Of Course You Knew I Was Going to Write About This One.
Mank (2020. Screenplay by Jack Fincher. 131 minutes)
You may remember that I have grumbled about streaming services, which charge us extra for getting what we had already paid for in movie theatres (remember them?) or as part of a cable subscription. Years ago my late wife set herself up with Amazon Prime so she could get free delivery on her on-line shopping. That made it possible to have Amazon Prime streaming at no extra cost. It was not until a couple of years ago I brought in my tech squad (my daughter who handles my finances and my granddaughter, a techie sound engineer) and they fixed me up with the streaming service. During the pandemic if I did not want to run one of my DVDs (remember them?), I could browse on Amazon Prime and find something. Even something new or newish.
As Netflix, through which I rent DVDs, began running new films on streaming and only much, much later on DVDs, I began to think I should sign up with their streaming service. When Mank came up only on Netflix streaming, I figured I had to get it, since I knew that you (and I) would want to know what I thought about Mank. So I am now browsing and streaming from Netflix as well as Amazon Prime. Which explains why this issue of “Understanding Screenwriting” is a double issue as I write about new films on both Amazon Prime and Netflix.
I only wish Mank was a better movie.
Mank, as you may know, is about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the legendary screenwriter of, among other films, Citizen Kane (1941). Mank was a well-known Hollywood character in the thirties and forties. Kane is his best-known work. After Kane, his career went downhill, and he died in 1953.
With the rise of the auteur theory, screenwriters were generally ignored, and Mankiewicz was ignored more than others. In the first edition of Gerald Mast’s 1971 book A Short History of the Movies, he is not mentioned at all. In the 1996 Sixth Edition, co-written by Bruce Kawin, Mank is at least mentioned once.
What happened between those editions is that in 1971 Pauline Kael wrote an essay called “Raising Kane,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in February 1971, and then was included in The Citizen Kane Book later in the same year. Kael’s 1967 essay on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had raised a few hackles for mentioning in detail that Robert Benton and David Newman’s screenplay had a lot to do with the impact of that film.
Those hackles were nothing compared with the furor that “Raising Kane” caused. Auteurists were upset that Kael spent so much time on Mankiewicz’s work on the screenplay, and devoted Wellsians were outraged, OUTRAGED I TELL YOU, about what they saw as an attack on the Great God Orson.
It never struck me when I first read Kael’s article that it is an attack on Welles. I have read it several times since, including just now before watching Mank, and if you read the essay all the way through, you will see that Kael gives Welles his due as both a director and actor. What she did not do is look into Welles’s contributions to the screenplay. As I told you in my book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film (1988) thirty years ago, and what is still true today, is that the best account of the creation of the script for Kane is in Robert Carringer’s classic 1985 book The Making of Citizen Kane, which lays out very nicely as much as could be determined from the existing records what Mank did on the script and what Welles did on the script. It helped that Carringer, unlike Kael, looked at all the drafts; there were seven in total.
The screenwriter of Mank is the late Jack Fincher. He was a journalist who retired in 1991. He thought about writing a screenplay, and his son David, who is now a director of Mank among others, suggested Jack do a script about Mank. David had read Kael’s essay in high school and thought Mank would make a good subject. (This background on the film and the Finchers is from an excellent interview of David done by Sydney Ladensohn Stern, whom you may remember wrote the great 2019 book on Herman and his brother Joe that I reviewed here. You can read her interview here.)
Over the years Jack did several drafts. His earliest drafts follow Kael, but David said that was not the movie he wanted to make. The script eventually evolved into a more general look at a screenwriter in Hollywood in the thirties and forties. Jack died in 2003 before David could get the film produced, and David and Eric Roth worked on revisions of the script but preserved Jack’s sole credit.
The business of Mank writing the first draft of Kane forms the framework for the flashbacks of Mank in Hollywood. Needless to say, this has once again outraged the Wellesians, who would obviously have preferred a film about how Welles took the first draft (the film says it was 327 pages long, but I have seen it and it is only, yes only, 325 pages; the second draft was over 400 pages) and turned it into a work of genius. But as mentioned, that is not what this movie is about. Welles is only a supporting character in this film.
