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Mank and the long, troubled history of Hollywood and politics

David Fincher’s film provides a surprisingly thorough, if largely fictionalised, portrait of Hollywood in its early years as a political arena.

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At the 77th Golden Globes, in January 2020, Ricky Gervais, presenting the ceremony for the fifth and final time, ribbed the assembled guests for what he viewed as their patent hypocrisy. The promotion of noble causes on screen and at the podium was absurdly at odds, Gervais argued, with the business practices of media conglomerates – and tech companies like Amazon and Apple – and the thoroughgoing ignorance of actors. It was more or less the same charge levelled 50 years earlier by Joan Didion in her essay “Good Citizens”, which concerns “that peculiar vacant fervour which is Hollywood political action”. Taken on its own terms, the point seems axiomatic, the ironies impossible to ignore. But the film industry’s association with left-leaning sentiments is more than a simple case of posturing, or imposture, of West Coast vacuity and faddishness. It’s a story, both inspiring and dismaying, that involves technology, the Depression, the rise of fascism, the Cold War, and the battle over what it means to be “American”.

For most of the early 20th century, Democratic politics barely existed in California. It was one of just six states that Woodrow Wilson failed to carry in the 1912 presidential election. But by 1933, the year that Roosevelt came to power and the Screen Writers Guild was founded, Variety, the industry daily, reported that communists were “getting a toehold in the picture industry”. The incongruity was stressed from the start: contracted writers making as much as $1,500 a week were calling for a “sovietising of the lots”, and talk developed of “swimming pool reds” or “cocktail-and-tie Bolsheviks”. At a time of Depression, working to create a society which seemed to guarantee jobs, protect its workers and support the arts had obvious appeal. But why did such ideas take root so suddenly in Hollywood? A major reason was the emergence of the “talkie”. The people who, for the most part, made the film industry a hotbed of radicalism were New Yorkers, adoptive and native, propelled west by the sudden demand for writers of dialogue and actors who could deliver it. The process, known as “the Gothamisation of Tinseltown”, brought a different demographic to southern California: literate, university-educated, familiar with socialist causes. The rise of fascism only added to their number.

David Fincher’s film Mank, distributed by Netflix, and nominated in ten categories at this year’s Oscars, provides a surprisingly thorough, if largely fictionalised, portrait of Hollywood in its early years as a political arena. The story is concerned with the composition of Orson Welles’s 1941 film Citizen Kane (working title: American), and its origins in the anger felt by Herman J Mankiewicz, a washed-up screenwriter, at the behaviour of his sometime friend the media mogul William Randolph Hearst (the original of Charles Foster Kane), and of his former boss, Louis B Mayer of MGM (the model for Mr Bernstein, Kane’s loyal and long-suffering stooge). Mankiewicz, or “Mank” as he’s almost exclusively called, is portrayed, in defiance of the facts, as a classic Hollywood leftie, a transplanted New York journalist and playwright wandering around issuing pithy comebacks and looking askance at his paymasters’ aggressive Republicanism. In a long flashback sequence, set in 1930, Hearst (Charles Dance) tells Mank that he intends to bank-roll pictures “with the help of real literary minds”: people like Mank and his cabal of playwright buddies, among them SJ Perelman and Ben Hecht, who are shown self-consciously slumming it – and phoning their work in – at David Selznick’s Paramount studio. 

[see also: How the pandemic shaped the 2021 Oscar nominations]

In 1934 Upton Sinclair, a novelist who had vilified Hearst in The Brass Check, his book on American journalism, and helped to radicalise the greatest of all movie stars, Charlie Chaplin, decided to run for governor under the slogan Epic – End Poverty in California. Sinclair is only glimpsed from afar in Fincher’s film, but his candidacy is much-discussed – Mayer (Arliss Howard) calls him “that rat Bolshevik". Sinclair's gubernatorial stand-off with the Republican incumbent, Frank Merriam, follows a trajectory that dovetails with the writing, five years later, of Citizen Kane. Mayer, who became Mank’s employer after the writer moved from Paramount to MGM, was less concerned with ending poverty than protecting wealth, and exploited his studio’s resources to shoot propaganda videos depicting Merriam voters as upstanding and Sinclair supporters as downtrodden – a development that, in Fincher’s very loose telling, appalled the truth-loving Mank.  

Sinclair lost the race, thanks partly to Mayer’s intervention, but it didn’t put an end to the sovietizing. By 1938, the vehement former Communist Party member JB Matthews, who helped popularise the term “fellow traveller”, said that everyone in Hollywood had been signed up by the communists except for Mickey Mouse and Snow White. He wasn’t exactly joking. When questioned by a committee in 1940, he even mentioned the actress Shirley Temple, who hadn’t yet reached puberty, as someone who had been associated with the cause (albeit via a mention in a communist-owned French newspaper). It was widely accepted that the attitudes designated “un-American” had made greater progress in California than anywhere else, and in 1946, when the Republicans regained control of Congress, investigations gathered pace. Some of the witnesses called by Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) saved their careers by giving the names of current and former Party members. Those deemed “unfriendly” were censured and, in the case of the screenwriters and directors known as the Hollywood Ten, served time in prison.

