Mank and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Mank' Review: David Fincher's Immersive Old Hollywood Drama - Variety

Mank

Two films that are sure to be receiving multiple Oscar nominations have recently been released. They were originally supposed to be seen in theaters (remember theaters?), but have landed on Netflix instead. They couldn’t be more different, except for the caliber of the acting.

Mank is David Fincher’s eagerly awaited film (well, all his films are eagerly awaited) on the writer (or is it co-writer?) of 1941’s Citizen Kane, Herman Mankiewicz. If that last name sounds familiar, his brother was the more famous and more rewarded Joseph (All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives, which gave him Oscars for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay—two years in a row) and grandfather to Dateline’s Josh and Turner Classic Movies’ Ben. Both Herman and Citizen Kane director/actor/producer Orson Welles created the script for Citizen Kane, and where one writer began and the other ended has been a subject of heated debate since bfore Kane was released—and this film only adds fuel to the fire. The film leans VERY heavily into the Mank-wrote-it camp. Research on the subject might lead one to film critic Pauline Kael’s wrong-headed treatise that leaned in the same direction. Even more research will lead one into issues of story, script, and direction, and probably to the conclusion that Welles was responsible for setting up Herman for the success in the first place, and then took Herman’s script and made significant changes that made it “the greatest film ever made.” This will be an ongoing argument that I choose to end right here when speaking of Mank.

The script here is by David Fincher’s father Jack, and perhaps family loyalty led to what I perceive as the film’s weaknesses. I don’t know how faithful that son was to father’s script, but perhaps he stayed a bit too close. On the positive side, the film is funny, bitingly witty at times, and very smart.  That makes it hard to catch everything on the first viewing, and the second was definitely a more enjoyable and understandable experience. The film plays homage to the 1940s everywhere, and the fast pace of some ‘40s American films (comedies especially) seems like the inspiration for the rapid-fire dialogue. But the people doing a lot of the speaking were all in the business of words—fast, smart, and sharp words—and the pace may well reflect something of the reality.

The cinematography (almost sure to be Oscar-nominated) also is firmly grounded in the ‘40s, with shadowy black-and-white images, often with today’s version of the matte backgrounds of old that somehow work here, as well as an obvious day-for-night scene. Connected as it is thematically with Kane, this couldn’t have been in color, and thank God it wasn’t. There are shots clearly evocative of Kane, but the look of the film is its own, and is a delight to view.

Where I think the film goes a little wrong is the emphasis on the California gubernatorial election of 1934 between Upton Sinclair and Frank Merriam. Yes, it echoes Charles Kane’s political efforts in Kane, and it gives some “context” to Herman’s life and mind, but at least for me, it took valuable time and attention away from the main story, and it felt like a distraction and an unnecessary tangent.

Fincher is well known for his tight control and penchant for doing takes more than 100 times if he’s not satisfied, and the film is as much a director’s film as Kane. This isn’t Social Network level, as it was hoped to be, but with time, it may end up in the top five of his work. What’s getting the most attention is not the director, but the two main actors. There has been a good deal of press over Gary Oldman’s performance, especially as defined as Oldman as his most naked performance—meaning that he has no make-up, costume, or unusual personality to hide behind. He’s very good, and will be nominated for Best Actor, but he won’t win. For one, he just won for playing Winston Churchill in 2017’s Darkest Hour. And two, his performance is so embedded into the fabric of the film that it doesn’t stick out in ways that the Academy tends to reward.

The performance that does stand out, however, and that sticks with you after Oldman has been forgotten is Amanda “who knew she could do this?” Seyfried, playing Marion Davies, a silent and early sound movie star who also happened to be the long-time mistress of William Randolph Hearst, the real-life model for Charles Foster Kane. Seyfried, perhaps best known for her work in Mamma Mia! and Les Misérables (she was Cosette), has never seemed much more than a lovely and serviceable actress until now, and even in a supporting role, she owns this film. Davies is a particularly difficult character to pin down, and this will be the definitive version of her for a long time to come. Seyfried finds her version of Marion, and gives it pathos, breath, and even occasional depth. She’ll most certainly be nominated for an Oscar, and she may well win. Playing Davies has been a high-wire act in films, and Seyfried succeeds where others have not.

