Friday, September 18

The Directors: Joseph Mankiewicz

He was Hollywood royalty.  That last name, hard as it was to spell and pronounce, could be attached to any number of people in a family that glorified the movie capital.  His body of work contains some of the finest films any director could hope for.  He was every bit as much a writer as he was a director and he is the only person to win back-to-back Oscars for writing and directing.

Over his long career he would write 48 screenplays and he produced 20+ films, mainly at Paramount and MGM.  It wasn't until he was hired by 20th Century Fox that he was given a chance to direct, which was his greatest love.  He would steer 11 films for Fox and nine more as an independent.   

A most literate director he worked in most genres and regardless of which one he was involved in at the moment, his work is infused with a witty, clever dialogue, superior use of flashbacks and often observations about social class, feminism and sexual duplicity.  One of his greatest achievements was his seemingly innate ability to work with actors, including some highly temperamental ones.  Actors seemed to do some of their best work in a Joe Mankiewicz film.  He would direct 12 of them to Oscar-nominated performances.

With his ever-present pipe

He was known to be his own man, well-read and highly praised as one of the best raconteurs that Hollywood has ever known.  People were spellbound by his stories which seemed to include everyone but himself.  On that level, he was rather private.  He had a caustic if not occasionally cruel wit and has often been compared to the Addison DeWitt character played by George Sanders in Mankiewicz's All About Eve (ouch!).

He was born in 1909 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Jewish immigrants from Germany.  The family relocated to New York shortly after Joe's birth where his father taught French and German.  By age 19 he earned a bachelor's degree from Columbia University.  He then went to Berlin for work as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune but gave it up to work in the German movie industry as a translator.  By 1929 he joined his older brother, Herman, in Hollywood where he was a screenwriter (and future Oscar winner for Citizen Kane).

Joe was quite the ladies man before the first of his three marriages.  Early in his career at Paramount he fell in love with actress Frances Dee.  They were planning to get married and had the honeymoon and itinerary all set when she not only upped and married actor Joel McCrea (which lasted 57 years) but they kept the same plans that she and Joe had.  He had romances with Loretta Young and Joan Crawford and a number of other actresses.  Despite a healthy producing stretch at MGM, Louis B. Mayer fired Joe because of his affair with Judy Garland.

Joe was temporarily separated from his second wife and Garland was newly-divorced and also newly-separated from her boyfriend of the moment, Tyrone Power.  Garland and Mankiewicz were both a bit neurotic, loved intrigue and had the same wit.  She also fulfilled his interest in troubled women.  Mayer would accuse Joe of increasing Judy's mental health problems (which Joe attributed more to the studio and her crazy mother), a screaming match ensued and Joe was an ex-employee.

His first three directorial efforts at Fox (Dragonwyck, Somewhere in the Night and The Late George Apley) were underwhelming.  He hit pay dirt, however, with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).  In a future posting you'll hear more about the fantasy story of a young widow who moves into a seaside home that is occupied by a crusty, deceased sea captain.  It was one of the best films for both Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.  The actor would star in Mankiewicz's next movie Escape (1948) but it never found much of an audience.  Harrison would be the actor with whom Mankiewicz worked the most.

The first of those dual Oscar wins came with 1949s A Letter to Three Wives.  The story concerned a small town's resident femme fatale who has written to those wives saying she is running away with one of their husbands.  Before we figure out who that might be, we have 103 minutes of Mankiewicz's delicious language and superb performances from the title stars, Ann Sothern, Jeanne Crain (whom Joe didn't like but would work with again) and Linda Darnell (who began a public, two-year, heart-wrenching affair the director which would end at the finish of their next film together).

As good as Wives was, it was certainly eclipsed by 1950s All About Eve, the bitchy backstage look at a has-been actress and her deceitful assistant that brought out the best in the six stars lucky enough to appear in it.  There is no doubt that Mankiewicz never made a better film... some would say there was never a better film made... period.  You've read about it here before.

Thelma Ritter must have been Joe's good luck charm because she is the only actor to appear in both of his Oscar-winning movies.

