'Mank': The Spotlight Is on the Women in Fincher's New Drama

The film stars Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins and Tom Pelphrey.

Movie Reviews
5 min read
Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins in <i>Mank</i>.

How we sum up someone's life and truth of that life are rarely the same thing, says Alan Cumming in They'll Love Me When I’m Dead, the documentary on the making of Orson Welles’ last film The Other Side of the Wind. Welles' life is bookended by two legendary films that lead into a rabbit hole of several Hollywood names when we begin to examine the real and reel characters or try to separate truth from half-truths. Citizen Kane, still widely considered the greatest American film ever made and Welles's Hollywood debut, is based on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, his relationship with silent era star Marion Davies, so much that her career is often overshadowed by the less than ideal projection in Kane’s Susan Alexander. There's also Pauline Kael's controversial essay 'Raising Kane' that claimed Welles had nothing to do with the script, it was all Herman J. Mankiewicz, the subject of David Fincher's new film Mank with Gary Oldman as the alcoholic world weary writer. The "greatest film ever made" is forever in competition with the greatness of the legends behind it.

Gary Oldman as <i>Citizen Kane</i> writer Herman J. Mankiewicz in <i>Mank</i>.
Gary Oldman as Citizen Kane writer Herman J. Mankiewicz in Mank.
(Photo courtesy: Netflix)

Unflattering portrayals of Orson Welles in film or other media is not new, in fact they are the norm. In the HBO film RKO 281, Liev Schreiber portrays him as the temperamental upstart who causes ripples in boardrooms, speaks only in syllogisms and not as the politically astute young man Welles was.

David Fincher's film relegates Welles to the side-lines, neither easy nor something naturally attractive to a writer-filmmaker focusing on that era. But late Jack Fincher, who's written the script, goes there.

Mank is a film that Kael would have stood up and applauded at, much like Kane does in Citizen Kane after watching Susan Alexander's pathetic operatic performance in the opera house he built for her. Welles aficionados might consider this indifference an affront, more offensive than a full-bodied ruthless character. It continues the refrain that Welles idea of magic in cinema and film as a single person's endeavour is indefatigable and not even Mankiewicz could change that. But where Mank, admittedly playing fast and loose with fact and fiction, an unavoidable game in this enterprise, differs is that it is what its title suggests.

Lily Collins in a still from <i>Mank</i>.
Lily Collins in a still from Mank.
(Photo courtesy: Netflix)
The film centres Mankiewicz, a volatile figure fighting several battles at once — the move to talkies, the fallout of Depression, rising fascism in Europe and yellow journalism hardened Hearst feeling threatened by the idea of storytelling transitioning from printed paper to moving and speaking images.

But enough of Welles for there are tomes out there to knock yourself out.

David Fincher's 'Mank' differs in a key aspect not often shed light on when it comes to 'Kane.' The legacy of silent era star Marion Davies and what she really was like behind the scenes, with Mankiewicz or at the lavish parties in Hearst's San Simeon estate.
Amanda Seyfried as silent era actor Marion Davies in <i>Mank</i>
Amanda Seyfried as silent era actor Marion Davies in Mank
(Photo courtesy: Netflix)

In RKO 281, Melanie Griffith plays her as the disinterested wife who grows tired of Hearst's machinations to stop Kane from ever releasing. Till date, the most famous portrayal of Davies on screen was Kirsten Dunst in Peter Bogdanovich's (a Welles devotee) The Cat's Meow where she's shown as the entertaining woman caught between romances with two historic figures — Hearst and Chaplin. A fierce Catholic, Hearst never divorced and therefore Davies became the eternal mistress, a former Ziegfeld girl he fancied and used his propaganda machinery to introduce as the star she was yet to become. First with Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures and later with MGM, Davies became the face of films such as When Knighthood was in Flower, Enchantment and King Vidor's Show People, displaying her knack for comedy much to Hearst’s consternation. Though her films didn’t perform as well as Hearst's papers claimed, none of the studios wanted to lose the coveted space in those very papers, a calculated trade-off. The move from silent to sound intimidated Davies, who was known to have a stutter. But Hearst prepared her for those too, Davies doing films like Raoul Walsh's Going Hollywood, and Polly of the Circus with Clark Gable. This is where we meet Amanda Seyfried's Davies in Mank, screaming her heart out in a home video. "You're stronger than you look.", she tells Mank. "And from what I understand, you are smarter", he replies.


Mank, like the film it is not about, switches between the days Mankiewicz is cranking the script out and the early 1930s when he is a writer hurtling towards disillusionment with Hollywood, a by-product of laissez-faire American capitalism, on the path to moral and political bankruptcy. Something that acts as fuel to draw a character like Kane.

The best sequences in Fincher's film are between Mankiewicz and Davies, the standout being an anachronistic replay of Marcello and Sylvia's Rome escapade in Fellini's 'La Dolce Vita'.

The expressionism of Kane and, later, Fellini travels back in time. Like Sylvia, Marion Davies becomes disenchanted at one of Hearst's parties where her keen observations about Hitler's Germany find no takers. She tells Mankiewicz that she always talks nonsense like that only for him to reply that she was the only one talking sense. Mankiewicz and Davies form an indefinable bond, as they walk around the Sam Simeon estate with its monkeys, elephants and giraffes, often stand-ins for the subjects they are talking about — Hearst, Louis B. Mayer and Upton Sinclair, respectively. Davies here is written as an intelligent woman who is aware that everyone underestimates her and that her career is wholly owed to Hearst. Except Mankiewicz. Twice she says to him, "Promise me that you won't laugh" before revealing her thoughts.

'Mank' is probably the first film where Davies's comedic talents are foregrounded while not rendering her as the laughingstock like Susan Alexander in 'Kane'.

Maybe that's why, Mankiewicz keeps insisting that Susan in the script is not Marion while never denying that Kane is modelled on Hearst.

Welles, RKO head George Schaefer and even John Houseman to an extent are absent in Fincher's Mank. It also jettisons gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons who'd have been integral to a film about Citizen Kane. Instead Mank course corrects uncomplimentary reconstructions or finds hitherto unknown women — Marion Davies, Lilly Collins as Rita Alexander who takes notes from Mankiewicz's dictation and types the script, not to mention her modest contribution towards the name - Susan Alexander- and Fräulein Frieda as the housekeeper who tells Rita that she's from Mank's village in Germany and that he got 100 Jews out of the country. Possibly apocryphal but Fincher keeps it to inform Mank's character and the cause for his breakaway from the anti-Roosevelt Hearst and apolitical Hollywood. While a lot of media around Citizen Kane and Orson Welles focus on the boy genius and the barbarism of one man’s artistic rigor, Jack and David Fincher infuse much needed tenderness with their complex women characters, all of whom Mank deeply revers and takes into his confidence. As the quote goes, Mank was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people? Apparently, a whole lot.

(Mank is currently streaming on Netflix.)

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