Oscars: David Fincher's Netflix Pic 'Mank' Shoots to Front of Race

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Courtesy of Netflix

A full decade after he and his film The Social Network were robbed of Oscars, David Fincher is back with another first-rate production that might well reach the heights of recognition his earlier film did not: Mank, a dramedy — shot in the style and performed in the tone of a 1940s movie — about the oft-debated origin story of the 1941 film that most cineastes consider the greatest ever made, Citizen Kane.

Mank, which stars Oscar winner Gary Oldman as title character Herman J. Mankiewicz, the noted screenwriter, wit and drunk who was credited with co-writing Kane, screened for pundits on Thursday night, will receive a limited theatrical release on Nov. 13 and will drop on Netflix on Dec. 4. In this most unusual award season, it could become the first Netflix-distributed film ever awarded the top Oscar.

The streamer, which also has Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 in the mix, is believed to have come very close to a best pic win two years ago for another black-and-white film, Roma, which, being subtitled and starless, was a much tougher sell than a movie about the movies. Indeed, showbiz people love to celebrate showbiz stories, as demonstrated over just the past decade by the Academy's recognition of The Artist, Argo and Birdman, and, to a lesser extent, My Week with Marilyn, Florence Foster Jenkins, La La LandBohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is BornJudy, Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

In the view of this film history obsessive, Mank — which even features a cameo of Oscar itself — is the most historically detailed and accurate movie ever made about old Hollywood. Indeed, it is faithful not only to major historical events like the heated 1934 California gubernatorial race that pitted Republican Frank Merriam against Socialist-turned-Democrat Upton Sinclair and divided Hollywood — and for which, connecting the past to the present, some studio titans created and disseminated "fake news" — but even to minutiae like the Marx brothers grilling hot dogs in Irving Thalberg's office fireplace; Lionel Barrymore defending Louis B. Mayer when the latter asked MGM employees to take a 50 percent salary cut; and the actress Marion Davies, through the good graces of her much older lover, the media magnate William Randolph Hearst, possessing what was essentially the first movie star trailer.

Credit for this apparently goes to Jack Fincher, David's father, who, after a long career as a magazine writer, wrote Mank's screenplay at the urging of and in consultation with his son, and then died in 2003.

He — and/or the director and/or producer Eric Roth, who reportedly polished the long-dormant script — also sprinkle in references that may resonate with those who are intimately familiar with Kane. For instance (minor spoiler alerts), Mankiewicz, a one-time friend of Hearst, starts out at Hearst's massive San Simeon dinner table seated right beside Hearst, but over time winds up further away from him, which is echoed in Kane's breakfast table montage conveying Charles Foster Kane growing apart from his first wife. Mankiewicz's secretary in the desert (played by Lily Collins) is named Mrs. Alexander, which may have inspired the name of Kane's second wife, Susan Alexander. And Welles throws a room-destroying tantrum that offers shades of one that Kane throws in Kane.

But, whether or not Mank is appreciated on that level, it will be for the fascinating performances of its cast — especially Oldman, who appears in virtually every scene of the film — who were tasked with acting as if they, like the people of the era portrayed in the film, had no familiarity with the Method style which was popularized in the Fifties by Marlon Brando and endures to this day.

Some may note that Mankiewicz was 43 at the time depicted in the film, whereas Oldman was 61 when it was shot. But if one knows anything about Mank, it is that he smoked and drank so much that he always looked much older than he was — see this pic of him out in Victorville, Cal., where he was sent by Orson Welles, a "boy wonder" who with Kane was making his film directing debut at just 25, and who initially convinced Mank to ghostwrite the script in the desert, away from booze and distraction (or so Welles thought).

After Oldman's, the next most substantial part belongs to Amanda Seyfried, who plays Davies. The 34-year-old, who has sometimes been dismissed as a pretty but lightweight actress, ironically does her most heavyweight work as Davies, who actually had a lot more depth than the pretty but lightweight actress inspired by her in Kane, Susan Alexander. (Indeed, one of the great mysteries of Kane has always been why Mank, who was close to Davies, a fellow boozer, would do her so dirty.) Seyfried has a real shot at landing the first nom of her career, in the supporting actress category.

As for the rest of the large ensemble, some look more like the people they are portraying (especially Charles Dance as Hearst and Toby Leonard Moore as David O. Selznick) than others (Tom Burke as Welles, Arliss Howard as Mayer and Ferdinand Kingsley as Irving Thalberg), but all are effective (Burke sounds just like Welles and Howard is hilarious defending mothers and crying on a dime as Mayer famously did), if also lacking enough screen time to attract individual recognition.

While the almost certain backing of the Academy's actors branch (its largest), directors branch and writers branch will be a big boon for Mank, the truth is the film is likely to resonate with voters across the board. Additional recognition is likely for rookie Erik Messerschmidt's beautiful black-and-white cinematography; Trish Summerville's lovely period costumes; Donald Graham Burt's production design; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score; Ren Klyce's sound design, which captures the crackling sound of old movies; Kirk Baxter's stylized film editing; and the list goes on.

Will the film play as well with the general public as with Hollywood insiders? No. But remember, few recent best picture winners did. The Oscars ceremony should not be mistaken for the People's Choice Awards. It is Hollywood's party for itself — and, ironically, Mank will probably do better at it than Kane itself did.