Sandwiched in between these two films were two more I admired.  House of Strangers (1949) was about a slick banker who exploits his sons, bringing about jealousy.  It was not a perfect film but as a noir it had sassy language and performances from Edward G. Robinson, Susan Hayward and Richard Conte. 

Joe with mistress Linda Darnell & Sidney Poitier

In 1950 Mankiewicz, coaxed by his boss Darryl Zanuck to make controversial films, brought to the screen a riveting noir, No Way Out.  It concerns a black medical intern who treats two white brothers, bank-robbing suspects, and when one dies, all hell breaks loose with the other one.  The words (co-written by Mankiewicz) that come out of the mouth of Richard Widmark are shocking, most especially for 1950.  Sidney Poitier and  Darnell give deft performances.  Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are also outstanding in their movie debuts.

People Will Talk (1951) was one of Mankiewicz's favorite films undoubtedly because the loquaciousness of his writing was in full bloom.  He worked into the script most of the issues of the day that were important to him and gave it all to Cary Grant to say.  Anne Baxter (from Eve) was to have starred as an unmarried pregnant woman (how daring was Mankiewicz for the 50s?) but she had to drop out because she truly was pregnant (wouldn't that have been ideal casting?) and Zanuck shoved Mankiewicz's least favorite actress, Jeanne Crain, into the role.  I didn't like this too-talky film and few people saw it.  

He worked with the illustrious James Mason in the next two movies.  Five Fingers was the story of a valet to a British ambassador who sells secrets to the Germans.  It earned Mankiewicz his third Oscar nomination for directing and it would be his last film under his Fox contract.  He would return some 10 years later cloaked in great notoriety.  The second Mason film was Julius Caesar (1953), Mankiewicz's first film under his Figaro production company.  Mason as Brutus was joined by Louis Calhern as Caesar, Marlon Brando as Marc Antony and a splendid cast including Deborah Kerr, John Gielgud, Greer Garson and Edmond O'Brien.  This was a good film if Shakespeare is your thing.

O'Brien would win a supporting Oscar for his role as an unscrupulous press agent (that may be redundant) in 1954s The Barefoot Contessa.  In a role she seemed born to play, Ava Gardner was sensational to observe but a bit off the mark as a nobody who is reluctantly groomed to be a movie star.  I love movies about Hollywood so this was a must-see... a caustic viewpoint and Humphrey Bogart didn't hurt.

If you liked 1955s Guys and Dolls, good.  I didn't... and you know I love musicals.  This dreary thing with its cast of illustrious actors who had no chemistry, some of whom couldn't sing, and a bloated running time made me go on a search for a rope, chair and rafters.  It must have given Mankewicz some pause, too, because he then had his longest free time in between films.  He came back in 1958 with The Quiet American, about a dour young man in 1952 Vietnam who is knee-deep in murder.  It didn't register with the public.

How Suddenly, Last Summer got past the 1959 censors I will never know.  Perhaps the pedigree attached to it helped.  Directed by Mankiewicz, written as a play by Tennessee Williams, adapted by Gore Vidal and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, I found it irresistible.  And who wouldn't with themes of homosexuality, cannibalism, insanity, lobotomies and obsessive mother love?  It concerned a young woman locked away in an asylum by an aunt who wants her niece's brain deep-fried so she'll stop speaking of the horrible death of her cousin (the aunt's son).  Both actresses were nominated for Oscars and Clift was very good as a doctor.  Perhaps a bit talky but it has some speeches that sent chills down my spine.  The flashback scene detailing the death was nothing short of a miracle.

It was not a happy set.  Clift was at his worst physically and psychologically.  After his famous car accident two tears earlier, he had retreated further into a world of drugs and booze.  He often came to the set barely able to function.  His good friend, Taylor, did all she could to bolster him.  Hepburn, rather famous for aiding alcoholics, also jumped in.  Mankiewicz, apparently, didn't show the empathy the actresses thought he should. 

