Review – Hollywood, Politics, and Citizen Kane (“Mank”)

“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” With that quote from screenwriter Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz, we only get a short glimpse into the life of the man who wrote the iconic movie, Citizen Kane.

Told in multiple flashbacks, we center on a 1940 event were Herman (Gary Oldman) is recovering from an auto accident in a small ranch house somewhere in Victorville. Hired by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write Citizen Kane (then titled American), it’s going to be an uphill battle as Herman is a chain-smoking, gambling-addicted alcoholic, besides being a brilliant writer. While dictating the William Randolph Hearst based script to his secretary, Rita Alexander (Lilly Collins), he thinks back to his life in Hollywood and the motion picture biz.

Non-linear in the flashbacks (like Pulp Fiction), we ping-pong back and forth with key moments in Herman’s life, as we see his time at Paramount Pictures with his brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), then their unusual meeting with powerful studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) at MGM Studios. After that meeting, Herman is introduced to the world of unimaginably rich Hearst (Charles Dance) and his actress wife, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) with whom he strikes up a close friendship.

But screenwriters are an opinionated lot (see the movie Trumbo) and rather politically-minded as well and Herman, who tends to vocalize his Democratic views, gets in trouble alot. Not only at a fancy dinner at Hearst’s castle, but also at a 1934 Republican political rally where he gambles away thousands over who’ll win Governor of California. But, despite all his short-comings, Herman remains loyal to his doting, long-suffering wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton), never straying or having an affair. And, surprisingly, she never leaves him either.

As the script is finalized, Herman has one last request that enrages Orson. He wants screen credit! The rest, as they say, is history. Shot in glorious black & white with terrific attention to detail (it even shows old-time “cigarette burns” when the reels change! For more on that, watch Fight Club), the script was written by David Fincher’s dad, the late Jack Fincher, way back in 2003. Coming in at 2 hrs and 12 mins, it’s a long character study into the man, his life, and the people that surrounded him. Perhaps a bit too long. Whereas the acting and direction/filming is all top-notch, many of the scenes either go on too long or are unnecessary.

Now, I can see where director David Fincher (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club) wanted to honor his papa by not altering the screenplay, but a some edits and losing a few of the flashbacks would have tightened up the lengthy run-time. The movie is less about the actual writing of Kane and more about politics, Hollywood back-door deals, and the super-wealthy. And by the way, let’s talk about Fincher’s impeccable direction that many times copycatted Welles’ style and creativity. And filming it in black and white was just a brilliant idea. His casting was just as brilliant as well.

Gary Oldman, less any make-up or prosthetics this time around, is exceptional as the often inebriated writer with an unfiltered mind and mouth. Amanda Seyfield, nearly unrecognizable, gives a terrific performance as does Charles Dance as the legendary Hearst. But look out for Arliss Howard as L.B. Mayer who, right from his first appearance, tears into his character with a scene-stealing vengeance. And for the short amount of time he has on screen, Tom Burke looks and sounds just like a young Orson Welles.  

**Streaming exclusively on Netflix 


RKO 281 (1999)

A not-quite-historically accurate account of young Orson Welles and his unbelievable battle over the making of his grand opus, Citizen Kane. Even screenwriter John Logan admitted to taking some creative liberties in the storytelling, but many of the facts remain solid.

Orson Welles (Liev Schrieber). Actor, writer, director, magician, orator, and a royal pain in the ass. After coming off a long string of successful Broadway plays and radio shows, he wants to do a motion picture, but of whom? One night at dinner at magnificent Hearst Castle, Orson runs afoul of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell), and the two men instantly develop a hatred for each other. BINGO! Orson gets his idea for a movie about a loveless, tyrannical, obscenely wealthy man who wants to own everything and everybody.

Thankfully, Orson’s often drunken writing buddy, Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (John Malkovich), happens to have an old unpublished novel on Hearst, so Orson commissions Herman to write the screenplay, but with Orson’s additional notes and scenes. He gets RKO Pictures studio head George Schaefer (Roy Scheider) to front the money (RKO, the #281st production), and Orson secures top cinematographer Gregg Toland (Liam Cunningham) to shoot his movie. However, keeping his script story secret? Well, that’s takes some effort as the rumor mill starts with hungry Hollywood gossip writers Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper (Brenda Blethyn & Fiona Shaw) circling like sharks.

Once the movie is made and ready for distribution, the crap hits the fan when Hearst finds out the film is a thinly veiled attack at him and his potty-mouthed wife, actress Marion Davies (Melanie Griffith). Livid, Hearst sends Parsons to blackmail the studios into destroying the movie, which almost works, as many of the major studio heads like Louis B. Mayer (David Suchet), cave in. While Hearst is facing financial ruin, Orson makes an impassioned plea to the studio board of supervisors to open his film to the public. The rest is history. Citizen Kane has since gone down in cinematic history as the finest motion picture ever made. I have to agree; it is a brilliant piece of cinema.Only in theaters for a short time, RKO 281 was eclipsed by major blockbusters like 007’s The World Is Not Enough, Toy Story 2, and Sleepy Hollow.

Rich in texture and a damn fine script, John Logan (The Aviator, Gladiator) writes with a profound eloquence that hearkens back to the early 1940’s. If you’ve seen any of Welles’ films or documentaries (like Logan did), Schrieber’s dialogue reflects Orson’s speech patterns, cadence, and playful thesaurus word-play. It’s a carefully crafted and expressive screenplay that, although fictionalized in places, is chock full of Welles’ secrets about his film. For instance, he claims the sled, “rosebud”, was named after what Hearst called his wife’s va-jayjay!  

Director Benjamin Ross (TV’s The Frankenstein Chronicles) has barely any IMDB credits, yet his camerawork and attention to detail here is wonderful, capturing the lavish wonder of Hearst Castle (locations in London filled in for that), the recreation of many of the Citizen Kane sets, and showing us the intensity of Welles’ volatile and often self-destructive personality that drove his friends and colleagues away. And having Liev Schreiber portray Welles was a terrific choice as Liev doesn’t do a caricature of Welles, but plays him real and close to the bone. He even has the voice right. Malkovich is also great as ‘Mank’, Welles’ put-upon friend, and Cromwell is extraordinary as the fearsome Hearst. And this is the first time I didn’t hate Melanie Griffith in a role. She’s actually quite good.

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