Mank writing the first draft is history, but his suggestion to Irving Thalberg that MGM could make what turned into the short films attacking reformist Upton Sinclair when he ran for governor in 1934 is fiction. Well, this film is not the first project in either literature or film to put some fiction in with the facts, or vice versa. The problem I had is that it suggests that Mank was so upset by the fact he had suggested the anti-Sinclair commercials that it drove him to write Kane. That is a way too simplified version of Mank. Read Stern’s book for a better look.
I have a real problem with most of the characterizations in the film. Mank, his brother Joe, Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst, and Louis B. Mayer were much livelier characters than they appear here. I never met any of them, but I have talked to people who knew them, and I hardly recognized them in the film. Marion in particular was a much more freewheeling character than we see here. I know Netflix is making a big promotional effort to get the usually wonderful Amanda Seyfried an Oscar nomination, but look at Marion in Show People or The Patsy (both 1928) to get a better sense of what she was like.
Nunnally Johnson was great friend of Herman’s and the picture he painted for me captured more of what I would call the Mankiewicz twinkle than the also usually wonderful Gary Oldman does in the film. His brother Joe once sent me a letter when I asked for his comments on Nunnally for my book on him that had that Mankiewicz twinkle as he turned down my request. I also knew Joe’s son Tom at college and he definitely had the same family trait.
Yes, we do get some of the classic Mank-ism in the film, but they are badly handled at the script level. Early on in the film someone asks Mank how Sara was. Mank pretends to be baffled. The other person says, “Sara, your wife.” Mank says she is fine. The scene stops there. For it to work for an audience, you have to include Mank’s full rejoinder, “Oh, you mean Poor Sara. Everybody calls her Poor Sara, married to Herman Mankiewicz.” Toward the end of the film, Mank goes on a drunken rant in the great dining hall at San Simeon, Hearst’s castle. At the end he vomits and says to the crowd, “Don’t worry, the white wine came up with the fish.” That’s a legendary Mankism, but it did not happen at San Simeon, but at the home of Arthur Hornblow Jr., a producer of refined taste in matters of food and wine. Hearst, on the other hand, had ketchup bottles on the tables at San Simeon. I mention this because for several decades I used both stories as part of my five-joke introduction to Mank in my film history course lecture on Kane, and I know how much explanation and preparation those Mankisms need.
I suspect that part of the problem with the characterization in Mank comes not only from the script, but from David Fincher’s direction. He is one of those directors who shoots many, many, many takes. What can happen with that approach is that the actors get exhausted and lose their vitality. Since it happens to nearly all the actors in this film, it is likely Fincher’s fault.
Like Kael’s essay, the film stops when Mank finishes the first draft, but it puts material there that actually happened later. At the script level, there was no threat from Hearst. Mank, in one of his self-destructive moments, gave a copy of the first draft to his friend Charles Lederer, who happened to be Marion Davies’s nephew. The draft got to Hearst’s lawyers. In the UCLA archives is the copy of that draft with handwritten notes from Hearst’s lawyers. What struck me reading it in the early seventies is that the lawyers picked on all the little things, but missed the big ones. And nobody at that point objected to the way Marion was portrayed in the character of Susan Alexander.
The threats against the film came after the film was completed, and came as much from Hollywood as Hearst. Why? In the script, Susan Alexander is an adorable, sympathetic character. Welles cast Dorothy Comingore, a minor actress, whom Mank approved of. He told Welles, “She looks precisely like the image of a kitten we have been looking for.” But Welles directed her badly. In the scene the morning after her opera debut, he has her start at such a high emotional pitch so she has nowhere to go other than to scream. In a directing class I taught at Los Angeles City College, I often had people pick a scene from a film to do in class. I had twin sisters who were actresses, and one of them directed the other in that scene from Kane. They started the scene on a quiet note and built from there. It worked beautifully.
Hollywood loved Marion Davies. They were upset at how she had been portrayed in Kane, and they took it out on Welles, and rightly so.
Now, a compelling “what if?” One of the actresses Welles tested for the role of Susan was an RKO contract player. He didn’t hire her, but how would the course of film and television history been changed if Susan had been played by Lucille Ball?
Love in Bloom.
Sylvie’s Love (2020. Written by Eugene Ashe. 114 minutes)
I recently happened to be thinking about a woman I was in love with decades ago, as one does. That put me into a romantic mood, which you want to be in when you watch this movie.
