It is no secret that movies about Hollywood come with built-in Oscar buzz. The trend is nearly as old as the Academy Awards itself. MGM’s musical comedy Hollywood Revue started the tradition with a best picture nomination (or “Outstanding Picture” as it was then called) at the second annual Oscar ceremony in 1930, and A Star is Born and Sunset Boulevard followed suit in 1938 and 1951, respectively. More recently, The Artist (2011) and Birdman (2014) took home the award for best picture—and of course La La Land (2016) would have won if Warren Beatty ran the show. While sometimes sprinkled with cynicism, these films have tended to charm the members of the Academy because they romanticize the mystique of the movies.
Perhaps what is less common knowledge is that such self-promotion has been a part of the industry’s infrastructure from the very beginning. In response to growing public hostility against the film industry in the early 1920s, studio heads banded together to establish the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (now known simply as the Motion Picture Association). One of the MPPDA’s by-laws focused on “diffusing accurate and reliable information with reference to the industry,” which in part led to a cluster of studio films depicting the industry as a wholesome place full of hardworking people.
Diffusing accurate and reliable information also entailed keeping a close eye on what the MPPDA considered misinformation about its business. Any publication that threatened to subvert the industry’s promotional front would be met with swift legal action. Similarly, throughout the 1930s, the MPPDA shut down a number of film projects that jeopardized the industry’s image, including the unproduced Queer People, The William Desmond Taylor Murder Case, and Hollywood Bandwagon. The Hollywood novel around this time was the only venue that could explore the dark side of the film culture.
“self-promotion has been a part of the industry’s infrastructure from the very beginning”
Out of this industry-wide effort emerged the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences, an organization that effectively fostered the MPPDA’s primary goal of “maintaining the highest possible moral and artistic standards in motion picture production.” Given the industry’s foundational insecurities, then, it is hardly surprising that films depicting Hollywood through a more critical lens—including Hollywood Shuffle (1987), Barton Fink (1991), The Player (1992), Ed Wood (1994), and Mulholland Drive (2001), and more recently Hail, Caesar! (2016)—have been snubbed if not ignored entirely at the Oscars, perhaps with the exception of Sunset Boulevard. Honoring such films, especially with best picture nominations, would be antithetical to the very foundation of the Academy. And yet these snubbed films are often far more memorable than their Oscar-darling contemporaries. When was the last time anyone watched The Artist?
This year, we find ourselves returning to this age-old dilemma with David Fincher’s Mank, which has earned ten nominations, including best picture, director, actor, and actress. On its surface, Mank appears to join this noir-ish vision of Hollywood. Emulating 1940s cinematography and sound design, Mank works to upend the nostalgia of classical Hollywood cinema, both in form and content. The film revisits the pre-production for Citizen Kane, commonly hailed the best film to ever come out of the studio era, and sheds light on Herman Mankiewicz’s role in what is commonly thought of as Orson Welles’s masterpiece. Fincher shows us studio life through the eyes of one of its admirable misfits, along the way exposing the ruthlessness of Louis B. Mayer and the industry’s influence over California politics.
Still, as groundbreaking as Citizen Kane was for its time, Mank feels fairly safe by comparison. Making a movie about a subversive movie, it turns out, doesn’t make for a subversive movie. Despite its darker perspective of the studio system, Mank invites us to discover a lesser-known aspect of Kane and ultimately remind us of its well-earned place in film history. Mank ends with a re-enactment of Citizen Kane’s Oscar win for best original screenplay followed by a real audio clip of Welles’s press conference in Brazil shortly after. A journalist says to Welles, “Kane was nominated in nine categories, including best actor. Aren’t you disappointed it only won one Oscar?” to which Welles responds, “Well that, my good man, is Hollywood.” In this way, Mank practically dares the Academy to make up for Citizen Kane’s snub back in 1942. Of course, this feels like a lose-lose situation. If Mank wins, everyone will accuse the industry of patting itself on the back as usual. If it loses, some might accuse the Academy of passing up an invitation to correct one of its biggest mistakes.
We’ll see what happens come 25 April.
Feature image by Jake Blucker. Public domain via Unsplash.