Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Oscars, Hollywood, David Fincher & “Mank”

By Federico Furzan 

In 2012, fresh out of the Toronto Film Festival, Roger Ebert made a bold prediction. Almost six months before the night of the Oscars, he said “Argo” would win the Academy Award for Best Picture. He hadn’t posted his review yet when he used the festival’s prediction pattern to imply the Ben Affleck-directed thriller would take the top prize. He also loved the film and its risky storytelling choice to change some of the true events to imprint a thrilling sense into the narrative.

However, Roger also used the phrase “everybody, everywhere, loves movies and to some degree thinks Hollywood is a big deal.” This is an insight that’s been very much alive ever since Hollywood’s Golden Era. It’s an undeniable trend that’s been confirmed throughout the years. In 2012, Ben Affleck solemnly took his award as producer (he wasn’t nominated for Best Director that night, a decision that left everybody speechless). I was proud of Roger’s prediction because “Argo” was a fantastic piece of filmmaking that actually deserved the award despite some tough competition.

It’s pretty basic to say Hollywood was awarding itself, but it certainly looks that way. After all, a year before, “The Artist” had been given the Best Picture prize while being a lukewarm silent film that divided audiences all over; it was a major bet for the industry as silent films are almost a myth among current audiences. Hollywood was declaring the love it had felt for decades (curiously, significant awards mainly were given to Broadway-based films). “Argo” wasn’t as obvious of a Best Picture winner as “The Artist,” but it still regarded Hollywood as the major enterprise that could save the world while being entertaining and thrilling.

Hollywood would go on to award itself again with “Birdman,” which won four Oscars, including Best Picture in 2014 juas as Hollywood was evolving in the age of superhero fanfare crushing more independent artistic endeavors at the box office. And then, in one infamous night, the Academy broke expectations, changed the odds, and gave the top award to a game-changer. In a memorable television moment that will live on in Academy Awards history, the underdog “Moonlight” beat out Hollywood-musical juggernaut “La La Land.”

I won’t expand on how the award was given to “Moonlight” that evening. Plenty has been written about the infamous envelope mix-up. What’s more important is how Hollywood confirmed the burial of its consideration for films that pat themselves on the back. With Donald Trump’s rise to the oval office and the country changing before our very eyes, Hollywood didn’t feel the same way it felt before about these films. It was clear that they had their eyes set on stories and topics that were bigger than them. And in 2021, this will be evidenced again.

David Fincher’s “Mank” is a very good film. It is exceptionally well-shot in black and white and superbly directed by someone who understands very well what kind of film he’s making. It’s safe to say “Mank” is a film that shouldn’t be only watched on a big screen TV but in a theater in all of its glory, reminding us of why we love movies in the first place as it evokes a bygone era. Fincher is referencing “Citizen Kane” in the film’s aesthetics. Translating almost a century of cinematic language in a movie released on a mainstream platform such as Netflix is not easy for a mainstream audience less accustomed to this style of filmmaking.

Mank” depicts the events that took place in Hollywood while the script for “Citizen Kane,” widely regarded as the best film of all time, was being written. Gary Oldman stars as Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter who raced to finish the script while being tormented by the industry’s major players and his personal demons as an alcoholic—going back and forth between Mankiewicz writing the script and his drunken adventures through Hollywood sets, the film ventures into the undeniable inspiration for the famous character known as Charles Foster Kane.

It’s a film about building the foundation of a story that needed to be told during a time when there was a shift within the community politically, and people did not want Mankiewicz rustling any feathers. This was a man who fed himself with facts and threw up his vision of the entertainment industry and the powers that be in his outstanding screenplay, which he eventually earned an Oscar for. The film’s secondary conflict about the mystery of who came up with the script is not determinant aside from increasing the level of drama in the third act. Whether Orson Welles or Mankiewicz came up with the screenwriting is simply not a question addressed in “Mank.”