As the title suggests, Sylvie’s Love is very much a love story, but what particularly impressed me about it that it is very good about the connection between love and real life. Sometimes they fit together and sometimes they don’t.
We first meet Sylvia and Robert in the early sixties. She is waiting for a friend to show up to use her second ticket for a concert at Town Hall in New York. Robert wanders by and it is clear they know each other. He uses the second ticket.
We flashback to their first meeting. Sylvie works in her father’s record store, although she’d much rather be watching sitcoms on television. Robert goes to work in the store. One thing leads to another and they are in love. Very much and we spend time watching them in love, Sylvie very reluctantly because she has a fiancé who is overseas in the military. Listen to the scene where Sylvie and her girlfriend talk indirectly about whether she and Robert have had sex. That’s about as far away from the dreaded “on the nose” dialogue as you can get.
Robert is a saxophone player and real life intrudes when he gets an opportunity to go with his quartet to Paris. He wants Sylvie to go with him, but she doesn’t want to go. They have a tearful goodbye, with all the usual dialogue involved. The, ah, one thing she did not get around to telling him is, well, yes, she’s pregnant. That’s the first half of the movie.
We then come back to them at the concert. She married her fiancé and is bringing up her and Robert’s child as though the kid is her fiance’s. Look at how late we find out what her now-husband knows and feels about this. She is also working for a producer of a television cooking show. The kind of jazz Robert loves is being killed off by rock music. As much as I love the romantic first half of the film, I almost like the second half more as Sylvie and Robert have to deal with the world they live in. The final scene is not as detailed as the rest of the film, and you may or may not be satisfied with it.
Oh, another point I suppose I should mention. All the major characters are Black. More about that later.
The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020. Written by Natalie Krinsky. 109 minutes)
What’s worse than a single manic, pixie, etc? How about three of them? This movie starts by introducing us to three roommates in New York City: Lucy, Amanda, and Nadine. They talk a mile a minute and never shut up. If you are a person who stops watching a movie in the first five minutes, you will be tempted with this one.
Don’t. Stick it out and shortly the film settles down into a good little indie film. The woman we follow most is Lucy, who loses her job at a fancy art gallery when her boyfriend arrives at a show with his ex-girlfriend, who is taller, smarter, and more gorgeous than Lucy. Lucy freaks out. Fortunately, Lucy is played by Geraldine Viswanathan, whom you may remember from Blockers (2018) and Bad Education (2020). Viswanathan is not very good at the hectic opening scenes, but once the script and the direction (Krinsky also directed) behave themselves, she is terrific.
Lucy eventually gets the idea of starting a Broken Hearts Gallery, where people can bring in to put on display mementos of past failed love affairs. This is an inventive idea, and Krinsky gets a lot out of it. Intercut are film interviews with people talking about what the display items mean to them. Most of the interviews are funny, but some are touching (sometimes while being funny) and some are just plain weird.
Eventually, the gallery has a big opening sponsored in part by the gallery Lucy used to work at. (That comes from a good quiet scene between Lucy and the gallery owner, played by Bernadette Peters. Viswanathan holds her own with Peters, no mean trick). There is at least one plot twist that does not make sense given what has happened, but it comes and goes so quickly you may not notice it, although of course, you will now that I have mentioned it. Krinsky in general is good at tying up the various loose ends, including some you did not know were loose ends.
Yes, several of the people in the film are persons of color. More about that later.
Same Old, Same Old.
Tenet (2020. Written by Christopher Nolan. 150 minutes)
One of the ongoing complaints I have had about Christopher Nolan’s movies is that there is very little characterization. You can see that in my reviews of Inception (2020) here, Interstellar (2014) here, and my general comments on Nolan in my additional chapter of FrameWork here.
Well, it is still a problem with Tenet. A couple of weeks before I watched it, I spent a couple of days watching two big action pictures, Mission Impossible:Ghost Protocol (2011) and Live Free or Die Hard (2007). In both of them there are a lot of interesting characters. As I noted in my review of the former, often the scenes with the team are more interesting than the scenes with Hunt/Cruise. In the latter, John McClane is baby-sitting a computer nerd so they make a nice odd couple, and they are dealing with a villain who has an interesting motivation for what he is doing. The stunts and action sequences work better in both of those films because we know what is at stake for those characters (and the fate of the world, if anybody cares, which we don’t so much in these kinds of pictures).
