Getting Set For The Oscars
Man's World|April 2021
With just a few weeks to go for the big awards show, we take a look at some of the best films that are in contention
Maithili Rao

Oscar time makes me nostalgic for prepandemic Mumbai.

Though I left the city nearly four years ago, I remember how there were Oscar weeks with back to back screenings of the main nominated films. Documentaries and foreign films that made the coveted list had to wait. This was before we all began to watch content on streaming platforms instead of the camaraderie of seeing films in theatres. A communally shared experience gradually receded into the penumbra of memory and films became a solitary pleasure, especially now that we can’t even host or attend watch parties.

This mini binge watching — with major misses because many are unavailable even to rent — brought back the pleasure of watching films, instead of getting used to series, the prolonged, finely detailed narratives that have the luxury of time to flesh out subplots and back stories. We relearnt an old lesson: film demands more from the maker, to fulfil our narrative expectations within a limited time and yet, give a complete viewing experience, whether the classic three act structure with a catharsis that left us emotionally cleansed, or the newer narrative forms that could be episodic and yet linear, or intriguingly cyclic. Like Mank, my favourite film of the year.

Mank comes with a huge back story and decades of expectations caused by the critical conundrums bequeathed by Citizen Kane. This classic to beat all classics, a landmark that rewrote narrative grammar, has divided film historians and critics, even though all agree that it is a masterpiece forever. The question is who deserves credit. Pauline Kael, the formidable doyenne who shaped writing on cinema for decades, took up cudgels on behalf of Herman Mankieweicz in her influential The Citizen Kane Book. Welles’ colleague John Houseman — you see much more of him in Mank than Welles who is almost a cameo — wrote his version in Run-Through. Both reclaimed literary authorship for the washed out Mankieweicz. He was despatched to a ranch with no access to alcohol in the custody of a stern caregiver, a German woman, and a young British secretary to type up his handwritten script.

Mank is a film history aficionado’s delight as legends walk in and out of the MGM Studio. Louis Meyer, Irving Thalberg, another boy wizard, William Randolph Hearst, fellow writers at the studio shooting the breeze with not much going around, are filmed up, close, and personal, all their flaws and foibles not glossed over.

Shot in B&W to keep to the ambiance of the ’30s, David Fincher’s filming of his late father’s script is both a homage and critique of the system where the studio dictates to the creatives. Mank is a film to delight people in love with film history, stories behind the stories, writers who wrote them, and the people on whom the stories are based. In the process, it also tries to demystify the aura around Citizen Kane, but without a single shot from the film that imbued the real life character on whom it is based with the tragic grandeur worthy of a Shakespearean hero.

In Fincher’s film, Hearst is a desiccated media tycoon who hardly says anything interesting, all the vivacity is reserved for his actress wife Marion Davies, as the couple preside over dinner parties with A-lister guests. Mankieweicz delivers wounding salvos with self-deprecatory gusto, as he is expected to: his job is to play court jester to the powerful, and provide entertainment. Gary Oldman’s performance is superb: he plays a man who is not likeable, willing to hurt others, and yet has a core of honesty that survives the ups and downs of Hollywood. His script with a killer deadline, the fact that the hero is based on Hearst becomes common knowledge, courtesy the usual grapevine. Regarding its intriguing episodic structure, Mank says: “the narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll.”

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