Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

5/5 (1)

Ben Mankiewicz is one of the hosts on Turner Classic Movies. He has a good pedigree when it comes to films. His grandfather was Herman Jacob Mankiewicz, the alcoholic genius who wrote “Citizen Kane.”

Some film critics consider “Citizen Kane” the greatest movie ever made. Many give the credit to director Orson Welles. These acolytes are often film school grads who subscribe to the auteur theory of filmmaking. I’ve always leaned that way myself, crediting directors as the brains behind a movie.

As the old saying goes, movies are a director’s medium, TV is a producer’s medium, and stage is an actor’s medium.

Maybe, maybe not.

Garrulous film critic Pauline Kael always ranted against the auteur theory. Even wrote a book refuting the idea.

Thus, there has long been a debate over who deserved the most credit for “Citizen Kane,” Mankiewicz or Welles. Pauline Kael wrote a 50,000-word essay crediting Mankiewicz (“Raising Kane”), while director/critic Peter Bogdanovich took the other side in an article titled “The Kane Mutiny.”

The new movie “Mank” sides with Paulene. This is an excellent black-and-white film about the early days of Hollywood – in particular about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and the writing of “Citizen Kane.”

It gives proper credit to Mank (as Mankiewicz was called by those who knew him). Cinematographer Gregg Toland probably deserves credit too. Maybe even John Houseman. Orson Welles does not come off so much the boy genius in this telling.

While admittedly flawed, Herman J. Mankiewicz produced the scripts for such great movies as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Duck Soup,” “Dinner at Eight,” “The Pride of the Yankees,” and scores of others.

Here, Gary Oldman (Oscar-winner for “The Darkest Hour”) portrays Mank as the hack’s hack, struggling to put great stories onto paper while raging against the system.

Desperate for money, Mankiewicz had agreed to write the script for Orson Welles for $1,000 a week and no screen credit. Laid up with a bad leg from an auto accident, he cranked out the screenplay while holed up with his secretary and a friend whose main job was to keep him away from booze.

In this movie directed by David Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Fight Club,” “Gone Girl”) you will meet William Randolph Hearst (played by Charles Dance), the subject of the “Citizen Kane”; along with his paramour, actress Marion Davies (played by Amanda Seyfried); Mankiewicz’s secretary (Lily Collins); his wife, Poor Sara (Tuppence Middleton); and such Tinseltown personalities as John Houseman (Sam Troughton), Louis B. Meyer (Arliss Howard), David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), Irvin Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and, of course, Orson Welles (Tom Burke). 

Hollywood stars who flit through the story largely unidentified include Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin, Josef Von Sternberg, Carol Lombard, and Eddie Cantor, to name a few.

You can catch “Mank” on the screen at Tropic Cinema … or on Netflix for you stay-at-homers.

While you might think my love of movies sparked my interest in seeing “Mank,” I had a more personal reason too. I used to live just down the street from William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies’s summer home in New Canaan, Connecticut. It was much more than a cottage, an elegant manor house hidden from view by tall bottle-brush trees, surrounding by bridle paths and New England-y rock fences and bubbling brooks.

How good is this portrait of Herman J. Mankiewicz? His grandson Ben says, “It fully comports with my image of my grandfather. He was the smartest person in the room, the funniest person in the room…even when he had been drinking, which was often.”

As Herman Mankiewicz himself once said, “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”

Ironically, Welles and Mankiewicz ended up sharing credit for the film’s only Oscar, for Best Screenplay (out of nine other nominations). Neither man attended the ceremony in 1942, but Mankiewicz later said to the press, “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’ absence because the script was written in Mr. Welles’ absence.”

Email Shirrel:

Ratings & Comments