Skip to content

Portrait of the Artist as Content Creator

On Mank and The Godfather Coda

In The Immortal Story, the last narrative feature Orson Welles completed in his lifetime, a dying merchant called Mr. Clay (played by Welles, face caked in zombie flick makeup) tells his faithful man-at-hand, Levinsky (Roger Coggio), the story of a rich man who enlists a penniless sailor to impregnate his wife. Before Clay can finish the story, his clerk interrupts. He’s heard this one before. From several sailors, on several different passages. “The story they tell never happened,” Levinsky says. “And that’s why it is told.”

Clay, who abhors pretense and prophecy, won’t suffer the indignity of being snookered by a piece of fiction. As a deathbed wish, he tasks Levinsky with bringing this fable to life by enlisting a local woman to play Clay’s wife, then scouring the town for a sailor who will take her to bed. “If this story has never happened,” Clay rattles, “I want it to happen in real life.”

Mank, the latest Netflix offering from David Fincher, is engaged in a similar project of manufacturing history. It tells the true-ish story of Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a New York daily critic turned well-paid (and well-soused) Hollywood screenwriter. The film is framed around Mankiewicz’s time spent authoring the screenplay for Citizen Kane, for which he officially shares credit with Orson Welles. Mank’s own script, written decades ago by another newspaperman with Hollywood aspirations—Fincher’s father, Jack—commits to an old showbiz canard: that it was Mankiewicz, and not Welles, who made the greatest contributions to Kane, a film which was, for a good long while, generally considered the finest ever made.

What you think about Orson Welles likely says more about you than it does about him.

The story was widely propagated by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael in her sole attempt at film history, the book-length essay Raising Kane. That it has long since been discredited hardly matters. David Fincher is the modern image of Welles’s glowering Mr. Clay. He doesn’t like evidence and actuality. This story never happened, but he wants it to happen. On the silver screen. Or its direct-to-consumer, digital streaming service equivalent, anyway.

There have been plenty of exhausting debunkings of Kael’s central thesis, and the shoddy research cherry-picked to prove it, from the time of her essay’s publication through to Mank’s recent release. The itchier question is “why?” Why bother peddling a forty-plus year-old historical fallacy about the production of a seventy-plus year-old movie?

The easiest explanation is simply that it’s a good story. But it isn’t. Not as told in Mank, anyway. Much more absorbing is the film’s depiction of Mankiewicz’s heavy-lidded eyes being opened to the conniving and corruption of his Hollywood betters as he witnesses a scheme to delegitimize the gubernatorial campaign of socialist writer Upton Sinclair (played by Bill Nye, as in “The Science Guy”). The Kane stuff amounts, ostensibly, to little more than a framing device, spiked with a few testy phone calls between Mank and Orson Welles (Tom Burke), and a ludicrously executed climactic showdown, in which the persecuted scribe demands credit, inviting the full wrath of the bellowing boy wonder.

Kael’s animus toward the image of Welles as a lofty, preternaturally talented, Swiss Army knife filmmaker was obvious. For years, she railed against the notion of the auteur theory, which, in its crudest form, maintains that, despite the inherently collaborative nature of filmmaking, the director is the primary author of a film’s meaning and message. Welles, while sharing credit (with Mankiewicz; with cinematographer Gregg Toland; with a great many others) had long been regarded as an all-American model of the auteur, so involved was he in every aspect of his films’ productions. As the novelist Mordecai Richler wrote in his New York Times review of Raising Kane, “Pauline Kael’s essay is informed by the serious purpose of cutting Orson Welles down to size, denying his needlessly grandiose claim to having been solely responsible for everything that went into Kane, including the script and photography.” By boosting Mankiewicz’s claim to Kane’s authorship and making Welles himself out to be some kind of thankless glory-hog—Raising Kane boldly and baselessly claims that Mankiewicz was “blackmailed into sharing credit with Welles”—Kael ensured irreparable damage to both the director’s reputation and that of auteur theory itself.

Fincher’s M.O. seems to echo Kael’s. In a much-publicized interview with the French magazine Premiere, Fincher railed against Welles’ “delusional hubris” and “gruesome immaturity” (Welles was only in his mid-twenties, and a first-time feature filmmaker, when he made Kane—his neophyte status formerly a credit, not a condemnation.) “To claim that Orson Welles came out of Jupiter’s thigh as-is to make Citizen Kane . . . is not serious,” said Fincher. But all of the criticisms Fincher lodges against Welles—his immaturity, his delusions, his hubris, his role as a “showman” and a “juggler”—are precisely what make him a figure of such consistent interest and appreciation.

