Herman Mankiewicz was broke.
Oh, he wasn’t destitute or anything. In 1940, Mank could still find a little work in Hollywood: He was too talented not to.
No, at the moment, he was literally broke: He shattered his leg in a car crash, leaving him in traction. He was as helpless as a baby—which, truth be told, wasn’t that different from when his leg had been working. He drank voluminously. He gambled voraciously. Sara, his wife, was as much nursemaid as spouse—removing his clothes when he was too drunk to work the buttons and tucking him in when he couldn’t work the covers. To most of Mank’s friends—and, truth be told, to Mank himself—she wasn’t just Sara. She was “poor Sara.”
Mank’s drinking and gambling and habit of insulting those who signed his checks made him damaged, dangerous goods. Sure, he was still working. But working as often as he could? As often as he should? Not by a longshot. The last work he did for MGM, Hollywood’s most prestigious studio, was some uncredited work for a weird little movie called The Wizard of Oz. And frankly, that flick looked like a surefire bomb.
But then, as Mank recuperated in the hospital, he swept in: Orson Welles, cape flapping, voice booming. He was Hollywood’s Golden Boy outsider—just 24 years old and without a single movie to his credit. And RKO had already given him carte blanche to make any movie he wanted. Any subject, they said. No interference. And he could collaborate with any writer he wanted to.
Orson wanted Mank. Brilliant, broken Mank.
When Mank was well enough to move, Orson shipped him to the North Verde Ranch in the middle of the Mojave Desert. He’d be looked after by a nurse, Fräulein Frieda. He’d work with a skilled, British stenographer, Rita Alexander. Editor John Houseman would look in on him occasionally, just to plow through his pages and make sure Mank was sober. After all, the writer had just 90 days—no, make that 60 days—to hammer out a first draft of a screenplay.
And once it’s ready, he’ll turn it over to Orson, who’ll make it his own, both in spirit and in credit.
Orson rings Mank up as he’s getting settled in. “I’m toiling with you in spirit, Mank,” he says. “And I don’t hear any typing!”
Time to get to work. After all, Citizen Kane isn’t going to write itself.
Herman Mankiewicz is, as my grandma might say, a bit of a pill. He’s Hollywood’s court jester, making fun of its ruling class and making plenty enemies because of it. But as the real John Houseman once said, “he was also one of the most intelligent, informed, witty, humane and charming men I have ever known.”
In this section, we’re mostly concerned with that humane side of Mank, and it comes across in the film. He clearly cares for lots of people in his circle—more deeply, in fact, than he’d care to suggest. He truly loves his longsuffering wife, grooms and encourages many a new writer in Hollywood and serves as a friend and confidante of Marion Davies—the beautiful, surprisingly savvy mistress of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. And when he comes across a friend in need, he does his best to help—though not always successfully. We also learn that he helped bring an entire German village—more than 100 people—to America before World War II, thus likely saving all of their lives.
But if the film has a moral anchor, it’s really held by the women we meet here. Poor Sara loves and cares for Mank through all the difficulties he brings to their marriage. When Mank asks why she sticks around, Sara tells him, “I suppose being married to you, Herman, I’m never bored.” Davies supports her beau, too, confessing to Mank that she loves Hearst. “I beg you, don’t kick pops when he’s down,” she tells him, regarding the movie script that’s widely suspected of being about Hearst himself. Finally, Rita Alexander tries to push Mank along while (at first) keeping him sober at the same time: no easy task.
Mank doesn’t seem to be particularly religious, but he does often jokingly refer to God and religion. An example: When Sara’s trying to tuck a very drunk Mank in for the night, he shouts for divine revelation. “Give me a sign, O Lord!” he says, falling back on his bed. And then, before Sara leaves him, Mank asks her to keep an eye on the bush in the front yard. “If it catches fire tonight, you’ll let me know.” Another example: Mank tells his brother that the Mojave Desert is “God’s answer for drunks and reprobates. Perfect place to dry out.” But then he adds that “it didn’t take.” He makes other quips about God’s punishment or blessings throughout.