But the Republican Party didn’t have a monopoly on the concept of patriotism. Hollywood was the site of a civil war. On the one hand, there were organisations such as the rabidly anti-communist group that called itself the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which cited a belief in “freedom”. On the other, there were the 139 HUAC-loathing signatories of the Committee for the First Amendment, the amendment in question being freedom of speech. The playwright Lillian Hellman, who was called before HUAC in 1952, wrote that she had been “raised in an old-fashioned American tradition”, and defended her actions as an unfriendly witness in those terms. And it was the claim of offences against “decency” issued in 1954 by the special counsel for the US army, during McCarthy’s hearing on reds in the military, that turned public opinion suddenly and violently against the senator and his witch-hunt. 

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Of course, the great danger posed by the communist infiltration of Hollywood was the prospect of screenwriters churning out propaganda. Ayn Rand, who had testified before HUAC as the friendliest of witnesses, composed a “dos" and “don’ts" guide for film-makers. The fears were hardly groundless. Charlie Chaplin lambasted working conditions in Modern Times (1936). Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, smuggled the mischievous line “Share and share alike, that’s democracy,” into the 1943 Ginger Rogers vehicle Tender Comrade. (The film’s director, Edward Dmytryk, was another of the Hollywood Ten.) And it’s possible to glean subversive sentiments in a variety of genre films from that period. But it wasn’t until the decline of the old studio system, due in part to flops like Cleopatra (1963), which was directed by Mank’s younger brother, Joseph L Mankiewicz, and the emergence of a new order, that American cinema routinely promoted non-conformist attitudes. 

Sydney Pollack’s film The Way We Were (1973), a notably traditional product of what is now called the New Hollywood, set about the task most overtly, by revisiting and seeming to champion mid-century American radicalism. Barbra Streisand, playing Katie, the Jewish firebrand in love with the preppie novelist Hubbell (Robert Redford), starts off as a pro-Soviet campaigner against fascism, then becomes a Roosevelt fan, then, after Hubbell is seduced by Hollywood, falls in with the communists who write films in which “the Indians are the good guys”, no matter that it’s “un-American”, and joins the Committee for the First Amendment when HUAC comes calling. Hubbell, by contrast, is the American as quietist. Katie tells him that he’s “too good for Hollywood”, but he can’t resist the sunshine and the pay cheques. Pauline Kael, reviewing the film in the New Yorker, noted that “a lot of people get their knowledge of history from movies”, and that Pollack’s film presented the starkest of choices between communism and complacency. 

The Way We Were is a soft-centred romance with an unlikely backdrop, but during the 1970s, box office success and awards attention became compatible with radical subject matter. Jane Fonda, daughter of Henry Fonda, the star of the classic portrait of Depression poverty The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and a staunch Democrat, was among the biggest female movie stars and the most visible and committed critics of the war in Vietnam. At the 1978 Oscars, a quarter century after HUAC had banned unfriendly witnesses from receiving awards, Fonda introduced Lillian Hellman, whom she portrayed in the film Julia, with a reference to HUAC as “a travesty of human rights”. Fonda’s co-star, Vanessa Redgrave, accepting her award for Best Supporting Actress, congratulated the audience for dealing “a final blow” against that period in which Joe McCarthy “launched a worldwide witch-hunt against those who tried to express in their lives and in their work a truth that they believed in”. 

The following year, Fonda received an Oscar of her own, for Coming Home, a Vietnam story which the studio executives had been worried was “un-American”. She delivered her acceptance speech in both English and sign language, calling the deaf “the invisible handicapped” and reminiscing about the film’s inception in “the cramped offices of the Indochina Peace Campaign”. And things were about to get even stranger. Warren Beatty, an eager autodidact who had come to Hollywood from Virginia via New York, raised the money for Reds (1981), a portrait of the reporter John Reed, dewy-eyed witness to the Russian Revolution and author of the book Ten Days that Shook the World. 

The film serves as a microcosm of every paradox governing left-wing Hollywood. As Pauline Kael pointed out, it was the “least radical” film you could imagine. And it was a $35m tribute to workers’ rights. But more specifically, it was a film in which the hero, invited to give a speech about the causes of the Great War, utters the word “profits” and then sits down – a film which was itself protected against losses by a tax-shelter scheme arranged by Paramount and Barclays Bank. (When Beatty received his Oscar for Best Director, he wasn’t able to invoke the same poky origins as Fonda three years earlier; his exercise in un-Americanism had, he acknowledged, become a reality in “the capitalistic tower of Gulf and Western”.)

But, as things turned out, the new Hollywood regime was about to hit the buffers. At the same time that Beatty was shooting Reds, Michael Cimino, the director of the Vietnam drama The Deer Hunter, was working on his own tale of a Harvard graduate who renounces privilege and severs his class ties – in that case, during the Johnson County War, a stand-off between cattle barons and immigrant labourers in late 19th-century Wyoming. Heaven’s Gate, released in 1980, lasted more than three hours. But Cimino didn’t pull it off. A film about exploited immigrants more or less destroyed a studio, and stood as a warning to executives who had trusted directors with vision. (At least the film that marked the demise of the previous regime had been about an Egyptian queen.)

