Mank

Herman Mankiewicz at work in bed

 

Mank is the story, well known to film nerds, of the writing of Citizen Kane, for many the greatest film ever made. More exactly it’s two stories, one about writer Herman Mankiewicz dishing the dirt on press baron William Randolph Hearst (his model for press baron Charles Foster Kane) and his paramour Marion Davies, the other about director Orson Welles doing Mankiewicz out of a screen credit for his work.

Inserted almost as an afterthought is yet another story – about the socialist Upton Sinclair and his campaign to become governor of California, and how his guns were spiked by the movie studios.

Installed at a secluded cabin in the Mojave desert with a typewriter, a secretary (Lily Collins) and a minder in the shape of actor and Welles associate John Houseman (Sam Troughton), the alcoholic Mankiewicz is dried out and put under strict orders to churn out the screenplay, which Welles will later polish into the finished product. Early pages are “a bit of a jumble… a hodgepodge of talky episodes,” Houseman complains to Mank, handily nailing a problem with this film. It’s the screenplay, by Jack Fincher, father of director David. It’s verbose, explicatory and vaingloriously constructed in Citizen Kane fashion as a series of flashbacks setting out to explain the character of Mankiewicz.

This is a tragedy because this film is clearly a labour of love, gorgeously crafted by Fincher and a production team including DP Erik Messerschmidt and musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But the screenplay’s tin ear for dialogue starts to drag all the film’s other artistic decisions into question, most obviously David Fincher’s decision to shoot the thing as a facsimile of a black and white 1940s movie, down to crackly atmospherics on the soundtrack and visual artefacts on the “film stock”. It should be immersive; it seems just cute.

As, in flashback, we follow Mank’s glittering, booze-swamped trail through Hollywood, and his cagey relationship with Hearst (Charles Dance), Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and the mogul’s court, there’s plenty to like for lovers of old Hollywood stories – about Louis B Meyer, Irving Thalberg, Ben Hecht et al – though I suspect that the sort of people who like these sort of stories will have heard the ones we get here. The one, for example, about the Marx brothers mischievously grilling hot dogs in Irving Thalberg’s office because they were sick of his no-shows.

Lily Collins comes out of it best, as the prim but flinty British secretary delegated to keep Mankiewicz’s nose to the typewriter while he dries out and knocks out the screenplay for Kane in record time. Gary Oldman as Mank you can’t fault really, but it’s difficult to tell whether his performance is too mannered for the film or the film is too mannered for his performance. Or, again, it could just be the dialogue – Mank is funny, the screenplay keeps insisting, and while there is the odd zinger, much of his “wit” is baffling. Seeing a giraffe on Hearst’s estate while out walking with Marion, Mank demonstrates his rapier repartee by observing drily, “Now that’s sticking your neck out.” Both Oldman and Seyfried look a little embarrased.

 

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in full party gear
Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) at one of Hearst’s glittering parties

 

It is a film full of unquestionably fantastic performances in minor roles – Arliss Howard is superb as the constipated conservative studio boss Louis B Meyer, Ferdinand Kingsley similarly great as Thalberg, the “Boy Wonder” head of production at MGM, and Tom Burke is persuasive in a tricky role as a silky (still young, still slim) Orson Welles. But Jack Fincher’s screenplay is most interested in the treacherous Mankiewicz’s relationship with Marion Davies – a talentless bimbo if you go along with the Citizen Kane view of Charles Foster Kane’s mistress; a sensitive, clever and wise woman devoted to her older husband and aware of the mercenary nature of Hollywood in Mank. Along with Collins, Amanda Seyfried comes out of this film best, and is pretty much perfect as Davies too.

The fact that Welles in real life denied that Marion Davies was his model for Kane’s wife, Susan, and that there were many other possible inspirations for Charles Foster Kane, that’s not addressed at all. Which somewhat torpedoes some of the claims that this film tells it like it is.

The political afterthought – the Depression and failure of capitalism, growing unrest on the streets, the rise of socialism, Upton Sinclair and the conniving of the studios to neutralise him – deserves a film all of its own but ends up shoehorned into a space already tied up in knots trying to tell other stories. Bizarrely, contrarily, it’s actually the most interesting bit of it all – “fake news” and all that.

Fincher at his best, Fight Club or The Social Network, is trenchant, urgent and playful, but Mank has none of those qualities. For all its huge budget, its costumes (“gowns” say the credits, which also prefers “screen play” to “screenplay”) and its pained attention to detail, Mank comes across like three or even four decent B movies fighting for air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Lovelace

Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace in Lovelace

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

12 March

 

Ron Jeremy born, 1953

On this day in 1953, the porn star Ronald Jeremy Hyatt was born, in Queens, New York, to a physicist father and a book editor mother. He studied acting and education at Queens College and City University, New York, and went on to become a teacher in special education. His heart lay in acting, so he left teaching to pursue his dream, working in several Off-Broadway productions before starting to supplement his income in porn movies after a girlfriend sent a photo of him to Playgirl. In the days before Viagra, Ron gained a renown for always being able to perform. This, and his work ethic – he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for most appearances in adult films – gained him the sobriquet “The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz”, also the title of his autobiography. He got his other nickname, “the hedgehog”, for other reasons.

