Mank, the new David Fincher film about how Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane, takes us back to an era it’s almost impossible to imagine now — one when conservatives ruled Hollywood.
The film industry loves to proclaim its progressivism and commitment to social justice, often opening itself up to accusations of hypocrisy in the process. But still it can dream: Ryan Murphy’s recent Netflix series Hollywood, which like Mank takes place in the 1930s and early ’40s, fantasized a story of women, Black people and the openly gay shaking up the stodgy studio system with an award-winning hit film.
David Fincher, the director of Mank, has always avoided such wish-fulfillment, which can make his films feel chilly and bleak — but also real. So it is with Mank.
Mank takes us back to a time when the people who ran Hollywood were unapologetic agents of the old guard, masking their stinginess and insularity as financial responsibility. Fincher is never preachy about it, but Mank is the story of how a cozy insider became a radical sympathizer.
Mank illustrates how much of an old boys’ club 1930s Hollywood was by showing us an actual old boys’ club: It’s led by Mank (Gary Oldman), and it’s his writers’ room. The men swill whiskey and spitball ideas while a topless secretary does her best to write them all down. To break into the clubhouse, you have to know Mank. The Depression is outside the studio gates, but you wouldn’t know.
The scene takes place in the early 193os, just after the adoption of the Hays Code, the industry’s guidelines for self-censorship named for Republican politician Will H. Hays, who led the future MPA.
Though Mank doesn’t need to mention it, the film that everyone in the industry sees as the model for success is D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War drama The Birth of a Nation, the first Hollywood hit. The film is overtly pro-Ku Klux Klan.
As we see in Fincher’s film — written by his father, Jack Fincher — Mank knows how to manage the rich, and is happy to accept their money, opportunity, and booze. They tolerate him, and some even find him amusing. When he chats with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) on a film set, he interests her media magnate beau, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst decrees that Mank shall sit beside him at dinner.
But the lush arrangement begins to fray as Mank pays attention to the little men behind the curtains. At one point, he watches studio boss Louis B. Mayer plead poverty as he implores everyone at MGM to take a pay cut. There are murmurs in the crowd, until one woman agrees. Then little Shirley Temple pops up.
“Me too!” she declares, the words having the opposite effect as they would 83 years later, when they toppled some of Hollywood’s most powerful men.
In the same year Mayer manipulates his workers, 1934, Upton Sinclair runs for governor, and everything changes for Mank.
Like Mank, Sinclair is a celebrated writer: He is the author of crusading books like The Jungle and Oil! (Paul Thomas Anderson’s inspiration for 2007’s There Will Be Blood). We hear that he is the most famous person after President Roosevelt, Hitler and Mussolini.
Like Bernie Sanders, Sinclair is an avowed socialist who joins the Democrats to seek executive office, and his cries for aid to the working man help him earn the Democratic nomination for California governor. He’s like a conservative’s nightmare of Sanders or The Squad: Sinclair calls for a redistribution of wealth, and says it can happen one of two ways — by “legal enactment” or “violent revolution.”
The anti-tax folks and religious fundamentalists form a coalition against the left, as they tend to do. One heckler invokes the name of one of the most prominent religious leaders of the day: “Aimee Semple McPherson says you’re a godless commie, Upton!”
Hearst is one of the most powerful men in the country, but we barely see him lift a finger against Sinclair: He doesn’t need to. Mayer is his toady, and Hollywood his willing attack dog.
MGM leads an aggressive fake news campaign that uses actors to suggest Sinclair is the candidate of Mother Russia. An actress, Moira Anderson, impersonates a poor woman who plans to vote Republican. The director behind the ads kills himself out of guilt. Mank takes it all in…
… and then pours out his rage across the pages of Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane, his loose interpretation of Hearst, is a broken, soulless man in a lonely castle of his own creation.
But in real life, the old guard still won, at least for a while: David O. Selznick, Mayer’s son-in-law, broke with MGM to produce Gone with the Wind, which borrows the setting and sweep of Birth of a Nation. While it avoided any overt praise for the Klan, its portrayals of Black people received criticism from the NAACP of the time, and critics and audiences of today.
The film was an instant hit and remains the biggest hit of all time, allowing for inflation.
Citizen Kane, meanwhile, intially failed to recoup its budget. Hearst banned his publications from running ads for the film, and, as recounted by History, “threatened to make war against the Hollywood studio system in general, publicly condemning the number of ‘immigrants’ and ‘refugees’ working in the film industry.” His real-life campaign against the film aren’t unlike the the MGM attacks on Upton Sinclair in Mank.
Hollywood’s toadying and self-censorship would continue for decades, most notably with the blacklisting of supposed Communist sympathizers.
The real Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz would die before its height, of uremic poisoning, in 1953, his poisoning the consequence of kidney damage from years of alcoholism.
“I seem to become more and more of a rat in a trap of my own construction, a trap that I regularly repair whenever there seems to be danger of some opening that will enable me to escape,” he wrote a decade before he died.
The Hollywood of today may look, from the outside, like a continuation of decades of liberalism and progressivism. But today’s activist-actors feel more like the man portrayed in Mank, driven to the cause by their shame and disgust at the past.
Mank streams on Netflix Friday.