During a script meeting with the head of Paramount Studios, Mank and his group of handpicked writers pitches a monster movie about a mechanical construct that some think is a devil. (“The religious always think it’s the devil,” one writer says, speaking more broadly of real or imagined bogeymen.) The conclusion of the picture will feature a weeping priest, and the film itself will be about “the ominous futility of man playing God” and “the Faustian bargain of life everlasting.”
Mankiewicz and many other folks in Hollywood are Jewish. We hear references to their faith and see a funeral take place in a Jewish synagogue. We hear how one Jewish studio exec traveled to Nazi Germany and heard many anti-Semitic chants and slogans.
Hearst’s beautiful mansion/compound is called the sort of place “That God might’ve built had He had the money,” a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw. There’s a reference or two to prayer. We hear a socialist candidate talk about how “the religion of Jesus” has been used to justify economic inequity and prop up ruling powers for far too long.
A woman apparently taking notes in a studio writers’ room is topless apart from a pair of tassels covering her nipples. Women selling cigarettes are dressed in intentionally provocative outfits. The film repeats a rumor that “rosebud”—the word that Citizen Kane’s protagonist Charles Forster Kane says as he dies—is actually a reference to Hearst’s nickname for Marion Davies’ genitals.
Sara tells Mank that she’s put up with his numerous “platonic affairs.” Mank and another woman make suggestive noises off-camera. When the camera pans to the couple, it reveals that Mank’s nurse was simply using a back scratcher to scratch an itch underneath Mank’s cast. Someone says that he likes movies that grab viewers “here, here and here,” grabbing his head, heart and crotch in swift succession. Mank jokes that movies can make people believe in eight-story gorillas and that “Mary Pickford [is] a virgin at 40.”
A writer brings a script to MGM head Louis B. Mayer that features prostitutes. The writer tells Mayer that his own mother was a “whore.” Mayer responds by …
… punching the writer in the face. “You talk about your own mother that way?!” Mayer says. “The woman who gave you life?!”
Mank confesses that he doesn’t like Mayer much: “If I ever go to the electric chair, I’d like for him to be sitting in my lap.” He quips about how ill-equipped the British are to fight the Germans in World War II (a war the U.S. had not yet entered), describing what might happen in battle. He feels very bad about this conversation when he learns that Rita’s own husband is missing; his ship had been sunk off the coast of Norway.
Someone commits suicide off camera. Marion Davies stands on what is intended to be a fiery pyre on a movie set. (She quips that she’s “dying for a cigarette.”) Someone angrily throws a wooden container filled with alcohol against a fireplace.
Five f-words and four s-words. We also hear a smattering of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ss” and “b–locks.” God’s name is misused about a half-dozen times, many with the word “d–n,” and Jesus’ name is abused twice.
Mank drinks a lot, and he manages to do so even at the North Verde Ranch.
Houseman actually brings a wooden case filled with what appears to be alcohol as an incentive to help Mank recuperate. (He theoretically can’t get it himself because of his broken leg, but Houseman quips he’ll soon be track star, such is his motivational thirst.) The bottles are something of a ruse, though—spiked with a drug that knocks the drinker unconscious. Mank finds a way to drink them anyway. Later, though, he brings in his own shipment of booze—much to the initial disgust and horror of Rita. When she learns that Mank’s nurse is giving him the alcohol, she nearly resigns, until the nurse tells Rita of how much she owes Mank. Afterwards, Rita and Mank share a drink together.
Mank’s drinking is treated, by him and everyone else, as a joke. When someone serves him and Sara glasses of alcohol, he takes—and keeps—both. At a party, where a massive bottle of champagne sits in the middle, Mank takes the bottle and cradles it in his arms, asking what everyone else is drinking. Even his drunken escapades are treated lightly, outside one embarrassing dinner he crashes at the Hearst mansion.