Nolan is depending in Tenet on really spectacular action sequences and many of them are. He is also playing around with time, which he loves to do. Here he is dealing with being able to reverse time. Sometimes, early in the film, it is clear what’s going on; in the middle, there is a sequence about trying to save Kat’s life that is mostly just confusing; at the end, the final battle is sort of clear. Given the basic storyline (the villain is putting together a bomb that will destroy the world), you don’t really need those time games. But Nolan is a director more than a writer, and you know how they are.
The lead character is played by a Black actor. More about that later.
Four Great (Black) Men.
One Night in Miami… (2020. Screenplay by Kemp Powers, based on his stage play. 114 minutes)
Los Angeles is a great theatre town.
I will give you a minute to catch your breath over that…ready?
Los Angeles is a better theatre town than New York City.
I will give you several minutes to catch your breath over that.
Now then. In New York, theatre is The Industry. In Los Angeles film and television are The Industry. For a good portion of the twentieth century, the demographic breakdown of Broadway theatre audiences was that they were 60% local (the tri-state area), and 40% tourist. Now it is reversed. The Broadway industry is making shows for the tourist trade and in some cases dumbing them down for that audience. That’s one reason Disney has had such success with their theatrical productions.
In normal times there are more theatre productions in Los Angeles than in New York. Yes, there is more bad theatre in L.A. than New York, because actors, writers, and directors are putting on a lot of vanity productions to capture the attention of the movie and television industry. But there are also writers and actors who jump at the chance to do material that film and television is not (yet) interested in.
Although a recent interview in the New York Times mentioned that the first Actors’ Equity production of Kemp Powers’s play One Night in Miami was in Delaware, the first actual production of it was at the Rogue Machine Theatre in Los Angeles in 2013. It is a very common occurrence for New York media to fail to mention that shows opening in New York may have premiered on the West Coast.
Although I am a huge theatre fan (at the time that play was on in L.A. my late wife and I had season ticket subscriptions to 5 local theatres, as well as seeing individual plays at other theatres), I missed the play in L.A. I have not read the play either, so I cannot give you a lengthy analysis of how Powers adapted the play into a screenplay, but some changes are obvious.
The play and the film are about a night in 1964 when Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, won the heavyweight boxing championship by beating Sonny Liston. After the fight he got together with Sam Cooke, the famous singer; Jim Brown, the NFL football star who was beginning to act in movies; and Malcolm X, the political activist. The major throughline of the film is that Malcolm is leaving the Nation of Islam because of the corruption he sees there, and wants Clay to join him. That’s a good line to hang the film on, because it gives everybody a chance to comment on the issue of being Black in America. Powers does not, thank God, simply make them into mouthpieces for particular points of view. He has made each of them distinct, multi-faceted characters, which gives the four actors playing the roles a lot to do.
I assume the play was a one-set play (the motel room where the men get together after the fight), but Powers begins the film with several scenes of each of the men in different situations. First, we get Clay losing to a British boxer the year before. Then we get Cooke singing at the Copacabana nightclub to an all-white audience who is not impressed with him (given what he is singing we are not surprised). We see Jim Brown visit a white man from his hometown who is very, very proud of Brown’s record in football. This is a great scene because we have no idea where it’s going until it gets there and smacks you in the face. There are other scenes before we get to the motel room, which I think slow the picture down, mainly because we really want to get to the good stuff.
