper is fine, but the stakes never quite feel high enough as Harper invites her girlfriend for a family Christmas – but with the proviso that she not reveal that they’re partners. And while it’s always great to see Mary Steenburgen on our screens (as Harper’s neurotic mom), Alison Brie and Audrey Plaza are somewhat wasted in secondary roles.

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in "Happiest Season."Credit: /AP

I was actually hoping for a little more from “Happiest Season” given the rave reviews it received after debuting on Hulu last month. In truth, though, it’s more “rom” than “com,” with the set-pieces never quite delivering the big laughs they’re hoping for (your honor, I am now showing members of the jury “the ice-skating scene”).

The ice-skating scene in "Happiest Season," with Alison Brie, left, Mackenzie Davis and Mary Holland.Credit: Lacey Terrell/AP

It’s a reminder that “Meet the Parents” – which for me is the quintessential modern comedy of awkwardness – was a pretty average script until the likes of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor were brought on board to add a few more yuks and yucks. Ultimately, perhaps “Happy Season” would have been the most accurate title.

“Mank” is on Netflix from Friday. “Baby God” is on Hot8 on Thursday at 10 P.M., Hot and Yes VOD, Sting TV and Cellcom tv also from Thursday, and Yes Docu next Monday at 10 P.M. “Happiest Season” is on Cellcom tv and Yes VOD Store from December 11.

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