“You pick a fight with Willy, you are finished.”
But of course, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) didn’t actually pick a fight with publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst when he wrote (or co-wrote) Citizen Kane. It was headstrong director-cowriter Orson Welles who did that, no? He chose the subject, sold it to RKO, assembled the forces, poked at the hornet’s nest, etc. Mank was just the pithy writer-for-hire who created the structure and made the dialogue sing, and who later won a (shared) Best Screenplay Oscar for his troubles.
The just-posted Mank teaser is about the trials and tribulations of good old Mank and his frenemy Orson and their mutual antagonist Mr. Hearst….about a truly gifted screenwriter who wrote delicious dialogue and one of the greatest films of all time despite — aye, the rub — a close-to-suicidal drinking problem.
As played by Oldman, Mank is a bleary-eyed, chubby-faced consumer of spirits who stumbles around and occasionally falls down and does all the usual things that theatrically inclined alcoholics do. But — but! — he was as brilliant and heaven-sent as screenwriters come, and oh what a fine fellow when all the ledgers are balanced and the final checks have been cut.
I’m still expecting to do handstands over this thing, but my understanding or absorption of The Great Herman J. is about who he was as a man of prolific letters and visions…words, arias, screenplays…his typewritten soul. Teasers obviously have to be brief and succinct, and all this one does is convey the colorful but unfortunate fact that Mankiewicz was often in his cups.
Was he really this louche, this bleary, this soused? Speaking as a dedicated vodka-and-lemonade man in the mid ’90s and a slurpy Pinot Grigio guy in the aughts until my 3.20.12 vow of sobriety, and speaking also as the son of a witty, functioning alcoholic until the formidable James T. joined AA in ’75, my understanding of the disease is that drunks don’t flaunt it. They do everything they can, in fact, to hide it.
All that aside, nothing thrills me to the bone like a grade-A, 131-minute David Fincher film in the wings. And I love “coming to a screen near you.” Your TV screen, they mostly mean, as a limited theatrical release (which would thrill me to no end) is due for November, but only in the big towns.
The last seven months have been a saga of continual heartbreak, deflation and despair. I remain convinced that Mank will provide a brief respite.