The Truth About Mank

The best stories are the personal ones and your version of your truths – as you see, feel or overall experience them – will make your best stories.

This in no way means that any great story you tell needs to be true in the traditional sense, or even needs to be one you’ve experienced first-hand.  In fact, all it really requires is for you to capture the spirit of what you believe is the absolute truth in that moment.     

This time.. we can handle it Jack

That is the selling point.  If you truly would swear to it down deep in your soul (Note: Or convincingly appear to until the point that you actually do) and can trim enough fat off so that it is boiled down into something simple and essential, well, chances are you will convince more people than you can imagine along the way.

This goes for everything from vacuum cleaner sales and earnestly told short stories to public charlatans seeking to lead, and then perhaps to re-lead, nations of, say, 330.6 million people.

I’ve been preaching this to my writing students and to myself for years.  (Note: Not the faux leading part). A philosophical truth might not be reliable, but certainly YOUR truth is.  How can it not be if you’re truly being honest with yourself?

Also important

If this sounds a little pretentious, well…that’s absolutely correct!  You can’t have deep thoughts about anything without being a little full of YOURSELF.

Objectively speaking.

This seems an excellent way to approach watching the infinitely watchable, fascinating, occasionally infuriating and impressively resonant new Netflix film, Mank. 

Cheers to Mank

Directed by David Fincher and first written by his late journalist father Jack Fincher almost 30 years ago, Mank purports to tell the origin story of what many critics still see as the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane.

Long credited as the brilliant auteur work of its then 24 year-old director, producer, star and co-writer, Orson Welles, Mank tells us a different story.

It is the story of how Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, an alcoholic and affably brilliant rogue/mensch among his fellow ink-stained wretches, came to write (Note: Well, actually dictate) the classic screenplay, to a secretary without Welles anywhere in sight while bedridden in a full leg cast.

More to the point, it is the story of how Kane’s “fictionalized” anti-hero, publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane, was based on Mankiewicz’s volatile friendships with and remembrances of William Randolph Hearst, the real publishing magnate, and his longtime mistress and muse, the actress/singer/dancer Marion Davies.

… played by almost shoe-in for an Oscar nod, Amanda Seyfried

The elder Fincher wrote his screenplay all that time ago as a “retirement project” and based large chunks of it on Pauline Kael’s famous two-part 1971 New Yorker essay, Raising Kane, which itself purported to be the true story behind the making of the classic film, with great anecdotes s and scads of research to back it up.

However, over the years much of that article has, if not disproven, then heavily debated, though in no way does that make what’s contained in it any less true or false.  As Ms. Kael herself admits at one point in her extremely long, yet never thoroughly engrossing account: 

When you write straight reporting about the motion-picture business, you’re writing satire.

It’s a good point

In fairness to Ms. Kael, because who would dare not be, (Note: Certainly not myself) in this quote she was referring not so much to the facts of her story but to the relationships between the suits/studios and the various creative artists (nee, the crazies, as she admiringly puts it) who worked for them and, often, were smarter than they were.

Of course, smarter does not necessarily mean savvier or better able to function in the real world.  What Mank, Ms. Kael, both Finchers (Jack AND David), and even Orson Welles himself, all too painfully knew and demonstrate in their work is that you can have all the talent, best answers and most amusing bon mots in the world, and still not wind up on top.

On the other hand, neither will anyone else.  Because NO ONE ultimately gets to be in the number one slot, whatever one deems that to be, all of the time. It depends where you enter their story and what you see as the end to that particular motion picture.

Which is certainly the case for Mr. Kane

Legend has always had it that brash boy wonder egomaniac Welles was destroyed by the Hollywood moguls who resented his talent even as they fed on it. 

But what we learn in Mank is that even though the former might have been true what also might be is that Welles’ ego was so large that even directing, producing and starring in Citizen Kane wasn’t enough for him.  He demanded and ultimately received co-writing credit on a film in which he never wrote a word. 

Conversely, Mank also lets us know that no writer really does it alone.  Despite all the public denials in the world, legendary scribes like Mankiewicz, and even we lesser ones, WILL pilfer our truths from ANYONE while swearing up and down to EVERYONE else that it’s merely our imaginations that are Just. That. Good.

Truth bombs

That’s what Mankiewicz (Note: Mank to his friends, most notably Marion Davies) did with the Kane/Hearst story, according to the Finchers, or at least according to the film they’ve just made about it.

In fact, his real life remembrances of Hearst and Davies, not to mention those of Hollywood moguls like Louis B. Mayer and Irving J. Thalberg, are the most intriguing sections of the Mank story.

We watch as he parties with them, works with them, gets sloppy drunk on their liquor, and gambles away the overly generous paychecks they offer, in part only for the mere presence of his wit and wisdom.

.. and drink he does

We also watch as he grows intellectually, morally and finally physically disgusted by who he realizes, in the events leading up to World War II, these people and himself truly are.  Yet by this time it’s far too late to do much of anything lasting about it except for drinking.  Or so he thinks.  Until Orson Welles enters his life.

Which does not mean he ever stops drinking.  It only means that in either a blatant, or pained act of revenge and/or justice, he can finally start writing.  Again. 

Don Draper would approve

Like all Hollywood biopics, or historical stories based on real-life people and/or events, much will be made on what in Mank is false or simply approximates the truth.

