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Mank the Mensch

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Nathan Abrams offers another view on David Fincher’s latest movie that reveals the hidden Jewishness behind the film.

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) is widely regarded as a classic, if not the best movie ever made. It’s routinely taught at universities; indeed, I have taught it many times.

Rarely, though, until now, has it been considered as a Jewish film. And it’s a deeply Jewish movie as David Fincher’s Mank, which has just been released on Netflix, reveals.

Mank originated as a screenplay written by Fincher’s father. It follows the pattern set in his earlier The Social Network which is another Jewish origin story of a cultural phenomenon.

But Mank is not a dramatization of the making of the classic. This was done in RKO 281 back in 1999, starring Jewish actor Liev Schreiber as the non-Jewish Welles.

Rather, Mank focuses on the creative process of the film’s writer, New York Jewish playwright and critic cum screenwriter, ‘Mank’, that is Herman J. Mankiewicz, whose resulting script won an Oscar.

In fact, Mank gives him sole credit for the screenplay, marginalising the creative role of Orson Welles. It even suggests he was petulant and ill-tempered, demanding that Mank give up any credit because he had signed a contract. Whether this is accurate or not, one can read elsewhere.

Sprinkled with Jewishness

While the film does not really probe the ethnicity and religion of its main character, or of the result, Citizen Kane, Mank is liberally sprinkled with Jewishness.

Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp. calls at the White House with his family. Left to right: Edith Mayer, Mr. and Mrs. Mayer, Irene Mayer, and Mrs. Mabel W. Willebrandt, Asst. Attorney General, who introduced them to the President. Photo: Wikipedia

Real-life Jewish characters abound: Mank’s brother, Joseph, Louis B. Mayer and his wife, Mank’s wife Sara, his housekeeper Fräulein, John Houseman, David O. Selznick, Irving Thalberg, George S. Kaufman, Ben Hecht, Eddie Cantor, Josef von Sternberg, Norma Shearer Thalberg and Irene Selznick.

They work for such Jewish studios as Paramount and MGM whose bombastic head, Louis B. Mayer refers to it not as Metro Goldwyn Mayer but as ‘Mayer’s Ganze Mishpachah’ (Mayer’s big family). Every time Mayer opened his mouth, I was taken back to the Coen Bros.’ wonderful 1991 movie, Barton Fink, and its caricature of a studio boss in Jack Lipnick as played by Michael Lerner.

While Mank may share Barton Fink’s Jewishness, there the parallels end; where Barton was a blocked schmuck with an Underwood (as screenwriters were typically known during Hollywood’s heyday), Mank was nobody’s fool. It is his own self-destructiveness that is his problem.

‘I don’t speak a lot of Jewish’

Mank is peppered with other Yiddishisms and references to Judaism. Mank calls his wife ‘schnutz’. At other times we hear the word ‘schlub’. He describes one event as ‘a hell of a way to spend the Sabbath’. His long-suffering, but loyal wife, Sara explains how ‘I’ve raised your kids kosher’. Some of this will need translation for those who, like the character of Marion Davis, says at one point, ‘I don’t speak a lot of Jewish’.

There’s a long scene discussing Mank’s views towards the Adolf Hitler, the Nazis and their antisemitism and how he was one of the few screenwriters to pen a script warning about them. This was in the 1930s when other Jewish studio heads didn’t want to touch that subject matter for fear of hurting profits in one of their biggest overseas markets.

A Mensch with Yiddische Kopf

As played by Gary Oldman, it’s hard to believe that Mank is Jewish. But, as portrayed in this film, he may be a washed-up boozer, but he’s a mensch at heart, which he superficially hides beneath a quick and sly wit. Despite a series of relationships with women, they are all platonic and he never actually cheats on Sara, at least not in the film.

His housekeeper, herself an émigré, reveals how Mank has rescued a village of German Jews from the Nazis (an exaggeration based in truth). He supports the underdog and the underprivileged, backing the ‘radical’ Upton Sinclair in the 1934 California gubernatorial election. In fact, the film suggests that it was Mank’s experiences-during the Depression that informed the film, especially his hatred of William Randolph Hearst and right-wing isolationism which he knew first-hand. Mankiewicz was a frequent guest at the parties of Hearst, the media tycoon on whom Charles Foster Kane was modelled.

William Randolph Hearst circa 1900. Photo: Wikipedia

Where Oldman does play Mank as Jewish is in his verbal quick-wittedness. Mank is smart, well-read, and always ready with a razor-sharp quip. He is that age old stereotype of Yiddische kopf, Jew-as-mouth-as brain.

Mr. Bernstein

Where the film misses a trick, though, is in discussing the origin of one of the film’s major characters, Charles Foster Kane’s Jewish business manager, Mr. Bernstein. Putting in an obviously Jewish character, played by an obviously Jewish actor, broke the unofficial code of the Jewish movie moguls of the forties and fifties whereby Jews onscreen hid behind goysiche names. And as played by Jewish actor Everett Sloane, his appearance was another cause for concern in terms of reinforcing stereotypes.

Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane and Erskine Sanford in a promotional still for the 1941 film, Citizen Kane. Photo: Wikipedia

Against typical practice, Welles, who was an outsider himself, pushed ahead and ‘sketched out the character in preliminary sessions’. The name Bernstein was an in-joke. Despite his worries about the character and his Jewishness, Mank got on board. As Welles recalled, ‘Mank did all the best writing for Bernstein. I’d call that the most valuable thing he gave us…’

It was Welles who developed the character. He wrote the film’s famous breakfast montage (where the history of Kane’s first marriage to Emily, is condensed to a short series of breakfast scenes), when Kane stands up to antisemitic Emily.

In the creation of Bernstein, then, it was Welles who was the pioneer rather than Mank.

As Fincher would have it, though, the sole credit for Citizen Kane, and its resulting Jewishness, goes to its screenwriter and not its director/star.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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