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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: 'Mank' saves the Oscars

Man behind ‘Wizard of Oz’ spotlighted in ‘Mank.’ The film reels out sentiments over the essence of movies and the theater experience. by Philip Martin | April 25, 2021 at 2:48 a.m.
Gary Oldman with Amanda Seyfried (background) in “Mank.”

From a certain perspective, the movies let us down when we needed them most.

The theaters shut down, and the distribution spigot closed. Release dates for major films were pushed back. We're still waiting on James Bond, and Wes Anderson, and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanova aka Black Widow. Sure, some movies were given digital releases, and some films wound up in theaters playing to restricted capacity audiences — you couldn't call them crowds.

They ended up having an Academy Awards ceremony after all, though they moved the telecast from February until tonight, but things are not back to normal yet.

Just about all of the eight films nominated for Best Picture this year suffer very little from being consumed on a screen smaller than a wall, or in a room in a house rather than an auditorium.

I would like to have seen Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland" on a big screen for its breathtaking cinematography. (The Arkansas Cinema Society arranged a screening here, but I'd already seen the film by then and tickets were limited. One thing the pandemic has encouraged is an awareness of how our choices impact others.)

Many of the films seem like projects native to home viewing. "Minari" is gentle and thoughtful, an intimate memory play that resists nostalgia. "The Trial of the Chicago Seven" and "Judas and the Black Messiah" are refreshers of our weird, sad history. "The Father" is a film of a play, which the director (also the playwright) thankfully saw no need to "open up" in the conventional ways one adapts theater to screen.

"Promising Young Woman" feels like it is meant to be — this is a compliment — consumed at home, with the shades drawn and the lights out, its comedy running dark and cringy for a date night outing.

Similarly, "Sound of Metal," though its sonic design might have been more effective in a cavernous theater, reminds us that movies ultimately play in the black box of our own heads. It might have worked even better absorbed through headphones.

And that leaves us with "Mank," David Fincher's meticulous state-of-the-art recreation of what could pass for a lost movie from the '40s about a ruined poet who may have done as much as anyone to shape the movies.

Fincher would likely disagree, but it works best in an environment where it can be stopped and rewound at will — where you can puzzle over it frame by frame. It is made for a director's commentary track, if they are still doing those kinds of things anymore.

I like this slate of nominees; usually the Oscar nods go to obvious and inevitable Hollywood vehicles with a touch of class. But with fewer star vehicles hogging the bandwidth, a lot of mid-major movies got a moment last year — the lack of week-to-week competition allowed them space.

In a normal year, "Nomadland" would probably still have had some Oscar run; Zhao's "The Rider" was a critical darling, and "Nomadland" features indelible movie star/class actor Frances McDormand in the sort of role that often wins awards. But "Minari" probably would have had to content itself with Spirit Awards.

"Chicago" and/or "Judas" might have been contenders, but "The Father" or "Sound of Metal" would probably not have been Best Picture nominees. "Promising Young Woman" might have received an original screenplay nod.

"Mank," as a myth-mongering movie about the movies from an A-list director with Gary Oldman at its center, probably would have made the cut, though its Netflix affiliation bothers some members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"Nomadland" will (and probably should) win, because that's what smart people who know things say will happen. "Minari" is just as good, and the others are worth attention.

For the Oscars, that's a good job.

Gary Oldman stars as Mank in the movie whose title bears his character’s nickname. Herman J. Mankiewicz, or “Mank,” as he was known, was the first screenwriter assigned by MGM to take a crack at adapting L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” to the screen.
Gary Oldman stars as Mank in the movie whose title bears his character’s nickname. Herman J. Mankiewicz, or “Mank,” as he was known, was the first screenwriter assigned by MGM to take a crack at adapting L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” to the screen.

"This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That's the real magic of the movies, and don't let anybody tell you different."

The speaker is Louis B. Mayer, or rather a fictional interpretation of the MGM mogul portrayed by Arliss Howard in "Mank." He's speaking in a fictional 1933 to a fictional interpretation of Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Oldman.

A drama critic and press agent who went west to make his fortune in Hollywood writing for the movies, Mankiewicz recruited similar hard-bitten, newsroom-trained sardonicists — Ben Hecht, Bartlett Cormack and Edwin Justus Mayer among them — to write for the studios, where the movie was large and easy and the competition was "mostly idiots."

