Follow TV Tropes


Film / Mank

Go To
"Are you familiar with the parable of the Organ Grinder's Monkey?"

Mank is a 2020 biopic film directed by David Fincher, written by his late father Jack Fincher.

It is a biopic of "humble screenwriter" Herman Mankiewicz, and it plays out in two narrative tracks. In one track, set in 1940, Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is taken out to an isolated ranch in Victorville, so he can dry out—Mank is a raging alcoholic—and get busy writing his latest script, for the movie that will become Citizen Kane. He scratches away at a screenplay while his secretary Rita (Lily Collins) tries to keep him sober and Orson Welles (Tom Burke) calls frequently from Los Angeles.

The other track follows Mank's earlier screenwriting career, 1930-37. He has left the New York literary world for the big money of Hollywood screenwriting, but he hates himself for it, even as the checks continue to roll in. Mank calls his brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey) out to Hollywood only to watch Joseph become more successful than he is. Mank works for MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) while having no illusions about what a cynical liar Mayer is. Mank becomes a good friend of actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and a frequent guest of Davies's lover/Meal Ticket, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Eventually Mankiewicz is unable to mask his contempt for both Hearst and Mayer, leading to a decisive break with both men—but his relationship with Davies and Hearst gives Mank an idea for a movie.

Also appearing are Toby Leonard Moore as David O. Selznick, Tuppence Middleton as Mank's long-suffering wife Sara, Joseph Cross as Charles Lederer, Ferdinand Kingsley as Irving Thalberg, and Jamie McShane as Shelley Metcalf, a fictional character.

Mank was released on Netflix on December 4, 2020.

