Biopic is a clumsy and confusing word. We all know this means a movie about someone’s life, and we know it’s a showbiz short for “biographical picture”. But it also means a film with a script and actors, not a documentary in other words. The unspoken subtext of this Hollywood bastard child is still: “Something like this could have happened …”
The trick with biopics is how far you can go before you cross a line in pure fiction, a line that The crown, for example, seems to have gone through so many times that even one of the cast of the show says it should come with a warning label.
Of course that breath and that puff has all been a little hypocritical since The crown The creators and its audience have come together since the first season of the mutually agreed-upon fiction that what’s on screen is true, when we all know a lot is not. We want to have both. We want to watch The crown like the lives of royals, although we admit that’s probably not entirely accurate.
How much easier their life could have been if the people who The crown had copied the example of Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, where Welles was talking hoarse telling people that Kane was not, no way no how, based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. When in fact it certainly was.
All kinds of people attacked Welles and his film even before its release. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, a friend of Hearst, attempted to buy the film from RKO so that he could destroy it. MGM and other major studios, which at the time also had theater chains, refused to book the film. So, financially, it fell. But he got good reviews, even in Hollywood, despite the fact that Hollywood really wanted Welles, the 25-year-old East Coast prodigy who had never made a movie, to fall on his face.
But no one ever criticized Citizen Kane because it was not correct. Because they couldn’t, because its creators never claimed it was anything but fiction.
Which brings us to Mank, David Fincher’s new Netflix film about the making of Kane and specifically on Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man most responsible for the film’s script.
Mank takes us, with kicks and cries, back to the old debate about what is truth and what is fiction. Because Mank is a… biopic.
So the first question viewers will ask themselves is: how accurate is it? Or not, the first question for most viewers will probably be, who are these people? Ironically, and you can call it Citizen Kane ultimate triumph, the only name that still means anything to contemporary audiences is Orson Welles. Hearst in his heyday, say the first half of the 20th century, was like Rupert Murdoch on steroids. But now it’s just William Randolph who? Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies was a legitimate movie star a long time ago, but hers is not one of those names, like Hepburn or Garbo, to have outlived her own time. As for Mankiewicz, who remembers the writers?
Mank was done to remedy this ignorance, of course. The filmmakers (Fincher’s late father wrote the screenplay) present their main character as a tarnished idealist – and a desperate alcoholic and compulsive gamer – who redeems himself with the screenplay. Kane.
Wisely, the Finchers do not directly engage the question of how many Kane the final script belongs to Mankiewicz and how much to Welles, although calling their film Mank and making Welles’ character almost a play, they leave little doubt as to which side of the debate they endorse.
It’s more than a good guess, however, that Mankiewicz gave Kane its structure, the essence of its dialogue and all its verisimilitude: the world of the American press was one that it knew from the inside. On top of that, he knew Hearst and his girlfriend, Marion Davies. He was their frequent guest in San Simeon, the garish mansion of Hearst that inspired Kane’s Xanadu. In this regard, Kane was a Guinness Book example of biting your hand.
Welles didn’t know much about Hearst, other than second-hand gossip, and he knew nothing about print media. Judging from his other movies, he didn’t really know how people really talk. Mankiewicz knew all of these things.
The most fascinating part of Pauline Kael’s famous essay on Citizen Kane It was not his debunking of Welles’ wonder boy myth that gave him all the credit for the film (credit which over the decades he has taken on more and more), but rather his portrayal of men and women. women of New York journalism and theater scenes that went to Hollywood around the time walkie-talkies arrived and gave films their indelible American voice. Mankiewicz was one of the first to arrive.
“Mankiewicz and his friends in the writers’ rooms of various studios “in a little over a decade, have given their character to American walkie-talkies”.“
While doing the research for his essay, Kael realized that Mankiewicz’s name, either alone or as a co-writer, was in the credits of “40 or so films that I remember best from the 1920s and 1930s.” I hadn’t realized how great his career was … and now that I have looked at Herman Mankiewicz’s career, it’s obvious that he was a key liaison figure in the genre of films that my friends and I liked the most. Mankiewicz and his friends in the writers’ rooms of various studios “in a little over a decade, have given their character to American walkie-talkies”. This is, it seems to me, much more important than who gets credit or not for Citizen Kane.
Either way, you don’t have to steal Welles to pay his due to Mankiewicz, because Kane is much more than its script, and Welles was the catalyst, relying on the skills of sound technicians, film editors, including composer Bernard Herrmann and photographer Gregg Toland. Welles was the ringmaster who coordinated it all, the vision that guided the project. And it was his boiling that brought this vertiginous thrill of a movie to life, because as much as it is about anything, Kane is about the fun of making movies and its supreme achievement may be in the way it makes that fun contagious.
Mank tries to convey some of that fun too, but although he succeeds more often than he fails, he’s definitely looking for golden opportunities. We meet the smart screenwriters Mank helped recruit in Hollywood, like SJ Perelman, Ben Hecht, and Mank’s younger brother Joe, who won four Oscars and wrote and directed. All about Eve. But the movie doesn’t do much more than verify the names of these people. What did they do? Why were they important? Worse yet, the movie never helps us understand how good Mankiewicz was at his job or why the studios put up with this alcoholic jester for as long as they did.
There are, for example, at least a few scenes where Mank reacts with exasperation to the mention of The Wizard of Oz. What the movie doesn’t tell you, and it wouldn’t have taken much, is that Oz was one of the last films he worked on at MGM, that he was kicked out of the picture after just a few weeks, but at that point he wrote the entire Kansas section and he was the man who insisted that all pre-Oz footage be shot in black and white. Not an idiot then, this Mankiewicz.
And there I go, sliding into the dead end of biopics debate territory. Because, unless you’re doing a documentary, is veracity really the point? I would say Citizen Kane is a better movie today because people forgot about Hearst. The movie is more fun and stands on its own without this distraction. Maybe we should judge Mank similarly: suppose you don’t know anything about these people – does the story still hold up? Does it just work like a movie? I would say yes twice. I don’t know how good historian David Fincher is, but I have a really good idea of what a great filmmaker is. Pretty awesome, maybe, to make me believe he wasn’t doing a biography, he was doing an autobiography. Because you don’t tell this story the way Fincher told it, unless you love the movies and hate Hollywood as fiercely as Herman Mankiewicz.
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