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MOVIES

‘Mank’: The forgotten genius of Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz

Herman J. Mankiewicz.
Herman J. Mankiewicz.John Springer

There are a lot of famous names in “Mank.” The David Fincher-directed biopic that’s currently at the Kendall Square Cinema. It starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 4. Characters include Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, and, playing the piano at a party at Hearst’s estate San Simeon, Charlie Chaplin.

All right, Welles was the great movie genius, “Citizen Kane” and all that. Hearst was the Rupert Murdoch of his day, but even more so. Mayer was the second “M” in MGM. Chaplin was the Little Tramp. But who or what is a “Mank”?

That’s the most important name in the movie — since it belongs to the title character. That would be Herman J. Mankiewicz, universally known as Mank. Gary Oldman plays him. You likely haven’t heard of him, unless you’re a big fan of Studio Era Hollywood and/or watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies. TCM will figure again, down below.

So why make a movie about him, especially a movie that’s gotten such rave reviews and generated so much Oscar talk?

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Born in 1897, Mankiewicz has two claims to literary fame. Both are considerable, if not equally so. The first is that he and Welles share the screenwriting credit for “Kane” (1941). So much of the wonder of “Kane” is directly owing to Welles — its dash, its daring, its energy, its visual style, its revolutionary use of sound, its phenomenal technical assurance (the list goes on) — but no small part of that wonder is Mankiewicz’s truly inspired narrative structure.

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in "Mank."
Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in "Mank." Nikolai Loveikis/Associated Press

You said two claims.

Mankiewicz wrote the most famous telegram in Hollywood history.

Excuse me?

While still in his 20s, Mankiewicz was highly successful as a journalist: Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, drama critic for The New York Times, drama critic for The New Yorker. His wit earned him a seat at the Algonquin Round Table. It also brought him out to Hollywood. He wired his friend Ben Hecht back in New York: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

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Okay, that is pretty great.

Right there you have the Mank style: hard-nosed hilarity and idiomatic expression, with an order of cynicism on the side. Early on in the movie, there’s a close-up of the telegram, though it’s seen so briefly you might miss it.

Someone who could write like that must have flourished in Hollywood.

Yes and no. Before “Kane,” Mankiewicz had a hand in more than 80 movies: producing, writing, script-doctoring. Often he was uncredited. That was true with the four most memorable titles he worked on in the ’30s: the Marx brothers’s “Monkey Business” (1931), “Horse Feathers” (1932), and “Duck Soup” (1933), all as producer, and “The Wizard of Oz" (1939).

Jack Haley as The Tin Man, Judy Garland as Dorothy, Ray Bolger as The Scarecrow, and Bert Lahr as The Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz."
Jack Haley as The Tin Man, Judy Garland as Dorothy, Ray Bolger as The Scarecrow, and Bert Lahr as The Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz."courtesy of Warner Bros. Home En

That’s quite a yes. The no?

Mankiewicz was his own worst enemy. If he’d been any more self-destructive, he’d have been illegal in at least 14 of the 48 states. He drank too much. He gambled too much. He was undiplomatic too much. “Mank” in no way stints on showing this side of him. “I’ve never not been fired,” he says in the movie. The combination of mournfulness and glee with which Oldman delivers the line rings very true.

Give an example of “undiplomatic too much.”

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“Mank” leaves out what may be the most famous one. Harry Cohn, who ran Columbia Pictures, announced once that he always knew whether or not a movie would be a hit. It depended on if he squirmed in his seat while he watched. He made this announcement in Mankiewicz’s presence. Big mistake. “Imagine,” Mank marveled, “the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!”

That’s a great line. Maybe they left it out because it was too crude.

No, there’s stronger language in “Mank.” That’s why it’s rated R. Which is funny, considering it’s such a family picture.

Excuse me again?

A family picture twice over, in fact.

Now you’ve really lost me.

Well, first, there’s the Fincher family. The late Jack Fincher, who wrote the script, is David Fincher’s father.

Frank Mankiewicz, son of Herman J. Mankiewicz, was Robert F. Kennedy's press secretary in 1968.
Frank Mankiewicz, son of Herman J. Mankiewicz, was Robert F. Kennedy's press secretary in 1968.AP

What’s the second family?

The Mankiewiczes, of course. A prominent character in the movie is Herman’s younger brother, Joe, played by Tom Pelphrey. Fincher gives him a very funny line about the Hecht telegram, “I hate to tell you, but anyone who can rub three words together gets one.” As a writer-director and producer, Joe would go on to supplant his brother in Hollywood history. He’s best-known for "All About Eve” (1950).

Herman’s son, Frank, was Robert F. Kennedy’s press secretary, in 1968, George McGovern’s campaign director, in 1972, and president of National Public Radio, from 1977-1983. And Frank’s son Ben is a host on TCM.

That’s quite a family.

Let’s not forget Herman’s wife, Sara — or as she’s frequently referred to in “Mank,” “poor Sara,” because of all she had to put up with. She’s played by Tuppence Middleton. Sara’s part of a rather sweet real-life coda to the story, one that’s not in the movie. Herman died in 1953. Twenty years later, John Houseman was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor, in “The Paper Chase” (1973). Houseman is another real-life character in “Mank,” keeping tabs on Herman for Welles as he works on the “Kane” script. Sam Troughton plays him. Houseman became fond of both Mankiewiczes. When his wife couldn’t make the Oscar ceremony, he brought Sara as his date.

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That’s a real Hollywood ending. Hard to top that.

Actually, the magic surrounding Mank being what it was, you can top it. Houseman won that night — just the way Mank had, three decades earlier. He and Welles shared the award, for best original screenplay. It was the only Oscar “Kane” won, despite having nine nominations.

Boy, Hollywood must have really hated Welles to have nearly shut out “Kane.”

Feared, perhaps, even more than hated, but yes. And that’s how much Hollywood loved Mank: For him, it would make an exception. Plus, it’s not exactly a bad script.


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.