Readers Write In #313: Mank, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the Real Magic of the Movies

Posted on December 16, 2020


(by Karthik Amarnath)

If there’s one kind of movies adored by Hollywood, it’s movies about Hollywood. David Fincher’s Mank, playing on Netflix, is the latest entry into this echelon of self indulgent cinema. Mank presents a questionable account of Herman Mankiewicz’s questionable screenwriting process, inspired by Upton Sinclair’s questionable media portrayal, which leads to Randolph Hearst’s questionable depiction as Charles Foster Kane. Pretense about pretense is the defining feature of the onanistic oeuvre that tugs at the very loins of Hollywood (aka the Oscars). A few decades from now, new generations of moviegoers (or moviecouchers or whatever breed it is that OTT will spawn) shouldn’t be surprised to see “Finch”, a movie about the Fincher father and son, and their making of Mank.

All this is not to say that Mank is an ordinary film. On the contrary, it has all the trappings of an Oscar-worthy Hollywood classic. An underdog story made with striking visual style. A seamless back and forth narrative that rivals both the masterful film at its root and a masterpiece of the film-maker at its helm. Add to that, we have a central character who’s reality is irrelevant in the face of Gary Oldman’s terrific portrayal. Who wouldn’t want to remember Herman Mankiewicz as that guy who lying down punched back the biggest media tycoon of his time, all the while delivering lines with sizzling snark and crackling wit. My favorite line from the movie is when Mank is asked about his questionable portrayal of Marion Davies, and he responds “It’s him. But it’s not her.” If we load that line with the weight of Mank’s grandstanding, that is an open admittance of the male gaze in Hollywood. People have also been quick to point to the male gaze in Mank, where the 62 year old Gary Oldman is paired with 33 year old Tuppence Middleton even though the characters they both play are 44.


But that, as Mank would say, is the magic of the movies. Hollywood is a grand celebration of pretense even about itself. Last year, we got Once upon a time in Hollywood which was another auteuristic reflection from this voyeuristic mirror. Tarantino though is a different kind of auteur who writes and directs his movies. And Once Upon A Time is far out from Mank, or for that matter from The Irishman— yet another auteuristic (re)vision of real events released last year. Where Mank and The Irishman elicit whispers of “How much of this really happened,”  the reimagining of reality in Once Upon A Time is so far from the real reality, that it openly screams “Fuck reality. Match this shit.”

All this is not to say that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has lesser truth about the movies or Hollywood. On the contrary, it is a subversive meditation on the pretense that defines Hollywood. Take Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, who is a kind of pit bull— a stunt double who does the fighting off screen so his boss who’s on screen can get the credit. Cliff bears no pretense about his place in Hollywood’s hierarchy.  When he retires to his trailer at night, drops his sunglasses and dumps an ugly mush of canned food onto a bowl, his real pit bull whines but then willingly gorges on it. In other words, Cliff doesn’t need a lengthy exposition on the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey (even one that’s delivered delectably and shot exquisitely as in Mank).

To be fair, Mank is set at a time when Hollywood’s reality revision was just testing the waters. By the time of the events in Once Upon a Time, they were neck deep in their own pool of pretense along with an audience that willfully chose to stay suspended. There’s an almost cliched scene in Once Upon a Time, where a box office clerk refuses to recognize that the actor Sharon Tate in the movie thats playing is in fact the Sharon Tate she’s talking to (the Sharon Tate as played by real life actor Margot Robbie). This hilarity continues until the Sharon Tate character poses like her movie character right beside her movie poster. In a parallel thread, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Rick Dalton suffers his own existential angst when struggling to play a character. He runs into a young actress who initiates him into “Method acting” enabling him to drop all pretense and fully become the character. The only outliers in the movie are the Manson family hippies housed in Spahn Ranch who are obsessed with reality and detest all things Hollywood.  Their story collides head on with Cliff’s in a pre shadow of the climax showdown which, if you load with the grandiosity in Tarantino’s revisionist oeuvre, is a war between reality and the movies.

My favorite conceit from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is its cheeky depiction of this choice; using eyeglasses as a literal lens to mask reality. Take the two instances of characters watching their on screen versions. Rick and Cliff watch their TV show sans eyeglasses, and joke about the acting and stunts that went into a scene. When the Sharon Tate character watches herself on the big screen, wearing her big sixties eyeglasses, she’s enjoying the movie through the wide-eyed wonderment of an ordinary moviegoer. Much has been written about the portrayal of Sharon Tate, and like MankOnce Upon a Time also did not escape the male gaze moniker. After all, we have Oscar nominee Margot Robbie looking like a quintessential shiny starlet of Hollywood with hardly anything to speak in this 3 hr long movie. And when questioned about her portrayal, Tarantino’s response sounded like a pre-echo of Mank “It’s not her story. It’s Rick’s.”

Now, there is another female character in the movie with even less to say— Brandy the pit bull, who turns out to be the movie’s real “hero”. From the lowest rung of Hollywood’s hierarchy, she literally leaps to its rescue in the climax showdown. Thanks to her, Hollywood’s stars continued to shine.

The reality of course was very different, and when we drop our eyeglasses, perhaps that’s what we believe.

Like LB Mayer (as played by Arliss Howard) tells Mank, “Movies are a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies. ”