The following story contains spoilers for David Fincher’s new Netflix film, Mank.
David Fincher’s Mank—his first feature film since 2014’s Gone Girl—is ostensibly a story about Old Hollywood. On it’s surface, if one was summarizing the plot in just a sentence: it’s a movie about a guy (Gary Oldman) racing against not only a limited timetable, but his own devices (he’s an alcoholic and also a bit of an egghead) to complete the script for what the audience knows will eventually become arguably the greatest movie of all time, Citizen Kane.
But like every other David Fincher movie, the story goes deeper than that. What Mank eventually explores, even further than its compelling and flawed titular character, is the power structures that existed explicitly in Old Hollywood but can surely be found today. And the key to understanding this, from the perspective of multiple characters, is the way the movie brings an old parable—the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey—into things.
The “parable of the organ grinder’s monkey” comes up repeatedly throughout Mank, first mentioned by Mank himself when explaining why he based Charles Foster Kane—the movie’s main character—on William Randolph Hearst who Mank was socially friendly with but was later ostracized due to personal and political issues.
But before we get into what it means in the context of the movie, it’s important that we understand what the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey means. The Free Dictionary defines “organ grinder’s monkey” as “one who acts for or does the bidding of someone much more powerful.” It further defines it below:
We first hear the parable mentioned in the film by Mank when John Housman, hired by Orson Welles to keep tabs on Mank’s Citizen Kane scriptwriting process, asks why he targeted Hearst. Mank in turn brings up the parable of the Organ Grinder’s Monkey.
Only in the home stretch of the film do we learn that the parable of the Organ Grinder’s Monkey was a metaphor originally brought up by Hearst himself, during his final encounter with Mank. After all they had been through—Hearst’s political candidate of choice defeated Mank’s more radical choice in the race for Governor of California, and as a result, one of Mank’s colleagues who directed propaganda advertising committed suicide—Mank shows up in a drunken haze to one of Hearst’s dinner party.
After Mank accosts Hearst, he’s walked out; at this point, we hear Hearst tell Mank of the parable.
At this point, Mank interrupts, unsure where this is going. Hearst continues.
In this situation, obviously, Hearst sees Mank as the monkey; Mank feels empowered to speak out at his dinners and accuse the industry and anyone of wrongdoing. Hearst sees him as the monkey—he thinks he’s big and has such a loud voice only because Hearst has provided him with all of his resources.
Mank, understands this, hence referencing the parable when writing his script. He understands what Hearst was saying to him—and makes it his goal to prove him wrong. To prove that he is not the monkey in the parable, and to prove that he’s not afraid of what Hearst is not-so-subtly threatening to do—pull the rug out from beneath him. Throughout the movie we see people visit Mank to talk him out of this; everyone knows what can happen if he goes after Hearst. But it doesn’t matter. He’s set in his ways to prove that he’s not the monkey and that he never was.
As the film wraps up, we learn that Mank won the Academy Award for his screenplay, but that Hearst’s influence and power proved to be what everyone feared. Text on the screen tells us that Mank would never write an original screenplay again, and that he would never fight for credit again. In the end, he may not have been the monkey, but without the presence of an Organ Grinder or a woman to dress him in fancy clothes, he wasn’t able to dance all too much either.
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