It seems on the face of it the oddest proposition on earth. David Fincher, the famous Hollywood director of Fight Club and Seven, has made a telemovie, simply called Mank, about Herman Mankiewicz who co-wrote the script for Citizen Kane with Orson Welles, shared the Oscar with him and according to a famous article by Pauline Kael deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the unforgettable dramatic story it tells from go to Rosebud.
To complicate matters there’s the question of whether the collaborating scriptwriter of a genius film director can ever be given any kind of primacy. Although there’s the record of what Emeric Pressburger did for Michael Powell and I.A.L. Diamond did for Billy Wilder, the collaborators of say Visconti or Fellini would have seen themselves as enabling mediums not co-creators, because a lot of what makes a film unique comes from how it unfolds sequence by sequence, shot by shot, not just in the plot. None of which is to deny that Citizen Kane with its portrait of a colossal megalomaniac monster modelled on Randolph Hearst is one of Welles’ best scripted films equalled only by A Touch of Evil many years later.
In any case, the genesis of Mank gets curiouser and curiouser when we learn that its script was written by the director’s father – Jack Fincher, who died in 2003 – and some considerable effort has been made by his son (who succeeded in directing parts of that once glowing collective effort House of Cards before Kevin Spacey’s fall) to stop the script from being a tirade against Welles. Add to this the fact that Mank is made in sleek modulated black and white, tonally and compositionally reminiscent of Welles’ technique and that Manciewicz is played by that formidable man of a thousand faces Gary Oldman and you begin to understand what a curious curate’s egg we’re sniffing at.
Mank is the very elaborate portrait of an alcoholic natural-born wordsmith who is a character of such rainbow-dappled eloquence that it’s easy to imagine him upsetting any project he was involved with, as well as usurping the natural economies of film as a narrative medium, which he does a bit here. It helps enormously that Manciewicz is played by Oldman with such wonderful starriness and panache. The greatest born character actor since Alec Guiness has hit on a colourful personality to project a universe of uncontrollable wit and moodiness and iridescent humanity.
It’s odd that Manciewicz was 43 at the time whereas Oldman is 62 (and looks every day of it). But this is one of his characterisations that seems to come from some deep place of indolence and wit and a mordant gravity that keeps in equilibrium with everything around it, by the skin of its teeth.
It’s a marvellous performance, as good or better than anything Oldman has done. Part of its weird equipoise is that it works by a consistent principle of excess even though Oldman is a naturally observational and disciplined actor. But this is Rembrandtian, this is Shakespearean, it instantiates the legend the whole enterprise is tilting towards.
Herman Manciewicz was, it’s worth remembering, the brother of the more famous Joe, the director/writer of All About Eve who went on to bring us Marlon Brando in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Burton and Taylor in his own Cleopatra. He is played quietly, as a foil, here, as indeed is everyone else. This is essentially Oldman’s show situated in the moody ambivalent hommage to Welles’ filmmaking. Even an Americanised Charles Dance is just a snippet of menace and presence as William Randolph Hearst. And Tom Burke, as a petulant Welles, misses the mellifluousness and the magnificence, the sheer histrionic and literary magnitude, that’s there in every moment of Welles’ performance in Citizen Kane.
None of which is to deny that Mank, this love-hate letter to Hollywood, is one of the most formidable things we’ve seen in a long time. Peter Bogdanovich who made The Last Picture Show defended Welles against Kael and the Manciewicz’s myth but few directors since Bogdanovich have used black and white with a sense of it as the true poetry of filmmaking as Fincher does here.
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