Few filmmakers have been the subject of more biographical and critical writing, and the collected corpus of Welles scholarship has developed a multifarious picture of the man: tyrant, narcissist, victim, madman, mountebank, bon vivant, part Falstaff, part Kane, part grimacing Mr. Clay. He’s been condemned by some as a failure, a bloated totem to his own unrealized promise, and treasured by others as a rabble-rouser who kept the courage of his convictions. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has written, Welles has become something like “a site for the acting out of various fantasies,” where different writers can work out their own ideological prejudices of what a filmmaker can, or should, be. What you think about Orson Welles likely says more about you than it does about him.

No matter where you come down on Welles, such an unruly figure is purposefully at odds with Hollywood: both the “classical” Hollywood that he barnstormed, and the contemporary industry, the artistic and financial woes of which have only been compounded by a global pandemic. Fincher, on the other hand, is a creature of the Hollywood system, whose success—both professional and creative—is attributable to his near-peerless craftsmanship. His background in advertising and music videos instilled in him a commercial sensibility, reflected in his ability to elevate (or at least honor) airport fiction like Fight Club, Gone Girl, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And, like ads and music videos, his films are slick and precise. “We used to call him the Watchmaker,” Gone Girl actor Patrick Fugit told The Ringer, “because everything had to fit together perfectly.” And that’s fine. There are probably worse qualities than persnicketiness in a discipline as disorderly as filmmaking. But Fincher sniffing at Welles’ “delusions” grates. It’s like James Patterson telling J.D. Salinger he could have been more successful if he bought a Pomodoro timer and just sucked it up and got out there to press the flesh. No. Fuck off.

While promoting Mank, Fincher announced he’d signed a four-year exclusivity deal with Netflix. “Depending on Mank’s reception,” Fincher said, “I’ll either go see them sheepishly asking them what I can do to redeem myself or take the attitude of the arrogant asshole who’ll require making other films in black and white.” The comment suggests a certain level of mock deference to the moneymen. But it’s clear that Fincher, unlike a rowdier talent like Welles, knows what side his bread is buttered on. He has been contracted—from his work on House of Cards through to Mank and whatever results from his extended Netflix love-in—to class up the streaming service, investing it with whatever residual run-off prestige “The Director of The Social Network” can supply.

Hollywood’s prizing of libraries stuffed with “bingeable” “content” and “bankable” “IP” has taken its toll on another of its legends, a talent of Wellesian zeal similarly undone by a frustrating inability to keep projects on budget and just generally crank out movies people want to see. Like Welles, Francis Ford Coppola is a filmmaker responsible for masterpieces regularly hailed among the medium’s finest (1972’s The Godfather and its 1974 sequel), who has nonetheless been sidelined to relative obscurity.

It has been nine years since Coppola released a new feature, his most recent being Twixt, a self-consciously low-rent, B-grade chiller featuring a commanding performance by a plump and puckered Val Kilmer. Whatever its merits, the film was essentially scuttled from release, only touring the festival circuit and international markets. Coppola has claimed that he doesn’t want to make “factory movies,” a kiss-off with a certain, “You can’t fire me, I quit!” ring to it. “They’re conquering the world with arithmetic!” a character snipes at a table of jazz-age racketeers in Coppola’s The Cotton Club. The director himself was never able to muster a comparable mastery of studio system mathematics.

In the years since Twixt, Coppola has busied himself tinkering with recuts and rereleases of older titles, resulting in Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut and The Cotton Club Encore. The latest of these sees him reworking 1990’s often maligned The Godfather Part III, with a new version carrying the mouthful of a title Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone now arriving on home video, streaming services, and in select cinemas.

When it comes to ideas of the auteur and old-school cinematic authorship, The Godfather Coda signals either a last gasp or a final nail in the coffin, depending how you look at it. On the one hand, there’s a certain tragedy in Coppola endlessly returning to his better-known pictures, a tragedy heightened by the fact that the studio is similarly invested in remonetizing The Godfather, recently announcing a ten-part dramatic miniseries chronicling the original movie’s production, due to premiere on their Paramount+ streaming service. On the other hand, there’s a sense of vindication in seeing the artist restore one of his works to a glory it was never afforded, thanks precisely to studio meddling. The Death of Michael Corleone was the title preferred by Coppola and co-writer Mario Puzo, who viewed it less as a continuation of The Godfather story than a concluding envoi. Hence: Coda.