One of the main challenges in the film that I cannot be objective about is how enjoyable Mank might be to a person without knowledge of Kane or the studio system, or Hearst, or Davies, or the big figures of the movie industry—the famous writers they pulled from the East, L.B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, etc. My wife enjoyed it, and doesn’t know these folks much beyond Welles and Kane. I knew all the players, which might have helped. But conversely, perhaps my knowledge of them was a distraction, as the fast dialogue often swept past me as I stopped to think about each character as they were being introduced. For much of the film, I was a kid in a candy store, and I at least needed a couple of viewings to begin to take it all in.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who does not have a movie background, and what they thought of the film. Since it’s Fincher, of course it’s well made, and the performances are worth watching any time. Just don’t trust its conclusion about the screenplay.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom | Netflix Official Site

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Unlike Mank, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is colorful, loud, musical, and something of a mess. Like Mank, it’s on Netflix and will be remembered for its two central performances. It’s based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, and it never moves far from its theatrical roots. There is the plot—a 1927 recording of blues legend Ma Rainey, and the tensions within her Georgia Jazz Band, especially with the late Chadwick Boseman’s character, the fictional Levee, who is a talented but individualistic musician just itching to move on and form his own band. And then there are the themes, which involve taking your own agency when you’re a black and gay female musician in a white world, when you have to battle giant egos to get something done, and when your original music is flattened out and appropriated by white musicians. Where your interest  in the film will lay will determine how you respond to the plot and/or those themes.

What all will likely agree upon, however, is the quality of the performances. Viola Davis is an American treasure, and she gives her all to the part. She’ll certainly be nominated for Best Actress, but won’t win. Partly it’s because she won before, but perhaps also because she can’t quite inhabit the character. Sometimes actors are too nice to be believable in parts that are hard or harsh or obnoxious; this film’s producer Denzel Washington has run into that occasionally as an actor. Davis has considerable acting chops, of course, and uses just about all of them here. But she isn’t 100 percent believable as Ma. She’s simply not lewd or crude or cruel enough. It’s a very good performance; it just doesn’t resonate like it could have.

Another reason she won’t win is that she doesn’t give the best performance in the film. That belongs, tragically, to the late great Chadwick Boseman. He is sure to be nominated, and my guess at the time of this writing is that he will win (deservedly). What a bittersweet experience to watch it. Boseman takes ownership of the film as soon as he appears, and he never lets it go. Yes, it’s a highly expressive and theatrical performance, and the long speeches that he makes work are uncomfortable reminders of its stage-bound origins. But what an incredible range he shows, and what unexpected energy he brings. But knowing he was undergoing treatment for cancer gives a tragic edge to his newly thin frame. And knowing he was cut down so early in his life is a painful reminder of other similar losses, e.g., River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman. What we have lost with Boseman is significant. He is touching greatness here, and we can only mourn what might have been.

But there are several things that make this a one-time view, and a film that I can’t recommend to everyone. Yes, the language is rough, but Levee’s diatribe against God goes way beyond other similar mad-at-God diatribes. Children shouldn’t be watching this film anyway, but that speech seems over the top and unnecessarily offensive. Even with the run-up provided by Levee’s childhood memories, it didn’t quite seem connected to the character.

The film’s director is George C. Wolfe, mostly known for directing television shows such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Lackawanna Blues. Certainly he deserves credit for the level of performance here, and not only with the leads; there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch. But the film doesn’t hold together, and is more of a series of scenes than a coherent film. The elements that might have worked on the stage don’t really work well here. The speeches are long, the symbolism doesn’t work as well in a realistic medium like film (e.g., Levee finally “breaks through” a locked door only to find a bigger and higher one), and there are scenes that just seem to “happen” with no apparent reason or catalyst. If I didn’t know that I was watching a newly released film, I might have thought there were editing goofs provided by a network employee  before a broadcast showing.

The themes of racial prejudice, identity, ambition, and corporate greed are rather blatantly displayed throughout, all too often taking us out of the story. Is this supposed to be a story about a legendary singer and some of her struggles, or is it using Ma Rainey’s life as a hook to highlight the evils of racial prejudice, how we struggle with identity, the pros and cons of strong ambition, and the many manifestations of immoral corporate greed? I came in for the former and stayed for the latter.

It’s not just the themes that seems to break out too often from the story. Unfortunately, it’s the characters as well, as wonderfully performed as they are. Levee starts off as that excitable, talented player that you know is going to make it when he gets his big break. But he clearly never learned to play well with others in kindergarten, and his insistence on doing everything his way gets old and over time pushes us away from his character, as does his attempted seduction of Ma’s girlfriend. Then his final action (no spoiler alert necessary here) takes his character out of our identification with both him and believable storytelling. He moves from being a character to being a symbol in that one single, final move.

Then there’s Ma. We understand what prejudice she’s fought against, and still has to. That goes a long way toward understanding and accepting her behavior. But not all the way. Perhaps it’s my personal experience as a musician and musical director, but her behavior can come off as too stubborn, too entitled, too mean, and too selfish. No one is going to hate Viola Davis, and her spirit comes through even when her character is obnoxious. But after a while, it’s work to stay on her side as the film progresses. When all is said and done, there isn’t a major character in the film we can completely connect with.

So ultimately, we have two performances, one for the ages, that we can enjoy. And while the themes carry weight, and few would argue with them, they, ironically, get in the way by being so blatant. The film will fade over time, but will be that important footnote as the last performance by a talented actor we lost far too soon.

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 45+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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