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Starring As A Starlet, Amanda Seyfried Shines As Marion Davies In 'Mank'

Apr 14, 2021
Originally published on April 14, 2021 1:21 am

Citizen Kane is often regarded as the greatest film ever made. The fictionalized story of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst didn't win a Best Picture Oscar in 1942, but it did win a Best Original Screenplay award. Hollywood still loves a story about itself, and this year, Mank, a film about Citizen Kane's screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, earned 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It also received a nomination for Amanda Seyfried for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Marion Davies.

In real life, as in Mank, Davies was a starlet who lived a life of luxury with Hearst. She was born in Brooklyn and went from the Ziegfeld Follies to Hollywood. She became a siren of the silent movies in the 1920s, and ironed out her accent as she moved into talking pictures.

"Marion was a really talented actor, she had incredible range, she was really funny, and she was able to lighten any scene that she was in," says Seyfried. "She was very unfiltered like I am, and she was very allergic to being dishonest, which I am absolutely. You know, the Brooklynese was kind of, just, at the end of the day, when she took her shoes off and she grabbed her bottle of gin. She was exactly who she was and you know, she had no shame from where she came from."

Amanda Seyfried's portrayal of Marion Davies in Mank has earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Netflix

In Mank, Davies and Herman Mankiewicz have a fun, wisecracking relationship. "They both love to drink. They both felt very comfortable in each other's presence," says Seyfried. "I think they just shared a really beautiful, very pure, platonic relationship."

Seyfried says Mank offers a more three-dimensional version of Davies than the caricature Mankiewicz wrote in Citizen Kane. In one scene in Mank, she asks him not to make the movie that's obviously about Hearst. "I read the script, " she says. "It's very grand, Mank, in its own way and it's very much you. I would have loved to play me 10 years ago."

"It was never meant to be you," he protests.

"For myself, I don't care, Mank. Really I don't, " she says. "But I beg you: don't kick Pops when he's down."

To get into the role and nail Davies' mannerisms, Seyfried watched her old movies, read her autobiography and listened to old scratchy recordings. She says playing Davies was the ultimate dress-up dream. "There was no limit to what she could spend, and so that's how I was dressed," says Seyfried. "You know, it's like the Oscars every day."

Oscar-nominated costume designer Trish Summerville built several glamorous outfits for her character, including a duchesse satin and silk palazzo pantsuit for a circus-themed party. She also made several gowns, one made of slinky antique gold lamé.

"It's a very beautiful gown, bias cut, has beautiful movement and reflects light quite nicely through the fabrics," says Summerville. "But we decided to have it be a little bit slouchy and drapey in the front to kind of show that maybe she goes bra-less a lot of the times. There's a bit of a carefree spirit to her."

The movie is shot in black and white. Summerville used shades that didn't register too harshly; Davies wears off-whites and light grays; Her coat is an icy blue with a faux fur collar.

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in Mank.
Netflix

Hair stylist Colleen La Baff, who also is nominated for an Oscar, says she styled a hundred platinum hairpieces and wigs built for the character.

"We do what's called a wet set, and old school wet set," she explained. Using plastic rollers, the wigs were baked in the sun to dry. "You pop those rollers out and you brush the hair pretty much right into place, and then you groove her 1930s waves in."

Makeup artist Gigi Williams, also Oscar nominated, lined Seyfried's round eyes to look more like half-moons, and her lips to be more diamond shaped, like Davies'. Williams says director David Fincher wanted her to look like a doll: wide-eyed and approachable.

"David didn't want the caricature, 1920s-'30s pencil eyebrows," she says, "He wanted them just to have a feeling of the period, but without having a screaming arrow to them."

Fincher, Oscar nominated for Best Director, says he was lured into casting Seyfried by the similarities she and Davies share.

"One of the most striking physical characteristics of Marion Davies is those eyes," he says. Seyfried's photogenic face led him to light her in a special way for a dinner party scene.

"It's the Marlene Dietrich light, which is a top light that is dead center over the bridge of her nose, says Fincher. "And what her face rewards you with when you do that is ... it's so symmetrical and it's so stunningly etched that when you get that light in the right place, you can be over her left shoulder, over her right shoulder, right profile, left profile, three-quarter, whatever. She's always going to look like the center of the universe."

In Mank, Marion Davies' character is the focus of attention, too.

Nina Gregory edited this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"Citizen Kane" is often regarded as the greatest film ever made - a fictionalized story of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITIZEN KANE")

ORSON WELLES: (As Charles Foster Kane) Rosebud.

