Mank: A Look Back At Classic Hollywood

Gary Oldman in Mank. Courtesy of Netflix.

Mank, directed by David Fincher, takes a look back at 1930s Hollywood through the eyes of Oscar-winning screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

If there is one thing that Mank gets right, it’s Herman J. Mankiewicz being an alcoholic.  Well, that and writing Citizen Kane.  Oh, and the drama with Orson Welles (Tom Burke) over credit for writing the screenplay.  This is where I must recommend Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s biography, The Brothers Mankiewicz. We know that Mank moved into a house during the writing process.  Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) is on hand for the writing process.  Being that Kane mostly draws upon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the media baron figures prominently in some of the flashbacks.  As does Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).  Come Oscar night at the Biltmore Hotel, Mank would be watching from home.  Welles was filming another film in Brazil at the time.

There are several flashbacks throughout the film.  The 1934 California governor’s race between incumbent Frank Merriam and Upton Sinclair certainly takes up quite a bit of screen time.  But before getting to the election itself, there’s a lengthy discussion at the San Simean estate for L.B. Mayer’s (Arliss Howard) birthday.  Perhaps a bit too much time is spent at the party.  However, this scene really stresses what Scott Eyman wrote about the former MGM chief.  Mayer cared more about the MGM empire than his fellow Jews.  When Mank speaks about about what Hitler was doing, Mayer just shrugs it off.  He was more worried about socialists and communists.  Put it this way: Mayer refused to donate to any campaigns for Israel because he thought they might become communists!

Mayer was a staunch Republican with no love for Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye).  Both Mayer and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) were major Republicans.  MGM would also be behind the attack ads that brought down Sinclair’s campaign for governor.  You can make a strong argument that Thalberg is the father of the attack ad.

I have to talk about the attack ads in the film.  In real life, Felix Feist Jr. shot the attack ads.  However, Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane) has the responsibility in the film.  From what I can tell, Metcalf is a fictional creation for the film.  Moreover, Mank had absolutely nothing to do with them.  There is no mention of Mank’s involvement in Stern’s book.  Even in double-checking Eyman’s Mayer bio, there isn’t anything about Mank’s participation.  I cannot stress this enough but if you’re going to write a biopic, please don’t invent fiction for the film.  How many people are going to read the biographies only to be disappointed in the film getting this wrong?

If you’ve seen both Judy and Trumbo, Mank will feature the at least the third depiction of L.B. Mayer in recent years.  Arliss Howard certainly has Mayer’s look down but the accent seems just a bit off.

The flashback to Thalberg’s premature death in 1937 is a brief one.  Thalberg had a bad heart and also kept it hidden.  His legacy speaks for itself but actor Ferdinand Kingsley makes the best of his limited screen time.

Despite the film’s flaws, there are so many aspects to love and appreciate about Mank.  It is gorgeously photographed by Erik Messerschmidt.  Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross bring a score that hearkens back for the olden days of Hollywood.  But for everything there is to love about the film, it lives and dies on buying into the idea of Gary Oldman as screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.  This is easier said than done because the Black-and-White photography isn’t enough to disguise the age difference.

Oldman was north of 60 when he made this film.  At the time of writing Citizen Kane, Mank was in his early 40s.  He was in his mid-30s during the flashbacks to 1933 and 1934.  The flashbacks take up the majority of the picture.  No amount of makeup or prosthetics is able to make the Oscar winner look over twenty years younger.  It’s because of this that I feel somebody younger should have portrayed the Oscar-winning screenwriter.  This isn’t to take anything away from Oldman’s performance but to each their own.

However, it’s nice to get a look at the studios in their heyday and see things on screen that you’ve only read about in books.  At one point, Mank, brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey), Sid Perelman (Jack Romano), George S. Kaufman (Adam Shapiro), Charles MacArthur (John Churchill), and Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms) are gathered in a meeting with Mayer’s son-in-law David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore).  And then you have the Mayer announcement where he asks MGM employees to take a pay cut during the Depression.  At Mayer’s birthday party, you see the likes of Norma Shearer Thalberg (Jessie Cohen, Irene Mayer Selznick (Desiree Louise), and Mrs. Mayer (Amie Farrell).  Among the Mankiewicz family, Johanna, best known as Josie, is the only one of Herman and Sara’s three children to appear in the film.

DIRECTOR:  David Fincher
CAST:  Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane, Toby Leonard Moore, Monika Gossman, and Charles Dance

Netflix will release Mank in theaters on November 13 and December 4, 2020 on streaming. Grade: 3.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.