In Mank, there’s a scene where screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, awakens disoriented in a California mansion. He soon wanders out back to a film set, where he encounters two studio bigwigs. One of them is Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of MGM. The other is Irving G. Thalberg, a producer who has his own Academy Award named after him. Thalberg has to explain to Mayer who “Mank” is, even though he co-wrote one of their movies (just as he co-wrote, or depending on who you ask, wrote Citizen Kane, often considered the greatest movie ever made).
In snappy dialogue, a quick picture unfolds of Mank and his place in the Hollywood ecosystem. He’s a hired gun who’s used to receiving notes from execs in “the oversight tent.” This is a businessman’s backyard where “movies are a team sport” and where studios “use writers by the truckload,” sometimes all at once, sometimes in relays. The astute viewer knows what Mank knows: that it’s usually a sign of trouble when you see a movie with a revolving door of screenwriters.
At this year’s Oscars, due to air on Sunday, Mank leads the pack with 10 nominations. Citizen Kane had nine yet it only won Best Original Screenplay—an ironic footnote, given that the film helped set the prototype for the auteur, or director-as-author. Like so many other crew members who labor behind the scenes to bring film narratives to life, screenwriters may not inspire the same brand-name loyalty as directors. However, their scripts are where the storytelling begins; and as Mank shows, it’s a process where words matter as much as moving pictures.
The Organ Grinder’s Monkey
Know Your Screenwriters
Today, aspiring screenwriters have some useful books and podcasts at their disposal by legends like William Goldman and pros like John August and C. Robert Cargill. General audience members may not pay as much attention to the words “Written by” in movies … but maybe they should. George Clooney once said, “It’s possible for me to make a bad movie out of a good script, but I can’t make a good movie from a bad script.” Alfred Hitchcock, a master filmmaker, took it even further. He said, “To make a great film you need three things — the script, the script, and the script.”
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