Don't come any closer

Mankiewicz and Hepburn seemed to be at odds from the beginning.  He had produced her films, The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year in the early 40s.  Perhaps the trouble started there.  She was not only unhappy about some of the words she had to speak in Summer but she said she would not speak them.  She claimed she didn't understand half of the things she had to say.  She also didn't like how she was lit, feeling it made her look too old and not very attractive (one suspects doing scenes with Taylor would make a girl feel a bit uneasy if not testy).  And she deplored the ending as it involved her.  She wanted it done another way and Mankiewicz actually filmed two versions, just to placate her, never intending to use hers.

On the last day of filming, after Mankiewicz yelled out that it was a wrap, Hepburn moseyed up beside him and asked if it were really true that they were done.  He answered in the affirmative and she spat in his face and waltzed off the set and out of his life.  She said she would never see the film.  Mankiewicz would refer to Hepburn as the most experienced amateur actress in the world, whose performances, though remarkably effective, are fake

Privately, he thought both of his actresses were brilliant but he was miffed at not getting a directing nomination.  I have said in these many pages that I regarded Taylor as a magnificent actress only when she was directed by someone equally magnificent.  All hail Mankiewicz, George Stevens, Richard Brooks and Mike Nichols.  Hepburn tended to direct herself and clashed often with tough directors who reminded her of the pecking order.

Maybe the unhappy set on Suddenly, Last Summer was a needed precursor to what was coming up next.  Oh my.  Fox had fired director Rouben Mamoulian from the runaway production of Cleopatra (1963) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Stephen Boyd and Peter Finch.  It was going to ruin the studio if something wasn't done.  Soon Boyd and Finch were gone, too, Burton and Harrison hired, the cards reshuffled, and Mankiewicz was brought on board to keep the Titanic afloat.  We know how that worked out.

I should think there has never been a movie production as notorious as Cleopatra.  There were the firings, the gargantuan sets, location troubles, adultery issues, press problems, illnesses... you name it.  Some like to call this a terrible movie.  It is not a terrible movie, although I choose to ignore its mind-numbing length, and this coming from one who isn't overly fond of these big spectacles.  But it was a train wreck to make and a classic study of Murphy's Law.  The great Mankiewicz did the best he could but his reputation suffered as a result.  Few have slipped as he did.  Fox would sell off most of it property and almost anything else that it could and it wouldn't recover the devastating financial losses borne of Cleopatra until a few years later with The Sound of Music.

Four years would go by until he made The Honey Pot (1967), a somewhat disjointed but unfairly skewed comedy based on Ben Jonson's play, Volpone.  It took place in Venice and concerned a quirky millionaire who hatches a plot designed to expose the greedy natures of the last three women in his life whom he has invited to his villa for mirth and mayhem.  Harrison was delightful in the lead but my reasons for seeing it were simple... Susan Hayward, Capucine and Maggie Smith.

Mankiewicz's hard-to-spell but good name was not restored due to making There Was a Crooked Man (1970), a fairly routine prison comedy-western with Henry Fonda and Kirk Douglas.  But he was back in the saddle again in 1972 for Sleuth.  I found it to be brilliantly written by Anthony Shaffer and matched all the way by  the acting of Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.  It was a tasty cat-and-mouse game involving a man and his wife's lover.  Mankiewicz would receive his final Oscar nomination and then retire.  What an exit!

I suspect he was not the greatest husband nor much of a boyfriend either.  He could be temperamental, opinionated and outspoken...  and oh so funny and irreverent.  But all those Mankiewicz family members made the land called Hollywood more fertile.  He was a triple threat... producer, writer, director.  His body of work on all counts is dazzling.

Joe Mankiewicz died in 1993 at age 83 of a heart attack in Bedford, New York.

Next posting:
A piano man in the movies

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful overview of this genius's life and career. All About Eve is probably the greatest screenplay ever written - I think Mankiewicz's writing skills made him a great director. I am also a very big fan of Suddenly, Last Summer...a gutsy film indeed. And Cleopatra, when seen today, is really one of the most intelligent epic spectacles--the script and performances are quite good.