A long-gestating sequel conceived after a string of underperforming 1980s duds—Coppola spent the decade working off debts incurred from the exorbitant cost of his 1982 musical fantasy One From The Heart, with his Zoetrope Studios filing for bankruptcy in 1990—the original Godfather Part III was assailed by problems, on-screen and off. Star Winona Ryder bounced at the last minute, with the filmmaker’s daughter Sofia Coppola replacing her in the role of Michael Corleone’s daughter, in a mugging and widely mocked performance. Actor Robert Duvall, whose more level-headed menace provided a dramatic counterpoint to Al Pacino’s explosiveness in the first two films, did not return, citing a pay dispute. And compared with other crime epics of the era, like Martin Scorsese’s rip-roaring Goodfellas and Abel Ferrara’s brutish King of New York, the Godfather style must have felt a little too stately, even stuffy.

The script, too, was a muddle. Everything lousy about Part III can be summed up in two words: poisoned cannoli. As in, the one Connie (Talia Shire) serves to a rival mafia Don (Eli Wallach) during the film’s distended and self-consciously “operatic” climax, unfolding against the backdrop of an actual opera. It feels in places like a parody of the previous films, of the whole mob movie genre, and of Italian American identity—because, again: poisoned cannoli. Even its best moments, like the scenes between Pacino and Diane Keaton, feel like fan fiction, imagining the wheelings and dealings of characters whose stories have already been drawn to satisfying conclusions.

Maybe David Fincher knows something Welles, or Coppola, don’t—that we’re all, in the words of Michael Corleone, part of the same hypocrisy.

Trimming about fifteen minutes from Part III’s runtime, Coda plays to the story’s strengths. And to Coppola’s. Instead of opening on a recapping montage catching viewers up with the saga, Coda begins with a scene Coppola himself might find all too familiar: Pacino’s Don Corleone entertaining a pitiful Catholic archbishop (Donal Donnelly) looking to pay off debts he incurred while mismanaging the Vatican Bank. (This new opening acknowledges that these films are at their best when showing men glowering at each other in well-lit rooms.) The perversion of Catholic faith has always served as a subtext of the Godfather trilogy: think of the original’s mass-execution cut against a baptism, or hapless Fredo (John Cazale) snuffed out while whispering the “Hail Mary” to his fishing line in Part II. Coda foregrounds this idea, with Corleone assuring the corruption of an institution which might have been his only salvation. The recut also trims some of Sofia Coppola’s cringier line-readings, while deepening the emotional relationship between Pacino’s Godfather and his daughter. Its ending, too, is gentler. It’s a re-edit not just of the film, but of Corleone, and our understanding of him.

Like Orson Welles, Coppola seems to regard his films not as sacrosanct masterpieces but living works of art. He has an evolving relationship with them, admirable in a cinematic culture of “content creation” contracts. Following the same sentimental tack Coppola himself takes in Coda, it’s simply nice to see this filmmaker—whose career trajectory, like Welles’s, was marked by an ostensible failure to deliver on early and auspicious promise (that is, an inability to offer sufficient return on investment)—preoccupied with his own artistry, valiantly trying to undo the compromises forced upon him. In this light, even an idea as dopey as a poisoned cannoli becomes a defiant statement of artistic purpose. Watching the new version feels like an attempt at redemption not for the character of Michael Corleone, but for a widely maligned and (arguably still) superfluous curtain-call on one of cinema’s true epics. 

Of course, tempered by the requisite skepticism, you could also see Coda as just another piece of content, an attempt by Paramount Pictures to cash in on still-solvent intellectual property by polishing and peddling a new Blu-Ray disc, thereby profiting from Coppola’s quiet rebellion in the editing suite. And perhaps it’s naive to believe that you can still wield the control of a true artist in a medium that is, even more than most, now so beholden to conquest through arithmetic. Maybe David Fincher knows something Welles, or Coppola, don’t—that we’re all, in the words of Michael Corleone, part of the same hypocrisy.

Call it cynicism. Call it savvy. Call it business as usual. But Fincher understands that the only way to ply his trade at a scale befitting his ambition it is by playing within a system that’s increasingly hostile to risk-taking, genuine artistry, or anything other than shoring up the bottom line. “I’m here to deliver them ‘content,’” Fincher recently cracked, “Whatever that means.” I think he knows what it means.