 

 

 

Lovelace (2013, dir: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman)

If there is a porn industry fairytale myth, then Lovelace tells it – how the nice sweet virginal girl from nowheresville became a rampaging star in the industry. The film that made Linda Lovelace famous – Deep Throat – told the same story, about a sweet young thing who just happened to have a clitoris in her throat. Hey ho. Lovelace follows Linda (Amanda Seyfried) from chaste Catholic girl from Yonkers, New York, to pole position in the porn biz, telling us how she was picked up by a dastardly svengali (Peter Sarsgaard), groomed by various cheeses in the biz (special mention to Chris Noth as a crappy producer and Hank Azaria as a crappy director), treated fairly badly, then treated badly some more. Lovelace was the first porn star to cross over and become mainstream enough for Bob Hope to use her as material in his primetime TV routines, and the film has a lock on the look and feel of the era – late 60s/early 70s – catching the clothes, decor and attitudes like a film that’s watched Boogie Nights, which this film is obviously indebted to. If Lovelace the woman eventually called foul, and spent the latter half of her life insisting that she’d been largely hoodwinked into becoming the most visible and famous porn star who had ever existed, then the film essentially calls foul on the 1970s, pointing out that sexual permissiveness was a great thing for men, but lousy for women. Linda’s protestations were always suspect – anything to make a buck, I always thought. And so are the film’s, which claims to be following Linda Lovelace the human being. But though it lists her in the closing credits by her married name, Linda Marchiano, the film is interested in her only as Lovelace the porn star. Like the plot in a porn film, this aspect of the film is bogus. But it’s pretty good bogus: Seyfried is a wide-eyed wonder as Linda, the support cast is uniformly excellent, and co-directors Epstein and Friedman pull out all the film-school how-to books reconstructing 1970s shooting styles – the dolly shots, filtration, lenses and so on. And did I mention that Seyfried takes her clothes off a lot?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Evokes the 1970s of oysters, cocaine and champagne
  • An unrecognisable Sharon Stone as Linda Lovelace’s mother
  • James Franco just about getting away with it as Hugh Hefner
  • Seyfried’s go-for-broke performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Conspiracy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Lovelace

Peter Sarsgaard and Amanda Seyfried in Lovelace

 

 

Amanda Seyfried has a spectacular rack and, gents, you get plenty of it in this biopic about Linda Lovelace the 1970s deep throat queen who unwittingly did more than most to make porn legit. Amanda Seyfried… rack… unwittingly. Those are the key words from that sentence and of this film, a well made, deeply period piece that would have us believe that it’s on the side of the unwitting, naïve Bronx Catholic girl born Linda Boreman – who went on to become the star of Deep Throat, the first porn film to screen in mainstream theatres – while all the time devoting 90 per cent of screen time, and 99 per cent of dramatic weight to her as Lovelace.

I point this out not to wag the finger, but because the film is doing what Lovelace herself did – after leaving porn she became a loud voice against the industry, a campaigner whose “yes I did” would swing to “no I didn’t” so frequently that you wonder whether she might not have cared either way, just so long as she was turning a buck.

The plot? Well, it’s Boogie Nights in all but name – the money, the guys in charge, the ostentatious consumption, the cocaine. That and the Gretchen Moll Betty Page film – nice young girl from nowhere is inveigled into doing all manner of bad things by all manner of bad people. Chief baddie in the Lovelace story is Chuck Traynor, the sleaze who bewitched Lovelace into appearing in her first porn film, where it was discovered that she had a huge gift for fellatio, a poor gag reflex. Peter Sarsgaard plays Traynor, and he’s done so many similar roles now that he knows how to pitch bad that it’s just about sympathetic – this guy is just a bit adrift morally, rather than out and out wicked.

In fact one of the many nice things to be said about this movie is how good Seyfried’s support actors are – Chris Noth finally does something to write home about as a shitty movie producer; Hank Azaria does a Hank Azaria turn as a flaky director; James Franco is just about believable as a young Hugh Hefner. Special mention must also be made of Sharon Stone as Lovelace’s strict, god-fearing mother. Stone is so believable as a woman in the grip of a rigid faith, yet struggling with motherlove that it was only when the credits finally came up that an entire film of “who is that?” was finally laid to rest.

As with many films right now, Lovelace sets about settling scores with the 1970s, with the boomers, with the let-it-all-hang-out philosophy and how that meant a rough deal for women, more often than not. A generation ago there would have been no truck with the character of Lovelace’s mother. Here, though she’s not exactly carried shoulder high for a lap of honour, her brand of morality does get a sympathetic hearing.

As for the rest of it, it’s a symphony of exquisite period production design, some very funny jokes at the expense of 1970s porn, Seyfried’s frequently unclothed body and those big, big eyes of hers, brimming with liquid naiveté. Seyfried is really quite remarkable as Lovelace. But in spite of Seyfried’s stamp on this, and the film’s title, it isn’t actually about Linda at all. On this it really is, foolishly, following the line she took in her mea non culpa post-porn autobiography, Ordeal. According to Ordeal, Linda wasn’t the agent of her own fortune or misfortune. In fact she wasn’t any sort of agent at all. So who’s the film about then?

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013