The recent film Mank tells the story Herman Mankiewicz, known in Hollywood circles by his eponymous nickname, whose work as a screenwriter includes The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941). But it remains a matter of dispute how much of the latter script is Mankiewicz’s work, and how much is that of the film’s director and lead actor Orson Welles, whose name is much better remembered. As Jesse Tish writes, Mankiewicz’s frustration with this particular situation summed up his general dissatisfaction with his career:
“Millions are to be grabbed out here,” [in Hollywood, wrote Mank to the playwright Ben Hecht], “and your only competition is idiots.” [Such] invitations to “Eretz DeMille”—the land of Jewish-owned studios—hooked serious authors and playwrights. He was of their kind: success, for Mankiewicz, meant Broadway, not half credit on some blockbuster.
For Mank, everything was material, and not just for his future plays. In the 1930s, Mank haunted [William Randolph] Hearst’s lavish estate, gathering intel for future scripts (he would pour it all into Citizen Kane in 1940). He was also peddling a book, Twenty Years Among the Gentiles, chronicling his pith-helmeted adventures in Christian America. And he was drinking.
Being ignored and rebuffed, [as scriptwriters often were], had an upside: it fostered camaraderie among writers and inspired one thousand blistering jokes about studio heads. This class warfare—the mockers vs. the makhers—provides [Mank’s] best material.
Its mise-en-scène, that bustling 30s Hollywood, is beautifully rendered. It’s a Jewish Hollywood, familiar from Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own. (Virtually all the writers and producers are Jewish. The two Charlies, Lederer and MacArthur, are the token goyim, straining to get a word in.)