“I seem to become more and more of a rat in the trap of my own construction,” reads the title card at the end of David Fincher’s new film about the oft-forgotten screenwriter who penned Citizen Kane, “a trap that I regularly repair whenever there seems to be danger of some opening that will enable me to escape.”
On March 5, 1953, fifty-five-year-old Herman J. Mankiewicz died of uremic poisoning. His blood had been contaminated with the excrement his failing kidneys could no longer dispose of. Causes of the condition are manifold, but in Mankiewicz’s case, there could only be one culprit: his raging alcoholism.
If you dive into Mank hoping to discover the untold truth about how Citizen Kane came into existence, be prepared for disappointment. As David Thomson notes in a review he wrote for The Guardian, this Netflix drama does not shed much light on the genesis of what has since become known as the “great American movie.”
What it can offer instead is a subtle and surprisingly sophisticated character study of a charismatic outsider-artist whose unmatched way with words allowed him to survive the likes of Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst, only to fall prey to his own inner demons in the bitter end.
The Organ Grinder’s Monkey
Parts of Mank present the backlots of Golden Age Hollywood as vice city, a place where work and play are all but indistinguishable, and devoted careerists—not without the deranged machismo that floods Stratton Oakmont in The Wolf of Wall Street—peer-pressure each other into committing acts of greater and greater debauchery.
From the sole scribe in Mank’s suit-filled writers room, naked save for the colorful tassels dangling from her nipples, to the cabinets of Cuban cigars which are pulled open during every pitch meeting, the pleasures that these men pursue are evidently, perhaps even pathologically, linked to their desire to use, abuse, and enjoy power.
But while many innocent young lads—including Miss Marion Davies’ baby-faced cousin, Charles Lederer—didn’t pick up the habit until they arrived at the proverbial lion’s den, Mank had managed turned himself into a more-dysfunctional-than-functional alcoholic long before he traveled west to the City of Angels.
In her controversial essay Raising Kane, Pauline Kael describes how a wasted Mank, back when he was still a theater critic on the east coast, stumbled into the Times office building late at night with the intention of reviewing a play he’d just watched, only to drop his head on the typewriter, forcing his colleagues to phone “Poor Sara.”
Captain Ahab and the White Whale
“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. Dorothy Parker joked she would “rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” and Brendan Behan tellingly referred to himself as a “drinker with a writing problem.” Much like Mank, these writers relied on wit to downplay the seriousness of their addictions.
While some took to jesting, others analyzed their proclivity to drinking with the same kind of fearless and thorough scrutiny they usually applied to their own fiction. The English poet Blake Morrison, for example, was convinced that he and his fellow artists used liquor to “bury the past, obliterate the present, or escape the future.”
True or not, traces of his theory can be found in Mank. Confined to his ranch in the Mojave Desert, our writer snags his first couple of spirits from Houseman’s stash after he bombards his secretary with biting anti-war rhetoric just when she, unbeknownst to him, has learned her husband’s ship was torpedoed by the Nazis, half a world away.
In another scene, Mank downs glass after glass at a GOP election party to muddle his awareness of the fact that the race’s socialist candidate, Upton Sinclair, was going to lose the battle for California’s soul to Republican Merriam Webster thanks to fraudulent video campaigns that his progressive colleagues had been paid to put together.
Tywin Lannister’s Jester
In her book, The Trip to Echo Spring, journalist Olivia Laing studied the private lives of six alcoholic writers, from Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner to Tennessee Williams and John Cheever, and discovered that each of these men had been haunted by deeply-rooted feelings of inadequacy.
For Williams, this inadequacy stemmed from the sexual frustration he experienced trying to balance his private homosexual life with his heteronormative public one. For Cheever, it was the anxiety surrounding his lower social standing, which made him feel out-of-place with the elites that ran the literary establishment of his time.
Although Fincher sometimes portrays Mank as a Henry Hill-type figure, —an insider who, over the course of long tracking shots, exchanges quips with just about every inhabitant of this dense, chaotic little world—he is, as we soon discover, not nearly as authoritative as the confident tone of his voice would have us believe.
People like him; they just don’t respect him. Rival screenwriters refer to him as a “hack,” someone that produces cheap stories to attract eyes, not touch hearts. When provoked, his superiors liken him to a circus animal while Welles—after being cornered for perhaps the first and only time in his life—calls him a “washed-up alcoholic.”
According to Mason Currey, who at one point ran a column on the weird working habits of literary giants for Slate, most alcoholic writers drank during work hours not because they chased after some kind of creative boost, but because they were so dependent on alcohol their bodies would shut down without it.
On a chemical level, alcohol acts as a nervous depressant, affecting parts of the brain that generate feelings of fear and judgment. This reduction in mental faculty works wonders on neurotics, though the relief it provides is not without its cost, that being the post-hungover existential angst commonly known as booze blues.
While the blues is a pain in the ass even for casual drinkers, it can be borderline intolerable for alcoholics, not only because its strength is directly proportional to the amount of booze consumed the previous night, but also because it’s most easily countered by consuming an even greater amount of alcohol.
Conceptually-speaking, the situation that results from this negative feedback loop is pretty similar to that rat trap which Mank once described. Whether or not he was directly referencing his addiction, I don’t know. However, his dependency on alcohol certainly forced him to walk into ever-increasing degrees of conflict.
Although alcohol may affect us in similar ways as far as simple chemistry is concerned, the ramifications it can have on somebody’s mental health are, of course, unique to each and every individual. I also feel I should stress that I have no intention of reducing Mank’s experience into a textbook case example.
Early on in Citizen Kane, the journalist assigned to investigate the tycoon’s sudden death comes face to face with an inconvenient truth: that it is virtually impossible to sum up a man’s life in a single word. Needless to say, a two-hour film or a thousand-word article aren’t likely to get the job done either.
Since the film’s premier nearly eighty years ago, this principle has most often been applied to Welles, a prodigy and wunderkind whose impeccable showmanship, undeniable stage presence and impressive legacy never failed to convince audiences of the infinite depth hidden inside that dynamic personality of his.
Now, thanks to Mank, the same can finally be said about Herman Makiewicz, a writer who, unlike his bombastic boy-wonder co-author, possessed some demons that desperately needed exorcising, but which stayed with him till the end. Had they not, would Mank have written more Kanes, or none at all? You be the judge.