It was Mankiewicz who came up with the idea of filming the Kansas portions of "The Wizard of Oz" in black and white, and Oz in Technicolor. "Mank," as he was known, was the first screenwriter assigned by MGM to take a crack at adapting L. Frank Baum's political allegory of the 1896 U.S. presidential election, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," to the screen.

In Baum's novel, the innocent and naive Jayhawker Dorothy represents the pure nobility of middle-class Midwestern America. Her dog Toto is meant to represent "teetotalers," one-issue Prohibitionists who made a lot of noise but were essentially just cute accessories. The Scarecrow stands for the simple farmer who, in his humility, doesn't believe he has the brainpower to understand the complex theories arguing for and against such concepts as "free silver," the gold standard and bimetallism. (Though in reality, he is shrewd and commonsensical.)

The Tin Man is the industrial worker. The Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan. The Wicked Witch of the West is the actual American West, and her wicked winged monkeys are — er, the indigenous peoples of the Americas? (Don't snicker. In the book, the Monkey King tells Dorothy: "Once we were a free people, living happily in the great forest, flying from tree to tree, eating nuts and fruit and doing just as we pleased without calling anybody master ... This was many years ago, long before Oz came out of the clouds to rule over this land.")

Oz, the fraudulent wizard, is an Eastern banker supportive of the gold standard. Dorothy's silver slippers — in the movie they are ruby — were always capable of rescuing her; they could have taken her home at anytime. She just doesn't realize this.

Maybe Mankiewicz figured out that the source material is overstuffed. So why not take L. Frank Baum at his disingenuous word, that (as he wrote in his novel's introduction) the book was "written solely to please the children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and nightmares are left out"?

Mank's contribution to the 1939 film is limited but vital — Kansas should be black and white, but "mostly gray," a purgatorial reality of, to use Walker Percy's term, "everydayness." Oz should burst with color — fantastic and lurid. Whether it was Mank or one of the other 15 or so writers who worked on the film who decided to put the nightmares back in (was anyone who saw the movie as a child not terrified by the flying monkeys?), I can't say.

One remarkable thing about "The Wizard of Oz" is that it is not viewed as the work of any singular creative personality. Victor Fleming is credited as director, but five others worked on the film. King Vidor directed the Kansas scenes. Mank is a footnote, usually mentioned in the histories, which often allow that he is more celebrated as the co-writer of Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane," often cited as the best movie of all time.

David Fincher directs “Mank,” the Best Picture Oscar contender about early Hollywood writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. Fincher had his technicians trim back the resolution of the digital picture to match the movies to the era of the title character; he even had scratches and “cigarette burns” inserted.
David Fincher directs “Mank,” the Best Picture Oscar contender about early Hollywood writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. Fincher had his technicians trim back the resolution of the digital picture to match the movies to the era of the title character; he even had scratches and “cigarette burns” inserted.

Despite having made significant contributions to both the most-seen movie of all time and a film that's widely cited as the greatest of all time, most people have never heard of Mankiewicz. A lot of people profess to have never heard of "Mank," though it's been nominated for an Oscar.

Maybe this is because the movies have never meant so little to the average American as they do now. Maybe cable news, mixed martial arts fighting and video games have usurped the average American's special relationship with the movies.

Avid moviegoers only went on average to the theaters once every two months in 2019 (the figures for 2020 will be way down for obvious reasons); even those of us who watch a lot of movies probably watch most of them at home.

This bodes ill for Oscar ratings. Award shows have been losing audience share since the pandemic. Some people might watch out of habit, some out of duty, some out of a genuine desire to know who won and how they reacted, but generally the movies seem not to matter so much anymore.

Maybe they will rebound in the next few months as the pent-up desire to get out and go someplace, anyplace, meets up with a revived supply chain of big movies coming out nearly every week, but most people haven't seen more than one or two of the films nominated for Best Picture. There are plenty of other marketplaces for memories these days, and the desperate way we live now mightn't have room for the theatrical experience. The people in "Nomadland," well, they might take in a drive-in movie now and then if drive-in movies were more of a thing and less a sentimental hipster gesture. The great civic ritual of moviegoing is lost on generations younger than X; people can hold movies in their pockets, and they are used to watching alone.

Even for a movie as seemingly old-fashioned as "Mank," the story is technological. It is filmed on state-of-the-art REDdigital cameras and painstakingly transposed into a glorious black and white palate that is achieved by costuming the actors and sets in sometimes lurid colors that translate into just the right point on the gray scale. They were shooting "Oz," filtering the dreamscape through their computers and outputting a kind of Kansas — one that our eyes have learned to recognize as something authentic to the period.

Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt paid tribute to the angles employed and deep focus techniques developed by cinematographer Gregg Toland when he was working on "Citizen Kane." Fincher had his technicians trim back the resolution of the digital picture to match the movies of the era; he had them insert scratches and "cigarette burns" — the little round blips that occur in the upper right corner of a film to cue the projectionist to change reels — into his 21st-century entertainment product.

"Mank"s screenplay was written by Fincher's father, Jack, years ago. It was originally supposed to be filmed in the late '90s, but the usual Hollywood things happened and the director went off and made "Fight Club" instead.

Jack Fincher died in 2003, and his son finally got around to making the film in 2019. It had a limited theatrical release in November 2020, and has been available for streaming on Netflix for months.

The movie is basically a filmic argument for a notion that New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael put forth in 1971 in a 50,000-word essay called "Raising Kane." Kael argued that Mankiewicz was the real author of the shooting script of "Citizen Kane" and that Welles deserved neither the co-writing credit he was awarded nor the Best Original Screenplay Oscar he won for work he didn't do.

Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman appear in a scene from “Mank.” (Netflix via AP)
Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman appear in a scene from “Mank.” (Netflix via AP)

That essay essentially divided film critics into two camps: those who believe in what's called "auteur theory," the idea that the director is the author of a movie; and those who realize it's far more complicated than that. (Who was the auteur behind "The Wizard of Oz"?) Kael thought a movie could belong as much to a movie star or a producer as a director.

Kael took on the piece with the intention of undermining the myth of Welles' singular genius. She meant to stick up for screenwriters and other craftsmen who contributed to the making of motion pictures. But while she was a brilliant critic, she was an indifferent reporter. She refused to interview Welles for her piece, maintaining she already knew his story. She also made extensive and uncredited use of interviews conducted by a University of California at Los Angeles professor who had been researching the making of "Citizen Kane" for years. You could argue that she abused this professor, Howard Suber, in the same way she accused Welles of abusing Mank.

Kael was, like Welles, trying to make a splash; she loathed Welles and believed Welles' old collaborator John Houseman when he told her Welles "didn't write a word" of "Citizen Kane."

(Houseman, in a 1962 interview with Sight & Sound writer Penelope Houston, put it this way: "I think Welles has always sincerely felt that he, single-handed, wrote 'Citizen Kane' and everything else that he has directed — except, possibly, the plays of Shakespeare. But the script of 'Kane' was essentially Mankiewicz's. The conception and the structure were his, all the dramatic Hearstian mythology and the journalistic and political wisdom, which he had been carrying around with him for years and which he now poured into the only serious job he ever did in a lifetime of film writing. But Orson turned 'Kane' into a film: The dynamics and the tensions are his and the brilliant cinematic effects — all those visual and aural inventions that add up to make 'Citizen Kane' one of the world's great movies — those were pure Orson Welles."

Whether or not Jack Fincher believed in the theory that Mankiewicz was the true creative engine behind "Citizen Kane" is as immaterial as whether Mank, when he was working on it, believed bimetallism was the best way forward for the Republic in 1896 or not. What mattered was not the purity of the raw material, but what could be made of it.

David Fincher pushes it a little further; it's not just Mank v. Welles for the authorship of "Citizen Kane"; it's the individual artist who created the art v. the mogul who controls the means of production and distribution of that art.

Herman Mankiewicz was a drunk and a degenerate gambler, a raconteur, a knight errant from the Algonquin Round Table who hated Hitler but was more isolationist than Charles Lindbergh. He had an ear for dialogue, he was unsentimental and his heroes were tough, energetic and a bit randy. He got fired a lot and quit a lot and, by the time the 24-year-old Welles hired him to work on "Kane," was generally considered unemployable.

But one person Kael did manage to interview for her piece was screenwriter Nunally Johnson, who probably did as much as anyone to shape the way American movies were in the '30s and '40s. He said Mank "spearheaded the movement of that whole Broadway style of wisecracking, fast-talking, cynical-sentimental entertainment onto the national scene."

In doing that, he influenced how Americans have presented themselves ever since.

Regardless of whether he wrote "Citizen Kane" or half-wrote it, Mankiewicz was a character, a great American type — one who deserves to be played by an English Oscar winner in a movie made for streaming the year the movies let us down.

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