CHANG: It didn't win a best picture Oscar in 1942, but it did win a best original screenplay award. Hollywood still loves a story about itself. And this year, "Mank," a film about "Citizen Kane's" screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, earned 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture. The other nine include one for the portrayal of Marion Davies, as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: In real life, as in "Mank," Marion Davies was a starlet who lived a life of luxury with William Randolph Hearst. She was born in Brooklyn and went from the "Ziegfeld Follies" to Hollywood. She became a siren of the silent movies in the 1920s and ironed out her accent as she moved into talking pictures. Here's Davies with Bing Crosby in the 1933 film "Going Hollywood."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOING HOLLYWOOD")

MARION DAVIES: (As Sylvia Bruce) This is Hollywood, isn't it? Everything's a motion picture set. It's all artificial - the costumes, the scenery, the people.

BING CROSBY: (As Bill Williams) You're telling me.

DAVIES: (As Sylvia Bruce) Yes, I'm telling you. You're just part of this. You belong here. Possibly, you're just as fake as the scenery.

AMANDA SEYFRIED: Marion was a really talented actor. She had incredible range. She was really funny, and she was able to lighten any scene that she was in.

DEL BARCO: Best Supporting Actress nominee Amanda Seyfried says she felt like she had some things in common with Marion Davies, who she portrays in "Mank."

SEYFRIED: She was very unfiltered, like I am, and she was very allergic to being dishonest, which I am absolutely. You know, the Brooklynese was just what - the end of the day, when she took her shoes off and she grabbed her bottle of gin, she was exactly who she was. And she had no shame from where she came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

SEYFRIED: (As Marion Davies) Make yourself to home, Mr. Mankiewicz, or shall I call you Herman?

GARY OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) No, please call me Mank.

DEL BARCO: In "Mank," Davies and Herman Mankiewicz have a fun, wisecracking relationship.

SEYFRIED: They both love to drink. They both felt very comfortable in each other's presence. I think they just shared a really beautiful, very pure, platonic relationship.

DEL BARCO: Seyfried says "Mank" offers a more three-dimensional version of Davies than the caricature Mankiewicz wrote in "Citizen Kane." In this scene, she asks him not to make the movie that's obviously about Hearst.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

SEYFRIED: (As Marion Davies) I read the script.

OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) Who hasn't?

SEYFRIED: (As Marion Davies) It's very grand, Mank, in its own way and very much you. I would've loved to play me 10 years ago.

OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) It was never meant to be you.

SEYFRIED: (As Marion Davies) For myself, I don't care, Mank. Really, I don't. But I beg you, don't kick Pops when he's down.

DEL BARCO: To get into the role and nail Marion Davies' mannerisms, Seyfried watched her old movies, read her autobiography and listened to old, scratchy recordings. She says playing Davies was the ultimate dress-up dream.

SEYFRIED: There was no limit to what she could spend, and so that's how I was dressed. It's like the Oscars every day.

DEL BARCO: Costume designer Trish Summerville built several glamorous outfits for her character, including a duchesse, satin and silk palazzo pantsuit for a circus-themed party and several gowns, one made of slinky, antique, gold lame.

TRISH SUMMERVILLE: It's a very beautiful gown by its cut, has beautiful movement and reflects light quite nicely. But we decided to have it be a little bit slouchy and drapey in the front to kind of show that maybe she goes braless a lot of the times and there's a bit of a carefree spirit to her.

DEL BARCO: The movie is shot in black and white. Summerville used shades that didn't register too harshly. Davies wears off-whites and light grays. Her coat is an icy blue with a faux fur collar. Hair stylist Colleen LaBaff says she styled a hundred platinum hair pieces and wigs built for the character.

COLLEEN LABAFF: We do what's called a wet set, old-school wet set, which is rolled on plastic rollers, and then it's baked out in the sun to dry. You pop those rollers out, and you brush the hair pretty much right into place, and then you groove her 1930s waves in.

DEL BARCO: Makeup artist Gigi Williams lined Seyfried's round eyes to look more like half-moons and her lips to be more diamond-shaped, like Davies'. Williams says director David Fincher wanted her to look like a doll, wide-eyed and approachable.

GIGI WILLIAMS: David didn't want the caricature 1920s/'30s pencil eyebrows. He wanted them to have a feeling of the period but without having a screaming arrow to them.

DEL BARCO: Fincher says he was lured into casting Seyfried by the similarities she and Davies share.

DAVID FINCHER: One of the most striking physical characteristics Marion has is those eyes. You know, they're amazing.

DEL BARCO: Fincher says that led him to light her in a special way for a dinner party scene.

FINCHER: It's the Marlene Dietrich light, which is a top light that is dead center over the bridge of her nose. And what her face rewards you with when you do that is that it is - it's so symmetrical, and it's so stunningly etched that when you get that light in the right place, you can be over her left shoulder, over her right shoulder, you can be right profile, left profile, three-quarter, whatever. She is always going to look like the center of the universe.

DEL BARCO: In "Mank," Marion Davies' character is the focus of attention too.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.