Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far:
Today, Troy Anderson of AndersonVision is here to look at the Best Picture nominee – Mank.
Mank is an attempt to make sense of the most American movie and its troubled creation. But, how do you tell a story like this when so many of its elements arrive out of time? The script’s bones were 50 years, but even when it was written…the subject matter was 30+ years old. The further we get away from an incident, how hard does it become to accurately discuss subject matter?
Some might call it the historian’s dilemma, but it’s an issue that permeates through any film like Mank. At what point are filmmakers lovingly recreating a bygone era vs. using a modern filter to fix the wrongs of the past? When looking at the political plot of Mank, it’s not hard to see the roots of modern issues. Stern conservative figures controlling the business and economics of the Arts Industry and putting frontline workers on the streets.
We see loudmouth firebrands getting face-to-face with these out of work technicians and hitting up friends for cash to show goodwill. There is a natural fakeness to the scene when Mank has to get a studio security guard give him cash to give an out of work friend. While Mank can pretend to be this caring and worker friendly creative type, it’s all just words.
That’s OK, as Mank is a wordsmith who dares to be something more. Even with the other writers in his heyday at Paramount and other studios, he keeps wanting to be something more. Then, he meets the man with something more in Hearst. What starts as a fascination upon arriving at San Simeon grows into something more. Mank doesn’t quite love, but he appreciates the hell out of Marion Davies.
Her love for Hearst is almost infectious, but Mank holds back. It’s not for anything, but Mank is angered by Hearst. This tycoon gets to have what he wants, but it’s always at the cost of other people. When Mank pushes up against Hearst, he has to be reminded by Louis B. Mayer that Hearst is funding most of the major films getting made in the 1930s. This begins Mank’s resentment of Hearst throughout the film.
Cut to the time of writing Citizen Kane and you have an alcoholic and injured Mank sitting in bed writing Citizen Kane. Mank has had years of festering hatred towards Hearst that had no outlet. Hearst and the Republican Studio System (yes, that was a thing) ran his choice in California Gubernatorial Candidates out of competition. The actions of people like Hearst during that campaign even drove a Mank pal to suicide.
So, what does a firebrand writer do when the target of his hatred keeps screwing with him? He turns to the page. After being tasked by Mercury Theater head Orson Welles to draft a script that legally went after Hearst, Mank had a purpose. It didn’t matter who came to visit him while writing it, you can’t stop a man from slaying his personal demon. It’s just the film slyly suggests to the audience that it might not have been worth the effort.
How so? Well, the studio system of the 1930s/1940s hasn’t changed that greatly. The heart of all studios is still corporate controlled, but at various layers. SONY JP, The Walt Disney Company, Viacom, AT&T and Comcast control all major releases across every entertainment platform in America. These are multi-national corporations with fingers in many pies, from whom it is laughable to call Left-Wing. The modern studio system is working with money that would even make Hearst blush.
While Citizen Kane was seen as a daring film in that time period, it would arrive in 2021 with the pomp afforded a Neil Breen movie. So, why was it such a big deal for Mank to make this movie back then? Well, it’s because this was an era when many people were in the streets or could be disappeared by the powerful elite. Plus, there was the threat of socialist revolt in the underclasses of America at that point in time.
If enough people were out of work, but could afford a quarter to see something like Citizen Kane…the populace could get wild. The War in Europe was getting hot, the Depression had gone to the next level and nobody was addressing class inequality. While Mank wanted to expose Hearst, there was a lot at stake for the ruling class. Fortunately and unfortunately for America, Citizen Kane has never exactly been a film for the mainstream.
Citizen Kane did OK on the coasts and with the more intellectual moviegoers of the time. Having lost $160,000 during its initial theatrical run, the film was pulled in smaller and mid-size markets rather quickly. That’s not to say it did amazing in places like New York City and Los Angeles. Hearst Publications would threaten exhibitors and stock holders with exposes about their businesses if they dared to show the movie.
Smaller theater owners were told they would be sued for defamation for showing the film. But, Hollywood saw and the Academy wanted to award the film during Oscar season. Unfortunately, Citizen Kane only won for its screenplay whose honors were shared between Welles and Mank. Fincher shot a rather stunning recreation of Mank accepting the Oscar back in 1942. What’s funny about that scene is how it’s used to close the film.
For this movie using Golden Age techniques and mirroring Citizen Kane, everything ends on this tiny whimper of an acceptance speech. There was all of this fervor for a film that would take decades to be discovered, when most of America didn’t even see the film in 1941/1942. Gary Oldman nails that quiet defeat in his Oscar acceptance scene.
This was years of Mank’s work to get back at Hearst and ultimately it meant nothing. You got an Oscar, but Hearst would still be thriving for another decade. The studio system got richer and bigger, while screenwriters lost more and more power in the Hollywood system. When you can look at it that way, you can see the ultimate point of Mank.
If there is a recurring theme in this year’s Oscar crop, it is a shared story of failed dreams. Losing financial stability in Nomadland, sacrificing your family’s well-being for a dream in Minari and even losing your sense of self in Promising Young Woman all ties into the same feeling of Mank. I have problems and praise for all of these films, but you can’t say they don’t tap into the zeitgeist.
2020 made everything into a weird shell of itself, while the world scrambled to make sense of the change. Sometimes, you’ve got to hang back and make sense of it. Just don’t expect grandiose crusades to change the world. Everything is incremental. Most people fail when they think they can force great change through shouting. Just look at shabby Mank at the end holding his Oscar. That metal statue is such an insignificant metallic token for daring to spit in the eye of a King.