This film provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Much like Citizen Kane, this is very much not a flattering portrayal of William Randolph Hearst, but he does come across as pretty amiable, a good friend and host, and his and Marion's feelings for each other are shown to be genuine. Even his "The Reason You Suck" Speech to Mank is rather polite, only tearing him down and getting him out of his house after everyone else is gone, and not engaging in any of the profane fury that Mayer did in his speech, even though Hearst should be angrier than anyone over Mank's similar speech directed to him.
  • The Alcoholic: Herman Mankiewicz is shown to have a serious drinking problem, which was very much Truth in Television.
  • Anachronic Order: Just like Mank's most famous work, the film takes this structure, alternating between Mank writing Citizen Kane in 1940 and the various events of the 1930s that influenced the story.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • While it is true Hollywood studio heads took Upton Sinclair's gubernatorial campaign very seriously, it's unclear how much, if any, of that affected Mankiewicz in general and his views of Hearst in particular. Also, while the studios did pay actors and a director to make fake films to show supporters of Sinclair to be communists, the director was actually a willing participant in real life, as opposed to the tortured figure in the film version.
    • Mankiewicz did, in fact, send a telegram to someone to get them to come to Hollywood because "your only competition is idiots", but that telegram was to Ben Hecht, not Charles Lederer as shown in the movie.
    • Mankiewicz's ban from San Simeon and exile from Hearst's life was not because of a drunken outburst. He was banned because how frequently he'd hang out with Marion; while nothing sexual is known to have happened between the two, she was a recovering alcoholic and would end up drinking with Mankiewicz, triggering a relapse. Hearst grew tired of repeatedly nursing her back to sobriety and finally gave Mank the boot.
    • The writer's room scene, set in 1930, refers to both Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941), a year before the release of the former, and eleven years before the release of the latter. Additionally, a reference is made to cheap horror movies being Universal's thing, and their string of monster movies didn't truly begin until 1931.
    • Marion Davies was just under a year older than Herman Mankiewicz. Gary Oldman is about 28 years older than Amanda Seyfried, changing their dynamic drastically from what it would have been in real life. They even have dialogue comparing him to the elderly Don Quixote and her to the youthful Dulcinea.
  • Brutal Honesty: Mank doesn't mince his words and always speaks his mind, even when it is to his own detriment.
  • The Cameo:
  • Court Jester: The relationship between Herman Mankiewicz and William Randolph Hearst is framed like that between a medieval king and his court jester. Although Mank is a frequent guest at Hearst's mansion (which, fittingly enough, is called "Hearst Castle"), he does not shy away from criticizing Hearst and his associates in his usual blunt, sarcastic manner. Hearst, in turn, likes to keep Mank around because he finds his wit amusing. Toward the end of the film, Mayer outright calls Mank a "court jester" to his face.
  • Crocodile Tears: Mayer is guilty of this twice:
    • Early in the film, he gives a tearful speech to his MGM employees, claiming the studio is about to go broke and asking them to take a 50% pay cut for eight weeks. After the employees are moved by his tears and agree to his proposal, he walks offstage and congratulates himself on his performance, smirking at his aides.
    • After weeping openly at Thalberg's funeral, Mayer casually discards his handkerchief out the car window.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The official trailer is shot in black-and-white to match the look of Citizen Kane. The film takes this up to eleven in that it was shot in native black-and-white rather than color.note 
  • Don't Call Me "Sir": Herman Mankiewicz insists that everyone call him "Mank."
  • Driven to Suicide: Mank's friend Shelly Metcalf, diagnosed with Parkinson's and wracked with guilt from working on a smear campaign against Upton Sinclair, shoots himself.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: During their argument over film credit, Orson Welles hurls Mank's suitcase full of liquor at the wall. Mank immediately grabs his pen because an outburst of violence and rage from Kane is what the film needs. Welles, somewhat nonplussed by the subject change and still angry, seems to agree.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: Orson Welles filmed with his face out of focus or partially out of view until the end of the movie - a homage to Citizen Kane, where Kane was always shrouded in shadow.
  • Fanservice Extra: To emphasize the hedonistic atmosphere of the writer's room in the 1930 flashback, the secretary taking dictation is topless with glittery pasties.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: When Mank visits Shelly, he gives Mank the bullets he loaded in his revolver to make sure he doesn't kill himself. When Mank brings them back to Shelly's wife, she reacts with horror—Shelly brought a full box with him. A few seconds later, we cut to a gunshot ringing out from Shelly's office.
  • Freakier Than Fiction: At one point, when Mankiewicz is meeting with Irving Thalberg, the latter gets on the phone to his secretary, telling her about the fact the Marx Brothers had been in his office roasting hot dogs. Not only did that actually happen in real life (although it was potatoes rather than hotdogs), they were also naked. On another occasion, they boarded up his office and smoked cigars through the doorway when he didn't show up for a meeting they had arranged. Unlike in the movie, where Thalberg is very peeved about their antics, in real life, he took it all in stride.
  • Gratuitous German: Mank frequently uses German phrases while speaking to his housekeeper Frieda, an immigrant from Germany. Frieda herself is shown to be fluent in English, but still intersperses her speech with basic German expressions such as "ja" and "nicht wahr?"
  • Greedy Jew: Never outright stated, but there's an undercurrent of tension with every other Jewish character and Mayer - who begs, pleads, and lies (to the point of tears) to convince everyone at MGM to take a paycut during the Great Depression... and is one of the driving forces behind Hearst's greed, such as pounding Upton Sinclair's gubernatorial run with propaganda.
  • Happily Married: William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies are shown to be in a genuinely loving relationship.
  • Hates the Job, Loves the Limelight: Mank went out to Hollywood to make money but regards himself as being above the movies and is ashamed of himself for being a screenwriter. Irving Thalberg points this out to Mank directly, saying that unlike Mank, he, Thalberg, doesn't use snark to hold himself out as above it all, and that he, Thalberg, doesn't regard his work as "slumming".
  • Hidden Depths: Rita learns from Fräulein Frieda that Mank was responsible for helping her entire village of over a hundred people immigrate from Germany, that none of his films can be shown in Germany, and that he wrote the script for an anti-Nazi film that no studio in Hollywood dared to produce for fear of alienating German audiences. This considerably softens Rita's opinion of Mank, who she had only seen as a callous alcoholic.
  • Historical Beauty Upgrade:
    • While the real Joseph L. Mankiewicz wasn't a bad looking guy, he didn't have Tom Pelphrey's Adonis-like appearance.
    • Charles Dance is much leaner and more handsome than the real William Randolph Hearst. Additionally, while the real Willie had a high pitched voice, Dance has a famous baritone.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Mank's primary motivation for going after Hearst is him seeing first-hand how Hearst screwed with left-wing Upton Sinclair's attempt at bettering California. It's not clear how much of this actually had an influence on Mank's script and hatred of Hearst.
