The lack of studio output in 2020 meant smaller, more personal stories had a bigger moment in the spotlight, and in many of them the creative process was explored in unique, twisty ways. Josephine Decker’s Shirley unpicks the messy topic of creative inspiration around Gothic-writer Shirley Jackson, and Sundance hit Black Bear sees a filmmaker immersing herself in a toxic artist’s residence while facing a deadening writer’s block.
These are relationship dramas woven into stories about writing, but two films of 2020 specifically tackle the impact of stories and the importance of truth when crafting them. Both monochrome Netflix releases, David Fincher’s Mank and Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version confront the alienating effects of writing and teach us valuable lessons about how authentic stories should look. They remind young writers watching that it’s a hard, often thankless profession, but the thrill of expressing something meaningful should never be forgotten.
The lives of the writer protagonists in each film couldn’t be more different. Mank, or Herman J. Mankiewicz, is a middle-aged screenwriter for MGM in the Golden-age of Hollywood, a high-functioning alcoholic, and scathing social critic. We see his creative process with his writers room: when pitching stories to producers, they come up with the plot in a game of artistic mad-libs, tag-teaming a different writer to come up with the next stirring image or exciting beat. For people this comfortable with their own talents, writing is like a game.
By contrast, Rahda (Blank) is a Black playwright coming up to Mank’s age but with none of the success. She sits on a pile of unproduced plays and unrealised potential, and is stuck with teaching dramatic writing to high-schoolers. The closest we see to Mank’s writers-room is when her students pitch increasingly puerile ideas for their play, prompting Radha to ask, “Can we come up with ideas that don’t involve genitalia?”
Radha’s lack of a supportive writer community is not her fault. She’s a talented playwright who was touted for success years previously, but the narrow-minded theatre industry only permits Black stories to be told from a limited perspective. When Mank is isolated, bed-ridden in a ranch to write Citizen Kane for a young Orson Welles, he’s the only one to blame for his ostracization. He’s become an embarrassing drunk who bites the hand that feeds him, namely MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) after their meddling with a Californian gubernatorial election.
But there’s a monumental difference in the isolation faced by each writer. Mank has been ostracised from the studio system, sure, but he’s still been given the chance to write a film for a soon-to-be visionary talent, one who’s been given final cut privilege. This means, as Orson says, “There are no studio notes. We’ll have no one but ourselves to blame.” It’s hard to find sympathy for Mank being rejected from Hollywood when compared to Radha, who has authentic and challenging ideas but whose access to opportunities are extremely limited. Instead of getting final cut, Radha is patronisingly offered a writing job on a Harriet Tubman musical.
When Shirley Jackson finishes her manuscript for Hangsaman at the end of Shirley, she can be content that her ideas won’t be mutilated as her creative process has been completed. Script-writing, however, is only the first step in a lengthy collaborative process of having your ideas realised, and subsequent changes can threaten the integrity of the project. Radha sees this in the rewrites and rehearsals for her project Harlem Ave., where she is told by her producer J. Whitman (Reed Birney) that the overwhelming force of gentrification needs to be represented by an individual, namely an antagonistic white woman. Her first line screams of Whitman’s oversimplifying touch: “What’s a girl gotta do to get some soy milk around here?” Radha’s play now reduces a complex socio-economic problem to the actions of flawed individuals rather than institutional and structural injustice, thus alleviating wealthy white people of guilt at their harmful actions and policies.
When we see her rewriting, we can feel the stifling effects of the collaborative process in her awkward dialogue, we witness a writing process that’s much more arduous than the effortless way Mank dictates the script for Mank. But Radha reacts to her problems with unfiltered creativity. Under her rapping alter-ego RadhaMUSprime, she performs ‘Poverty Porn’, a lambasting of the abundance of Black characters experiencing suffering in narratives by white storytellers.
While Mank’s script does feature social criticism, it takes the opposite approach to Radha’s. Instead of dealing with broader problems, Mank focuses on one individual, basing Charles Foster Kane explicitly on Hearst. It’s a poorly kept secret that travels around Hollywood fast, but as Mank’s scribe Rita (Lily Collins) remarks, the inspiration is clear in the screenplay, “Everyone in the English-speaking world will recognise him instantly.”
But is this criticism as compelling as Blank’s? Is our understanding and appreciation of Citizen Kane really improved by the knowledge that it was written about a real person? Its scathing, fierce lambasting of corruption and unchecked power seems slightly deflated when seen through the lens that Mank proposes: that Citizen Kane came from one man using his storytelling power to demean and undermine a singular, real billionaire. In this somewhat reductive light, Citizen Kane is suddenly rooted in a time and place that robs it of its expansive timelessness.
In both films, writing the truth is paramount, but where Mank is focused on transcribing real people into fiction, Version is more concerned with authenticity. As Radha says about her music, “This is about creating something that is mine. Something that doesn’t rely on critics or gatekeepers.” Rapping gives Radha her final cut privilege. Version tells a story of disillusionment to epiphany, showing a writer who overcomes creative asphyxiation and finds artistic liberation. What Radha writes isn’t as important as the fact that she’s rediscovered a love for writing. The film announces the new beginning of a creator, not an explanation of one creation.
Comparing Mank and Version seems a little unfair, as one is made by a filmmaking master at the peak of his craft and the other by a debut director sharing a lo-fi personal story. But a comparison reveals how stories about writing should be framed. The cultural impact of Citizen Kane looms high over Mank, but the fact that RadhaMUSprime is so obscure means we don’t focus on her music but on the person performing it. The story of the writer is more compelling when we get an insight not into why they made one specific work, but why they create at all.