Mank” was a sure bet for Oscars nominations before anyone had even seen the project. On paper, it had all of the ingredients to be a major awards contender. We knew Gary Oldman would knock it out of the park. We knew Fincher’s meticulous attention to detail would lead to another Best Director nomination (he earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Director for his other period piece, “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button”). He was also considered “overdue” after his massive precursor sweep for “The Social Network” which resulted in him winning the Critics Choice Award, Golden Globe & BAFTA for Best Director but missing the Oscar to Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech.” Coupled along with the film’s story and technical prowess, it only made sense that a Best Picture nomination would come along as well. However, it was left out of the Best Original Screenplay category, a major blow to Fincher since the film was written by his late father, Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. The film received a grand total of ten nominations.

The big question, though, heading into Oscar night isn’t “which awards will it take home?” It’s actually “will it take any awards home?”

So why is “Mank” not a more prominent contender for some of the major awards? Why do most predictions not mention “Mank” anywhere? Why isn’t it even a favorite in the award season amongst the internet community, a community that has adored Fincher’s previous work?

Expectations were always high for “Mank.” It was supposedly a film about the greatest film of all time. It had not only to be entertaining, compelling, and insightful, but it had to measure up to a film that is regarded as one of the best ever made. However, when the film was screened, it came as a shock to many that this wasn’t a revelatory reel about Orson Welles creating the backdrop for “Citizen Kane.” It didn’t even include some basic facts regarding the technical achievements in the film. It was the simple story of an alcoholic man who participated in every game the industry went through and ended up betting against power. His reaction to the changes he saw happening before him was to channel it through screenwriting, and he accomplished his best product by suffering professionally and personally. As important as it sounds, people were not impressed with Fincher’s approach to the story and the subject matter. However, Fincher has never been known to be a softie for Hollywood and people’s romanticized view of it. “Mank’s” cynicism is perfectly in line with what people should’ve expected from Fincher.

Today’s Hollywood is less into rewarding itself and more into rewarding social causes that it can stand behind proudly. However, the bleak outlook of “Mank” is neither uplifting nor is it emotionally connecting to people the same way that “Parasite” did last year or films such as “Nomadland” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is this year. In “Mank,” Hollywood doesn’t see a film about films that should be celebrated with major awards, awards which “Citizen Kane” never but rightfully should’ve won. They only see a requisite. One they have to recognize by throwing a large plethora of nominations at it because of its prestige factor and nothing else.

Nevertheless, this isn’t something to be sad or regretful over if you’re a fan of “Mank.” David Fincher’s films tend to age well over time. It’s curious how film consideration changes through time and how this collective view can influence large groups of people who celebrate film.

With this being said, is it really that hard for “Mank” to be recognized somehow by the Academy? There’s a good chance the film will take home the award for Best Production Design, but only because it has practically no competition in that category. I was betting for “Mank” to be a top contender in the category for Best Cinematography earlier in the year, and I’m surprised it hasn’t put up more of a fight throughout the season with various voters. Best Original Score is another one I had foreseen as a possible win for it due to its artisan beauty the film evokes with its use of older instruments, and then “Soul” came along (also written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), and it blew everyone away, leaving all other challengers for the Oscar in the dust.

If the Academy dares to give “Mank” any other award, will it be out of pity? Will it be because more voters will have a likelier chance of seeing it because it has the most nominations of any film nominated this year with ten? Along with “The Irishman” last year, “Mank” is looking like another high nomination getter for Netflix but with very little chance of converting any of those nominations into wins. Did “Mank” deserve all of these nominations if it was going to lose them all, in the end, anyway? It feels like sometimes the Academy starts throwing nominations around out of a requisite instead of based on actually putting in the work to find more worthy nominees in smaller productions.

The Academy is changing, whether people want to believe it or not. They surprised us last year by bestowing Best Picture to a foreign language film for the first time ever. Who knows if other “surprises” and “firsts” are coming. Maybe Hollywood’s love for “films about films” will re-awaken at some point, and gems like “Mank” will prevail once again. No one knows for sure. But what do you want to see celebrated? The answer may be different for everyone. This sadly may not be David Fincher’s year, but just as the director did recently at the Golden Globes, every time “Mank” misses a win on Oscar night, I may have to drink a shot and look forward to what we have coming next year as the Hollywood landscape continues to change.

What do you think of “Mank?” Which Oscars do you think it will win? Let us know in the comments section down below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Federico and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @federicofurzan

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