Other people drink as well, and Mank tries to talk one seriously drunk friend into letting him drive him back home. (The man refuses, staying in the office where he’s drinking.) Several people smoke, too.
A drunken Mank vomits all over a dining room floor, much to the shock and disgust of the dinner guests. He’s also a gambling addict: We learn that he’s racked up debts of $12,000. His supervisor expunges the debt after Mank does him a favor (of sorts), but Mank waves the kindness off. Instead, he offers someone else a “double or nothing” bet. We see someone sitting on a toilet, albeit outside the toilet stall, with his pants around his ankles.
Mank, the movie, is overtly political. Some political shenanigans land squarely in this space regardless of a viewer’s personal leanings, while others will depend upon which side of the aisle you sit.
It all hinges around the 1934 California governor’s race, pitting Republican Frank Merriam against Democrat author Upton Sinclair. Mank and many of his friends are sympathetic to Sinclair’s socialist ideology, while Merriam’s proponents call him a “communist” and “Bolshevik.” (Mank insists several times that communism and socialism are different things, and the movie itself is clearly in sympathy with Mank’s political leanings.)
GOP members within MGM work on fabricated newsreels designed to play on voters’ fears, including racial fears. The one Black “interviewed” says he’s voting democratic, as does a shabbily dressed man who says he supports “comrade” Sinclair. The newsreel suggests that Sinclair has the hobo vote, too, as his policies will attract many to the state. Meanwhile, Republican voters say they’re voting for Merriam to “preserve our way of life,” which many pundits (then and now) suggest is a racial dog whistle.
Citizen Kane was a disappointment when it was released in 1941. William Randolph Hearst—widely considered the template for the film’s antihero, Charles Foster Kane—forbade any of his newspapers from covering the film and even rejected advertising for it. RKO didn’t recoup what Welles spent on the movie. And while Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Oscars, it won just one—for his and Mank’s original screenplay.
It’s now widely considered to be the best American movie ever made.
Mank, not unexpectedly, falls short of that lofty standard.
This is not to say that Mank is a bad movie, and it’s certainly primed to make its own Oscar run. Filmed in black and white, this Netflix feature may charm many a cinephile with its spot-on retro feel. And Gary Oldman’s turn as the title character is pretty great.
And, for an R-rated movie, Mank isn’t even overly loaded with content. It seems to make its own nod at the period’s own Hays Code (which restricted what could be said and shown in American movies), peppering the dialogue with just enough profanity and showing just enough skin to snag its post-Hays “restricted” rating. With just a little more restraint, Mank could’ve easily been PG-13.
But be glad for that warning R-rating, anyway. Mank illustrates that it’s not just superficial content that can make a film problematic. Often, issues are hardboiled into the story, too.
For some viewers, the biggest hurdle might be its political leanings. Even though it’s depicting an age 80 years past, director David Fincher clearly wants to talk about the here-and-now, and he makes his politics fairly explicit.
But for me, the bigger issue is how it treated Mank’s problems as Mank himself did: “What problems?”
The real Herman Mankiewicz died at age 55 from the complications of alcoholism—that is, he essentially drank himself to death. The movie pays lip service to that sad fact and doesn’t turn a completely blind eye to his excesses. Mank himself admits to his self-destructive ways. But Gary Oldman makes the dude just so charming and likable, and thus his alcoholism turns into more funny foible and less fatal flaw. The movie even suggests that his drinking was, after a fashion, critical to his success.
Mank’s own nurse aids his drinking habit: He’s a “grown man, a good man, and should be treated as such,” she insists. Let adults be adults, the movie suggests, with again an eye toward today and the legalization of many a drug. It ignores the tragic truth that without legal or social or religious curbs in place, many of us can make pretty juvenile decisions—destroying not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us. Just ask “poor Sara.”
It’s a bit ironic, given Mank’s own subject matter. Citizen Kane, after all, is a story of sin and hubris—lofty ambition gone grandly wrong. But if Mank the writer skewered his protagonist, Fincher sets his own on a teetering pedestal, and asks us to turn away before it falls.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.