Fortunately, the good stuff is terrific. Powers gives us a collection of varied views of race in America from several different people who play off each other. For example, Malcolm gives Cooke a hard time for playing for white audiences. Cooke points out that he owns his own record company. One of the songwriters had written a song that did all right, but then the Rolling Stones’ version was a huge hit. Malcolm thinks this makes his point, but Cooke points out the songwriter gets writers’ royalties from the Stones’ version, which made him rich. Powers balances the characters’ attitudes so that sometimes you think one of them is right, and then you think he is wrong. Ah, just like in real life.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020. Screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on the play by August Wilson. 94 minutes)
“I would like to take the words ‘open’ and ‘up’ and stomp on them. You can’t think about that.” That is George C. Wolf, the two-time Tony award-winning director and director of the film. He is quoted in the Los Angeles Times, and he is insistent that any “opening up” of a stage play for a film has to be in the service of the story. You got a sense from the previous item how Kemp Powers opened up One Night in Miami…
The play of Ma Rainey is set in a recording studio in Chicago in 1927. Here is how Santaigo-Hudson and Wolfe open this film:
We are in a dark woods. Two boys are running in the woods. We hear dogs barking. We are expecting a thriller. The two boys, both Black, come into an opening in the woods and join a crowd outside a tent. They are all going into the tent to hear Ma Rainey sing. We hear her sing and watch the audience, nearly all Black, react. But the audience reactions vary. Some are happy and bouncing with the music. Others seem to be booing her. Others seem unmoved. Is that simply that Wolfe has not worked to get the reactions he wanted, or that there is not a point to be made? It is not clear. It is also not clear why we get this scene, unlike the early scenes in Miami.
The play of Ma Rainey was an early play by August Wilson, the best American playwright of the past 50 years. It was the first of what was called the Century Cycle, a series of ten plays, each set in a specific decade of the 20th century. Ma Rainey is set in Chicago, but the other plays are all set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The characters in those nine have connections to each other in a variety of ways. You can see my more detailed take on Wilson in my item on the film of his best-known play Fences (2016), which you can read here.
In the play of Ma Rainey, she does not show up until half an hour into the play. I suspect one reason Santiago-Hudson and Wolfe have added the scene I described above is to get her on-screen sooner. The opening scenes of the play are in the recording studio as her band waits for her. Most of this has been condensed, and Santiago-Hudson has done a great job of keeping what we need to know and dropping the rest. We also get a sequence of Ma in a car accident, and a sequence of Levee, the trumpet player in the band, buying a new pair of shoes that play a critical role in the film.
All of these scenes are over-directed by Wolfe, who has only directed a few television movies and two features. The pacing in these scenes is pushed faster than Wilson (and Santiago-Hudson)’s dialogue would call for. Once we get all of the characters into the recording studio, Wolfe slows down the director to fit the rhythm of Wilson’s dialogue.
The director of Miami is actress Regina King, who has directed a lot of shows for television and she has a better sense of pace for the performers than Wolfe does. She also understands that what will make what she is doing a film is to get reaction shots of the various characters to what is going on. I think in her film Jim Brown may have fewer lines than the other characters, but King catches him in nice reactions to what the others are saying or doing. Denzell Washington does the same thing in his direction of Fences. Wolfe is more experienced at directing actors on stage, and he has many shots where he just watches the actors speaking the Wilson dialogue. You can see why, since they are given some great speeches. The film really begins to take off when Chadwick Boseman’s Levee tells what he saw happen when he was eight years old.
Ma Rainey is a very flamboyant character, but I think Wolfe lets Viola Davis go too far over the top. I suspect the performance would work much better on the stage than on film. King never lets her actors go that far. If Wolfe lets Davis go too far, he gets great performances from Boseman (boy, are we going to miss him) and the actors who play the members of Ma’s band.
As I mentioned in my review of Fences, one thing I love about Wilson’s plays is that they are about America, not just Black America. The same is true of many of the films in this column that have people of color in them. Sylvie and Robert in Sylvie’s Love have to deal with the reality of living in America. In that film, Robert has to deal with the music business and fans not wanting his kind of jazz, just as in Ma Rainey Levee is unable to convince the record producer to record his songs, which he thinks are a new kind of music audiences will love. The white record producer is not convinced. In Miami we get a varied look at Black men at different points in their lives and their careers in sports, the music business, and politics.
The writers of the films I have discussed here have told these stories not in slogans or speeches. In some of the films (Sylvie’s, Broken Hearts, Tenet) race is not a theme, and we may get so caught up in the stories and the characters that we don’t think about it. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; it means we are accepting the characters of color as human beings. In other films in this column (Ma Rainey, Miami), race is very much an issue, but if we get into the films, we accept those characters as well.
I am an elderly white guy, but I was hooked to greater or lesser degrees by all the films I dealt with in this column because the writers made the stories and characters impossible to not watch. The writers do not demonstrate textbook diversity, but true diversity.