Herman Mankiewicz was a tragic figure – in 1940’s Hollywood and in David Fincher’s film, Mank. Sure, Mank stood up for what was right and against what was wrong at MGM and in the political world of the times. He had his principles, expressed too often in self-destructive ways. He was equally hurtful towards those who loved him. In fact, he turned away from love as he drank himself to death. Why couldn’t Mank get out of his “self-created trap?” Why does such a talented man not love himself?
Mank’s Self-Doubt Raging Inside
“Why do you love me?” Mank (Gary Oldman) repeatedly asks his long-suffering but loving wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton). This time, while she helps a sloppily drunk Mank undress as he torments himself: “I should’ve done something by now …” The fact is, he’s already done a lot. But, raging self-doubt (self-hate, really) is Mank’s nemesis.
Mank was emotionally abused in childhood: “Mankiewicz was described as a ‘bookish, introspective child who, despite his intelligence, was never able to win approval from his demanding father’ who … belittled his achievements.” Now Mank belittles his own.
This happens. You get a self-doubting critical voice in your head when you’re demeaned. Mank has one of those voices, in spades.
When he won an Oscar for Citizen Kane, he wasn’t even there, drinking as always. Of course, he didn’t expect to win: “The members of the Academy … probably felt good because their hearts had gone out to crazy, reckless Mank, their own resident loser-genius”(in Meryman, R. Mank, p. 272).
The sad part is that Mank was a genius, a huge talent, who couldn’t help but make himself a loser. His self-contempt is everywhere in the film, as he refuses to stop drinking to write Citizen Kane, belittling himself all the way. His assistant, Rita (Lily Collins), tries to help: “Will you stop? You write for movies because you’re super at it.”
That’s not how Mank sees himself (at least not through the lens of his self-hate.) His mantra is: “Write hard, aim low.” There are good reasons. Being belittled as a child is hard to overcome, it lives inside you. One form of self-defense is to become arrogant.
The Purpose of Arrogance & Alcohol
The other side of Mank’s self-hate is grandiosity and contempt. We see his grandiosity when he assures his nervous brother, Joe (Tom Pelphrey), before his interview with L.B. Mayer (Arliss Howard): “You’re related to me, he already knows you’re a genius.”
Yet, he needs alcohol to blot out the belittling voice in his head. Alcohol gives him the “courage” of arrogance. Drunk, and meeting William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), while watching Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) rehearse, contempt breaks through.
He calls Hearst a “muckraker,” They banter: Hearst is impressed by Mank’s wit: “Have him seated next to me.” “Pops likes you,” Marion concludes. But in spite of Hearst being Mank’s big admirer, even later bankrolling half his paycheck for MGM, by the end of the film, Mank’s destroyed his relationship with Hearst with his binges and mockery.
At L.B. Mayer’s birthday party, at Willie Hearst’s home, he gives an insulting toast to Mayer, who ruined Christmas and cut salaries for everyone at MGM, except himself. Enraged that L.B. pleaded his case by: “this is what families do for each other,” Mank knows what “fathers” are and how they don’t care. He refuses to be anyone’s monkey.
If he’s not the organ grinder, pulling the strings, he feels too vulnerable to humiliation. Instead, he humiliates others – he’s a brilliant provocateur. Mank can’t leave his prisons of arrogance or alcohol. He needs them, to silence his unrelenting self-contempt.
“Safety” of Prisons in the Mind
When you’ve been traumatized as a child, you’re helpless. You try to get power however you can. Sometimes, like Mank, it’s by trying to drown out your feelings to stave off any more hurt. Sometimes that doesn’t serve you well. That’s what happened to Mank.
Mank won’t bow to anyone; he won’t join the Writer’s Guild. Won’t belong to any club that would have him as a member. Mank acts as if he’s above everything and everyone.
He won’t be anybody’s monkey; and he won’t try to get anyone’s love, ever again. He’ll stay inside his shelters. He can’t give up his principles or his drinking, they’re all he has.
So, Mank retreats to his alcohol haze, where self-hate disappears, at least for a while. Where he feels nothing. Where he gets the courage to speak out even if it does him in. If you’ve been abused as a child, you might resort to anything not to be controlled.
Even using Hearst’s personal stories for the character of Citizen Kane is not beyond Mank’s contempt. For Mank, getting too soft is dangerous. So is wanting anything.
You can’t want anything when wanting love as a child failed you. You can’t care about screen credit for Citizen Kane (until you do, and it’s the best thing you’ve ever written.) Then, you have to fight for it, against powerful Orson Welles (Tom Burke).
Yes, when you’ve been hurt as a child, you fight. Hard. With all your “tools.” Even if it destroys the love you have; hurts the one you love the most (because you can’t let yourself give into love). No, you can’t let yourself need love or take it, it’s too dangerous.
Why Being Loved Isn’t Enough
It doesn’t matter how much other people love you or see your talent when you can’t believe in yourself. Sara loves Mank, she’s “put up with your suicidal drinking, compulsive gambling, your silly platonic affairs.” When Mank moans: “I’m all washed up, Joe.” Joe, who loves him too, says: “It’s the best thing you’ve ever written…”
If only Mank could see himself. What he gets right in Citizen Kane is how lonely Hearst was as a boy. That wasn’t hard. Mank’s lonely too. When you’re hurt as a child and can’t let anyone in, loneliness becomes yet another self-imposed “safe” retreat.
Sara pleads: “Please be mindful of those who care about you most,” but he can’t. Even when he wins an Oscar in 1942 for the Best Original Screenplay, it doesn’t matter: “I seem to have become a rat in a trap of his own construction, a trap I regularly repair when there seems to be danger of an opening that will enable me to escape.”
Mank drinks himself to death soon after his Oscar, never to write or work in Hollywood again. That’s one form childhood trauma can take. It’s the tragedy of a talented man.
Love might have helped him if he’d let it. Success too, if he could see he had any worth.
But the scars of his father’s belittling ate away at him over the years, never allowing Mank to feel he was any good at all. It was too scary to leave that trap of his beloved drinking, his “perfect” retreat from self-hate: a safe refuge to blur out all of his fears.