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By then, American audiences had become accustomed to anti-authoritarian tendencies, in films ranging from Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy to Carnal Knowledge and All the President’s Men. But the critic Andrew Britton, writing in the 1980s, identified Reds and Heaven’s Gate as the last films to “dramatise problematical ideological material”. Beatty himself described Reds as the “death rattle” of an era. He was beady enough to take seriously a prospect many had dismissed: the former actor and governor of California, Ronald Reagan, as president. Regan's election in 1980 was the culmination of decades of efforts on the part of West Coast Republicans like Louis Mayer and Reagan’s pal, the actor and sometime senator George Murphy, who had co-founded the Hollywood Republican Committee in 1940. The ascent of Reagan coincided with a changing of the guard in Hollywood, and a return to the genres, with macho superstars and films such as the Rambo series, which the novelist and critic Gilbert Adair identified as “a compendium, a veritable archive, of Reaganite attitudes and aspirations”. 

But when the Reaganite 1980s yielded to the Clintonian 1990s, the era of Sundance and the indie takeover, there was a return to dominance of the liberal-consensus position in American movies. Over the past 30 years, the ability to make films critical of power structures has been the product of a receptive industry and audiences, but also an old property: star power. Actor-directors such as Beatty, Robert Redford, Tim Robbins (recipient of the 2001 Upton Sinclair Award for contribution to social justice) and George Clooney made films about the political system, the intolerance of the 1950s (including HUAC), and political activism. And once again, award ceremonies served as a barometer of the Hollywood consensus position. In 1999, the year that the US government released 8,000 pages of documents about the Hollywood blacklist, Elia Kazan, a friendly witness to HUAC, was given an honorary Oscar, and the room was divided between applause, ambivalence, and stony silence. George Clooney, receiving an Oscar in 2006, praised the people in the movie business for being “out of touch,” meaning ahead of the game, on subjects such as racial equality and Aids, adding that “we, you know, bring up subjects”. 

It is almost impossible to imagine an American film today portraying a capitalist other than to track his moral downfall. There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, is perhaps the standout example of recent decades. And when a new Hollywood film is criticised on political grounds, as occurred with La La Land and Green Book, it is not for espousing a conservative viewpoint, but for cracks in its liberalism, the evidence of unconscious blind spots. Anthony Lane, reviewing Mank in the New Yorker, said of the “detailed excursus” into 1930s politics: “gripping stuff, no doubt, but what it’s doing here?” What it’s doing is giving Mank a suitably worthy motive for writing his script, and in the process rendering him a hero for our times: loather of fake news and Republican corruption, speaker of truth to power, a figure adjacent to what, accepting his Oscar for Citizen Kane in the film’s closing moments, he calls “the magic of the movies” who at the same time despises hypocrisy, inanity and greed. 

It’s reflective both of Hollywood’s now well-established self-image and its narrow notion of what constitutes goodness – especially in figures from the past – that Fincher, working from a script written by his late father, Jack, feels obliged to present Mank as a Sinclair-supporting socialist who quickly recognised the threat of Hitler when, in fact, he was nothing of the sort. (He opposed American intervention in the Second World War.) In a similar manoeuvre, Hearst is implicated, on no evidence, in MGM’s fake-news campaign on behalf of Governor Merriam. The underdog is made bolder and more embattled, the capitalist more pernicious. Yet Fincher has retained Mank’s genuine indifference to the Screen Writers Guild, a position, never explained, that sits oddly with the character’s pro-union credentials. Orson Welles, a victim of the studio system who had genuine leftist leanings, would have made a much more natural candidate for this kind of martyr treatment. Tim Robbins, in his admirable 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, portrayed Welles’s travails at the hands of HUAC, in its pre-war incarnation. But in Mank the director, as played by Tom Burke, emerges as a bully and a brute. By the end of the film, Fincher has tweaked so many facts to suit his purposes that you wonder why he, or his father, thought that the original story had anything to offer him.  

The irony is that this paean to industry underlings and outsiders is the Goliath of an Oscars ceremony notable for its gender and ethnic diversity. Perhaps the best tribute that Mank could make to its own message would be to lose to Nomadland, or Judas and the Black Messiah, or Promising Young Woman, or Sound of Metal, or even The Trial of the Chicago 7, another Netflix film about American radicalism, but one with greater fidelity to the record. A victory for any of those films, and so for a director like the African American Shaka King, or the English feminist Emerald Fennell, or the Chinese-American Chloé Zhao, would inevitably yield a speech lambasting an injustice or promoting a cause. And that would be a time-honoured, justifiable, even authentic gesture, whatever Ricky Gervais might think. 

[see also: Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-nominated Nomadland is a powerful drama-documentary hybrid]

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.