Top Hollywood Golden Age Story
In a brilliantly realized look back at one of the most significant events during the Golden Age of Hollywood, director David Fincher has gifted us with Mank, now streaming on Netlix. Originally written and conceived by David’s father Jack Fincher in the 1990s, a film was never realized. After Jack Fincher passed away in 2003, son David took the reins and decided to direct the film.
To capture the essence of the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood and the “look” so prevalent in films of that time, Fincher shot the story in black and white. Beautifully realized by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, each scene is a work of art, using the darks, lights, shadows and silvery sparkles as only can be captured on black and white film.
The story is about famed screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz of the Hollywood dynastic film family. Herman, and his younger brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey) became giants in the film industry with their writing and directing skills. This is a film that traces Herman’s road to everlasting fame because of his writing what is considered the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane.
As a young writer working at Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios, Herman and collaborator Frances Marion were behind the major comedy hit film Dinner at Eight starring Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler, which was a witty laugh riot in 1933. Younger brother Joe also worked at MGM and he was just as witty. In 1934 he wrote the film Forsaking All Others for top star Joan Crawford and provided her with the funny line, “I could build a fire by rubbing two Boy Scouts together!”
By 1938, Herman was assigned by studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (an excellent Arliss Howard) to come up with a script for The Wizard of Oz. Herman pecked away at it, but he wasn’t right for it and only worked for a few weeks on the picture. His drinking and gambling were catching up with him, and Mayer gave him the axe in 1939 for gambling in the studio commissary during lunch. He hit bottom and was out of work by the end of the decade.
Thinking he could get some writing assignments in New York, he hitched a ride with a pal, young screenwriter Tommy Phipps (26), a nephew of society matron Lady Astor and brother to actress Joyce Grenfell. Phipps lost control of the car outside of Albuquerque and subsequently caused a terrible crash. Mankiewicz broke several bones and his leg was crushed in three places, with Phipps receiving a concussion. Mankiewicz was laid up in bed in a body cast and almost immobile. He did manage to get a few magazine writing assignments as he was quite low on money.
Gary Oldman gallantly portrays Herman Mankiewicz, much as he conquered Winston Churchill in his Oscar® winning role in The Darkest Hour (2017). Among his many visitors, including all the writers at MGM, was a newcomer named Orson Welles. With a new contract at RKO Studios, Welles offered Herman a job helping him write a new film, which would be dreamed up by them. Herman was actually a friend of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his paramour, movie star Marion Davies (a delightful, bright Amanda Seyfried of Mamma Mia fame). As Herman massaged the story of his “Charles Foster Kane,” the story took on a parallel to Hearst’s own story. Scenes of Hearst’s famous costume galas at San Simeon castle add a terrific gloss and glamour to the picture, with actors portraying the actual guests such as Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and all the top stars of the 1930s. Costumes designed by Trish Summerville are sure to be high on the potential Oscar® winning list.
Neither Herman nor Welles were easy to work with and each had their own ideas. Rumor has it that Welles actually did little work on the script and that Herman wrote it. Brother Joe said it was the best script Herman ever wrote. It was a battle between the two men over who did what, but in the end they both won the Academy Award ® for writing the Best Screenplay of the year. And that’s a fact in history.
Oldman does a superb job of portraying the decaying mind and slump into alcoholism that Herman suffered. He mops the floor in a terrific scene at San Simeon during a drunken stupor. It’s Oscar® material for an actor of Oldman’s caliber. Citizen Kane was Herman’s last hurrah. Oldman portrays Herman’s great charisma, charm and wit as specified in the script and makes the most out of a plum part. Tom Burke as Welles makes a strong impression as well.
Audiences today may not know who all the real-life characters are, but if you are a movie buff, it will be fun to figure out just who exactly the actors are portraying. This reviewer had no trouble recognizing the characters as everyone at MGM is like a relative to me and extremely familiar. Even if you don’t know who Louis B. Mayer is or who David O. Selznick is in movie history, the story is intriguing and should capture your attention.
It’s a beautifully made film that concentrates more on the male figures. But actresses Amanda Seyfried as movie comedienne Marion Davies, Lily Collins as Herman’s faithful secretary Rita Alexander, and Tuppence Middleton as “poor” Sara, Herman’s faithful wife, are all stand-outs in what little they have to do. Seyfried comes out on top with her portrayal of Hearst’s faithful and sweet-natured mistress.
As a companion piece to the film, an excellent book titled “The Brothers Mankiewicz” by Sydney Ladensohn Stern from The University Press of Mississippi (2019), www.upress.state.ms.us is highly recommended.
(Released by Netflix and rated “R” by MPAA.)