Netflix Blurs Fact and Fiction With ‘Mank’ and ‘The Crown’
“Based on a true story” is Hollywood’s ultimate get out of jail free card, and it usually means you won’t learn much but you will have fun.
Biopic is an awkward, jammed-together word. We all know it means a movie about someone’s life, and we know it’s showbiz shorthand for “biographical picture.” But it also means a movie with a script and actors, not a documentary in other words. The unvoiced subtext of this bastard child of Hollywood is always, “It might have gone something like this…”
The trick with biopics is knowing how far you can go before you cross a line into pure fiction, a line that The Crown, for example, seems to have crossed so many times that even one of the actors in the show is saying it ought to come with a warning label.
Of course, this huffing and puffing is all a little hypocritical since The Crown’s creators and its audience have been colluding from the first season in the mutually agreed-upon fiction that what’s on screen is true, when we all know that a lot of it’s not. We want to have it both ways. We want to watch The Crown as the lives of the royals, even while we admit that this is, well, yeah, probably not exactly accurate.
How much easier their lives might have been if the people who made The Crown had copied the example of Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, where Welles talked himself hoarse telling people that Kane was not, no way no how, based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. When in fact it certainly was.
All kinds of people attacked Welles and his movie even before it was released. MGM head Louis B. Mayer, a friend of Hearst’s, tried to buy the film from RKO so he could destroy it. MGM and other big studios, which at that time also owned theater chains, refused to book the film. So, financially, it tanked. But it got great reviews, even in Hollywood, despite the fact that Hollywood dearly wanted Welles, the 25-year-old wunderkind from the East Coast who’d never made a movie, to fall on his face.
But nobody, ever, criticized Citizen Kane because it wasn’t accurate. Because they couldn’t, because its makers never claimed it was anything other than fiction.
Which brings us to Mank, David Fincher’s new Netflix movie about the making of Kane and specifically about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man most responsible for the movie’s script.
Mank drags us, kicking and screaming, back to the old debate over what is truth and what is fiction. Because Mank is a… biopic.
So the first question viewers will have is, how accurate is it? Or no, the first question for most viewers will likely be, who the hell are these people? Ironically, and you can call this Citizen Kane’s ultimate triumph, the only name that still means anything to a contemporary audience is Orson Welles. Hearst in his heyday, let’s say the first half of the 20th century, was like Rupert Murdoch on steroids. But now it’s just William Randolph who? Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies was a legitimate movie star long ago, but hers is not one of those names, like Hepburn or Garbo, to have survived her own time. As for Mankiewicz, who remembers screenwriters?
Mank was made to remedy that ignorance, obviously. The filmmakers (Fincher’s late father wrote the screenplay) present their title character as a tarnished idealist—and a hopeless alcoholic and compulsive gambler—who redeems himself with the script for Kane.
Wisely the Finchers do not directly engage the question of how much of Kane’s final script belongs to Mankiewicz and how much to Welles, although by calling their movie Mank and making the character of Welles almost a walk-on part, they leave little doubt as to which side of the debate they endorse.
It’s more than a good guess, however, that Mankiewicz gave Kane its structure, most of its dialogue, and all of its verisimilitude: The world of American newspapering was one he knew from the inside out. On top of that, he knew Hearst and his girlfriend, Marion Davies. He was their frequent guest at San Simeon, Hearst’s gaudy mansion that inspired Kane’s Xanadu. In that respect, Kane was a Guinness book example of biting-the-hand.
Welles didn’t know much about Hearst except second-hand gossip, and he knew nothing about the newspaper business. Judging by his other movies, he didn’t have much of an ear for how people really talk. Mankiewicz knew all those things.
The most fascinating part of Pauline Kael’s famous essay on Citizen Kane is not her debunking of Welles’ boy-wonder myth that gave him all the credit for the movie (credit which, as the decades rolled by, he took more and more of), but rather her portrait of the men and women from the New York journalism and theater scenes who went to Hollywood around the time talkies came in and gave movies their indelibly American voice. Mankiewicz was one of the first to arrive.
In doing the research for her essay, Kael realized that Mankiewicz’s name, alone or as co-author, appeared on the credits of "about forty of the films I remember best from the twenties and thirties. I hadn't realized how extensive his career was... and now that I have looked into Herman Mankiewicz’s career it’s apparent that he was a key linking figure in just the kind of movies my friends and I loved best.” Mankiewicz and his friends in the writers’ rooms of various studios “in little more than a decade, gave American talkies their character.” This is, it seems to me, of considerably more importance than who does or does not get credit for Citizen Kane.
Anyway, you don’t have to rob Welles to pay Mankiewicz his due, because Kane is so much more than just its script, and Welles was the catalyst, drawing on the skills of sound technicians, film editors, and especially composer Bernard Herrmann and photographer Gregg Toland. Welles was the ringmaster who coordinated all that, his was the vision that guided the project. And it was his ebullience that breathed life into this giddy thrill of a film, because as much as it is about anything, Kane is about the fun of making movies and its supreme achievement may be in the way it makes that fun infectious.
Mank tries to convey some of that fun too, but while it succeeds more often than it fails, it definitely fumbles some golden opportunities. We meet the smart-ass screenwriters that Mank helped recruit to Hollywood, like S.J. Perelman, Ben Hecht, and Mank’s own younger brother, Joe, who went on to win four Oscars and wrote and directed All About Eve. But the movie doesn’t do much more than namecheck these people. What did they do? Why were they important? Worse, the movie never helps us understand just how good Mankiewicz was at his job or why the studios put up with this alcoholic court jester as long as they did.
There are, for instance, at least a couple of scenes where Mank reacts with exasperation at the mention of The Wizard of Oz. What the movie doesn’t tell you, and it wouldn’t have taken much, is that Oz was one of the last films he worked on at MGM, that he got kicked off the picture after just a couple of weeks, but in that time he wrote all the Kansas section and he was the man who insisted all the pre-Oz footage be shot in black and white. Not an idiot then, this Mankiewicz.
And there I go, sliding into the no-win debate territory of biopics. Because, unless you’re making a documentary, is veracity really the point? I’d say Citizen Kane is a better movie today because people have forgotten about Hearst. The movie is more fun and stands on its own without that distraction. Maybe we should judge Mank the same way: Assume you don’t know anything about any of these people—does the story still hold up? Does it work as just a movie? I’d say yes twice. I don’t know how good a historian David Fincher is, but I have a very good idea of what a great filmmaker he is. Great enough, maybe, to make me think he wasn’t making a biopic, he was making an autobiography. Because you don’t tell this story the way Fincher told it unless you love movies and hate Hollywood every bit as fiercely as Herman Mankiewicz did.