  • Hypocrite: Louis B. Mayer has some lofty words about the power of art and the importance of family, but it's transparent bullshit from a Corrupt Corporate Executive.
  • Implausible Deniability: Mank insists that while Kane is definitely Hearst, Susan is not supposed to be Marion at all. Marion, her nephew Charles, and Joseph all roll their eyes at this, though it seems like Mank is trying to convince himself of this more than any of them.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Mank remarks on the capabilities of the German Stuka dive-bombers and U-boats that are taking aim at British aircraft carriers, just as Rita's reading a letter notifying her that her husband's ship was sunk off the coast of Norway.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Mank strikes one with Marion, though in real life, Marion Davies was a year older than Herman Mankiewicz.
  • It Will Never Catch On:
    • Mank is dismissive of The Wizard of Oz, thinking it will ruin MGM. This is actually Truth in Television: At the time, the film was a huge flop (losing a, for the time, enormous 1.4 million) and was only Vindicated by History once it started playing on TV 20 years later.
    • In a less comedic example, one of the 1934 flashback scenes shows a dinner party at Hearst's mansion during which Hitler's recent election as Chancellor of Germany is brought up. With the exception of Mank, none of the guests seem too concerned about this, believing that the Nazis are just a fad that will quickly be forgotten. Of course, history would prove them very wrong on that matter.
    • Mank thinks the whole idea of aircraft carriers is silly.
  • Kick the Dog: In-universe - one of the reasons Mank gets a bad rep during the build-up to Citizen Kane, and stated clearly by Marion, is that it's seen as kicking Hearst while he's down. (At the time, Hearst was in dire financial straits.)
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Aside from one scene pitching a horror movie to Louis B. Mayer, which they clearly do on the spot, Mank and his fellow writers don't do a lot of writing. We even see them playing poker in their office in the middle of a work day. To be fair, breaking a story and organizing a screenplay are not that "cinematic", and it contrasts enough with what we see of his work on Kane to explain why he is so much more proud of that work.
  • Practically Different Generations: Mank and his younger brother Joe. They were twelve years apart in real life, which is a pretty notable age gap, but the casting of their actors (Gary Oldman is twenty-four years older than Tom Pelphrey) makes them look much further apart.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: Louis B. Mayer makes a grand toast blessing William Randolph Hearst at his own birthday party. Sure, Hearst was hosting, but still. Additionally, Mayer's response to Mank's verbal attack on Willie is far more outwardly furious than Hearst's own soft spoken rebuttal.
  • Real-Person Cameo: The audio recording of an Orson Welles press conference near the end is not Tom Burke but a real 1942 audio recording of Orson Welles.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Mank's drunken rant at Hearst's dinner party in which he summarizes his idea for a film that would eventually become Citizen Kane is a very obvious attack on Hearst's character. After he is finished, Hearst retorts with a parable about an organ grinder's monkey who mistakenly believes himself to be the organ grinder's master, insinuating that Mank is not nearly as important a person as he thinks.
    • Between the two speeches, Louis B. Mayer dishes a briefer one out to Mank, saying he's nothing but Hearst's "Court Jester" and revealing that he just gave that speech to the man who pays him. Unlike Mank and Hearst's speeches, Mayer doesn't bother telling a thinly veiled story about his target, and instead bluntly tells him off.
  • Retraux: In addition to being shot in black-and-white, the film also emulates other elements of classic 30s-40s cinema, such as muffled audio, artificial scratches, and simulated reel changes (complete with "cigarette burns").
  • Sad Clown: Mank's charisma and wit masks his crippling alcoholism and his disillusionment with Hollywood.
  • Scare Campaign: MGM Studios wages one against Upton Sinclair, the Democratic nominee for California's gubernatorial election in 1934. They pay actors to pretend to be supporters of Frank Merriam, the Republican nominee, while trying to scare people by tying Sinclair to black people and communists. It works.
  • Slipping a Mickey: Houseman leaves a case of liquor across the room from the bedridden Mank, supposedly to motivate his recovery. It turns out they're actually soporifics. Mank eventually has Frieda dump them all down the sink and replaces them with real alcohol.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: As typical of Orson Welles, Mank simply asking for partial credit sends Welles into a steaming mad rage that trashes half the room. Welles is still irritated enough that, after the Oscars, he half-jokingly tells Mank to kiss his ass. The two never worked again after that.
  • Take That!: In-Universe, the original script for Citizen Kane is Mankiewicz's middle finger raised towards William Randolph Hearst. The people around Mank criticize him for throwing Marion Davies under the bus along with Hearst, even as Mank implausibly denies that the character of Susan Alexander is supposed to be Davies.
  • Throw It In!: In-universe. Welles' tantrum over Mank asking for partial credit inspires the Freak Out seen at the end of Citizen Kane.
  • Tranquil Fury: William Randolph Hearst's response to Mank giving him a major "The Reason You Suck" Speech is to calmly walk him out of his house while giving a similar dress-down in a polite manner.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story:
    • A major point of contention for many critics has long been how much credit Mankiewicz deserved for writing Citizen Kane. The film seems to take its cue from Pauline Kael's infamous essay "Raising Kane", where she claimed Mankiewicz deserved most of the credit, and that Welles "did not line of the shooting script." That essay was later discredited, at least in part because she never actually spoke to anyone in Welles' camp who could either dispute, confirm or clarify claims made by the people she spoke to. Partisans of Orson Welles have called Fincher's movie a distortion of how much Mankiewicz contributed to the actual movie. Research in the wake of Kael's controversial book has pretty conclusively demonstrated that Welles made extensive revisions and additions to Mankiewicz's original script, with research by Robert Carringer showing that his input was being applied by the second draft and his own written additions featuring heavily from the third draft and on.
    • There is no evidence that Mankiewicz had any involvement in the 1934 California gubernatorial election.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: After drunkenly crashing Hearst's dinner party and delivering his pitch for Citizen Kane, Mank vomits on the floor, causing the guests to leave in disgust.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The film has one, although focused solely on Mank himself and not the other characters.
  • Worthy Opponent: There's an odd variant in that Mank and Marion Davis - whose Citizen Kane counterpart is a hack who tires of Kane's constant control of her - are friends and remain so, even after Mank insults Hearst to his face and even after Marion shows up to Mank's retreat to try and persuade him to stop writing. Mank gently refuses - and Marion understands, but will continue to try to block the picture. They make it clear they're still friendly during the conversation.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Many of the people working in Hollywood, including Mank himself, are of Jewish descent and occasionally use Yiddish words or phrases. Louis B. Mayer, for instance, claims that MGM stands for "meyne gantze mishpokhe" (my whole family).