But that’s an unanswerable, losing proposition and entirely misses the point of the film and the thousands of stories like it.

Anything may or may not seem real onscreen, on the stage or in the pages of a book or even newspaper, but the fact is that none of it absolutely is.

It’s how those facts are arranged, and what they tell us about ourselves, the characters we’re watching and reading, AND the folks who made them up.

That’s where the real truth lies, if there is any to be had at all.

If Only You Could Save Me – Adryon de León (from Mank soundtrack)

So Long, Dear Friend

The death of Valerie Harper this week got me to thinking about TV characters and the people who love them.

This is Us.

You see what I did there.  Even in writing about television a TV reference sneaks in.

For those too young to remember, Valerie Harper played Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Richards’s talky, funny, Jewish best friend forever neighbor on the famed Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s.  She was so popular she was later spun off as the star of her own show, Rhoda, where she was given a fuller life, less catastrophic dates and, finally, a hunky man who became her husband in one of the highest rated episodes on TV at the time.

Picture Perfect

Of course, television being what it was/is, she eventually had to get divorced (Note: for no good reason, in my opinion) so the whole cycle of jovial unhappiness could begin again.

I grew up with Rhoda and she meant a lot to me, mostly because I knew her.  In the seventies there were 0.0 young Jewish New Yorkers on hit television shows and certainly none as instantly recognizable and human as Rhoda.  We all not only knew her, we were her on any given day.

And who wouldn’t want to be?

The head scarves alone!

Rhoda joked about her life being a mess but she wore vibrant colors, had perfect one-liners for every occasion and was smart.  Moreover, she was a survivor.  You always knew Rhoda would be okay and even if you couldn’t literally be her or have her physically in your life you wanted her to at least be in your living room or bedroom or wherever you watched television, with you, whenever possible.

Much of this was due to Valerie Harper’s ability to embody a well-written sitcom role, take her beyond the laughs and make her feel real.  It was just impossible to believe that in real-life she wasn’t Jewish, didn’t speak with a trace of a New York accent and had never appeared in a TV comedy before she became Rhoda.  But she wasn’t, she didn’t and she never had.

Yes way! #acting

Certainly, you don’t have to be a Jewish New Yorker to play one but back in the 1970s, and even now, many performers become so obsessed with playing us that they get the accent and the mannerisms exactly right to the point where they are not playing anything else.   They (nee we) become wawking, tawking hand-waving neurotics ready to mow down anything and anyone that gets in our way.

Okay, sure, we are all of that.  (Note: See Larry David on any given day, even though he long ago transplanted to L.A.).  But there are times when we also do color outside our given lines.  Rhoda always did that and without a very special episode where a beloved relative gets hit by a car and she has to deal with it seriously.  Or one where she’s chastised by everyone around her for making a bad joke about the accident. (Note: See Larry David again).

See? Relatable.

Of course, this phenomenon stretches across all ethnic, sexual and religious lines.  As a gay man I’ve cringed, ranted and left the room numerous times over the years as some straight actor badly pretended he was a certain type of homosexual male and then went on to win an award for said performance.

What? Who? #shade

Name your minority group and I bet you could, too.

Meaning, we all need our Rhodas.

Luckily times have changed and, with it, the level of writing, especially on what is now broadly considered to be contemporary television.   Given where cable and streaming series have taken us, it is not unusual in these times for many actors to transcend their actual selves and portray believable niche characters that bear little relation to whom they truly are in real life.

But they exist in a 2019 world where the roles are a lot deeper and niche is the new…Black? Asian? Jewish? Gay? Hispanic?

…or if you’re Andre Braugher: Black, Gay, and a Police Captain for the NYPD

It is also a world where, ironically, the brilliant work Valerie Harper did might today almost be required to be done by a New York, Jewish actress.  See if that gets you to thinking a whole host of non-PC as well as PC thoughts.

This is exactly the point where, for me, television comes in handy.  Every time things get too heavy or confusing in my life I know l can feel comfort in being able to wander onto the couch – or if it’s really bad, a bed – and spend minutes or hours with a whole host of non-existent people who, in those moments, are as real to me as anyone I’ve ever met.  By my count over the years:

Lucy Ricardo’s determination made show business not seem all that bad.

 Murphy Brown allowed me to hold out hope that in the end journalism would get the last  laugh, and word.

Let’s just not talk about the reboot, OK?

 Olivia Benson on the street reinforced to me that on balance there is someone to protect those of us who somehow managed to survive against all odds.

 Don Draper shamed me back to the gym for fear we (or the actor playing him) happen to meet on a busy NYC street (or preferably empty stuck elevator) during one of my yearly trips.

working on my time machine right now

Walter White scared me into always protecting myself by reminding me there can still be great danger around the corner because anyone could break bad.  

Liz Lemon made me feel sane and well adjusted, by comparison.

Jack Pearson helped me imagine a world where I really did want to spend time with every member of my extended family, and

Midge Maisel made me laugh, cringe and sometimes cry at seeing all of my dead relatives and their friends on the small screen in ways that I could never have imagined in the days when I first met Rhoda.

What is it about funny ladies in good headwear?

RIP good friend.

I will still miss you even though I can see you tomorrow and every day of the week for the rest of my life.

Rhoda Opening / Closing Credits Season 1