Films about making films rarely find an audience. That long-running Hollywood dictum is challenged this weekend with the Netflix release of Mank, but here’s the problem: the central character is a critic who becomes a scriptwriter and becomes a victim.
That could be an indication of why Mank is getting ratings between worship and orgasm this week. Mank is the perfect tonic for film critics who have only a few films to review and no festivals or award ceremonies to announce their “raves”.
None of this is to deny that Mank is an exercise in cinematography, as well as in good timing. See his backstory: Orson Welles arrived in Hollywood in the pit of the 1930s Depression as a self-explanatory young genius who wanted to make a movie about a billionaire, William Randolph Hearst.
“Mank” Welles Up Classic Debate: Who wrote the Oscar-winning Citizen Kane script?
The studios were not thrilled with Citizen Kane. MGM had just released a film about bank failures called Prosperity, and with banks failing in the US, moviegoers avoided it like the plague. Was this the moment to release a film about a character like Hearst who lived in a castle?
The die-hard Welles made a deal with the struggling RKO and began conversations with Herman J. Mankiewicz, an eccentric, hard-drinking ex-theater critic. He had built a reputation for what Hollywood calls body and fender work – script rewriting (he was among the 10 writers who contributed to The Wizard of Oz).
Orson Welles in 1941 “Citizen Kane”
Welles and Mankiewicz’s collaboration came about as Citizen Kane, a film that not only sparked recognition for Cinephile, but also an epic battle for credits. Paulene Kael, then the doyenne of critics, Revered Welles, called Mankiewicz a “losing genius who worked on many of the films I loved most” (she didn’t mention Prosperity).
Louella Parsons, the goddess of gossip, quoted Welles as saying that he (Welles) really wrote Citizen Kane, not Mankiewicz. After long negotiations, the Screen Writers Guild awarded a split credit and Mankiewicz won his Oscar mention.
In David Finchers Mank, moviegoers will appreciate the unique talents of Welles, the haughty writer, and Mankiewicz, the feverish writer, brilliantly played by Gary Oldman. The Netflix movie will be released for limited screenings on Friday and on Netflix on December 4th. It was already referred to as the “juggernaut of the award season” by the New York Times. Fincher himself has built a number of credits with The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, both of which have won Oscar nominations for best picture.
Citizen Kane itself only won one Oscar – John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley was named best film and best director. Netflix’s record for the awards show was impressive, but critics were outraged when Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (from Netflix) was zapped for Best Picture by Green Book in 2018.
Critics, while irritable, can ultimately be calmed by inclusion in Mank, but as they well know, the wider audience is difficult to assess or guide. In his book Better Living through Criticism, AO Scott of the NYT noted, “It is the job of art to free our minds, and the job of criticism is to find out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means or should mean that we are all able to balance skepticism with openness and combat the intellectual indolence that surrounds us. “
As such, Scott will surely sign up for Mank.
CONNECTED: ‘Mank’ Review: Gary Oldman & Amanda Seyfried Excel In David Fincher’s Brilliant ‘Citizen Kane’ Origin Film