Mank: a Tribute to Old Hollywood

by Caroline Ross ‘22

With the Oscars coming up on the 25th of April, one film stands out from the crowd: Mank, directed by David Fincher. Mank leads the pack with an impressive ten Academy Award nominations following its six Golden Globe nominations and twelve Critics Choice nominations. Although Mank failed to snag a nomination for Film Editing, which has closely correlated in the past with who will win best picture, many Cinephiles still believe that Mank will walk away with Best Picture. Mank received mixed reviews from critics upon its release on Netflix on December 4, 2020, so it is unclear why it received so many Academy Award nominations. Perhaps it is because the film is about Old Hollywood, a genre that the Academy has favored in the past. Regardless, I decided to give it a watch to determine whether or not the attention that this film has received is deserved, and if it has any chance of becoming the first Netflix film to win Best Picture.


Mank follows the journey of alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz while he writes the screenplay for Citizen Kane, a film that would later become known as one of the greatest movies ever made. Mank begins in Victorville, California in 1940 as Mankiewicz moves to a ranch in the desert temporarily so he can recover from a broken leg and not feel so confined while working on his screenplay. Because of his broken leg Mankiewicz dictates the script to his secretary, Rita Alexander. Before beginning, Mankiewicz agrees to a contract that states he will not take any credit for the screenplay.


The film frequently flashes back to the 1930s as the audience learns more about Mankiewicz’s relationships with many Hollywood bigwigs like Marion Davies and Louis B. Mayer. Throughout the film Mankiewicz experiences the highs and lows that come with writing for a major studio. His screenplay is criticized often and he struggles to meet deadlines. The film also depicts Mankiewicz’s struggle with alcoholism which causes his behavior to be erratic and unprofessional at times. 


When the screenplay is finally finished Mankiewicz is reminded by Producer John Houseman that he agreed to receive no credit for the screenplay. However, by the end of the film Mankiewicz realizes that his screenplay of Citizen Kane is his greatest piece of work and he goes back on his word by asking director Orson Welles to credit him. Welles is angry at first, but ultimately gives Mankiewicz credit as a co-writer, even though it was written entirely by Mankiewicz. The film ends with Mankiewicz accepting an Academy Award for best screenplay and it is revealed that Makiewicz died eleven years after accepting the award due to complications from alcoholism, making Citizen Kane his final project.


Before I watched Mank I didn’t know much about the Citizen Kane screenplay controversy. Additionally, I didn’t know much about Hollywood during the time period that the film was set in. These factors made it hard to understand much of the film due to the many references made about both and I ended up having to do a lot of research after I watched the film just to understand the plot. I think it also would have helped to have seen Citizen Kane before watching this film. Mank is definitely something that people who have an understanding of the history of Hollywood would love.


As someone who grew up on Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant my favorite part of this film is how it pays homage to Old Hollywood films. Besides the obvious fact of it being set in the 1930s-40s, the film is in black and white just like a classic Hollywood film. Fincher also used sound design to give the film an “older” sound “Everything has been compressed and made to sound like the 1940s. The music has been recorded with older microphones so it has a sort of sizzle and wheeze around the edges — you get it from strings, but you mostly get it from brass. What you’re hearing is a revival house — an old theater playing a movie.” Additionally, Fincher used cinematic techniques that are synonymous with Old Hollywood and techniques that Orson Welles and Gregg Toland used in Citizen Kane by shooting much of it in Deep Focus and using theatrical fade-outs for transitions. The opening credits also stood out to me in particular as something that would be in an Old Hollywood film in terms of style. 

After watching Mank I can 100% understand why it was nominated for ten Academy Awards. Technically, it is an incredible film. However, it’s not the kind of film that a casual viewer can enjoy. It requires an appreciation of film and an understanding of what makes a “good” movie. There were certain moments like the election night party montage that are really fun to watch if you enjoy good cinematography. Do I think it will win best picture? I don’t think so just because it is up against films like Nomadland and The Trial of the Chicago 7 and it didn’t pick up a single win at the Golden Globes which is usually an indication of how films will do at the Oscars. If you like Old Hollywood movies and have an understanding of the plot I would recommend Mank to you. If not, this film may not be for you.