Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Centennial Tributes: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

By Edward Copeland
One hundred years ago today in Wilkes Barre, Penn., Joseph Leo Mankiewicz was born. Twenty years later, he already was beginning to make his mark in Hollywood as a translator of intertitles for the remaining silent films at the Paramount office in Berlin as the transformation to sound was still taking place. Throughout his long career, Mankiewicz would work as a producer, a writer and a director, sometimes on the same film, sometimes not. It's a good thing sound arrived, because Mankiewicz's greatest gifts came in his memorable dialogue. He also achieved an amazing, never duplicated feat, winning Oscars for writing and directing in two consecutive years: in 1949 for A Letter to Three Wives and in 1950 for All About Eve. He wasn't the first Oscar winner in the Mankiewicz family however. His elder brother Herman had won a writing Oscar for co-writing none other than Citizen Kane with Orson Welles in 1941. Now that's one helluva family.
One of Joe Mankiewicz's earliest credits as a writer earned him an Oscar nomination. It was 1931's Skippy, which also earned a best picture nomination, a best actor nomination for Jackie Cooper (at the tender age of 9) and a best director Oscar for Norman Taurog. In 1932, Mankiewicz received a story credit for Million Dollar Legs, a Jack Oakie vehicle featuring W.C. Fields which movie critic Pauline Kael (presumably in jest) frequently referred to as the best film of all time. It's funny and entertaining, but Kael must have been having fun at someone's expense with that pronouncement. Mankiewicz worked with Fields again when he wrote the all-star 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland. In 1934, he got to shift away a bit from his more comic roots, penning Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and William Powell. In 1936, his career took a turn toward producing and Mankiewicz produced the original version of Three Godfathers with Walter Brennan, The Gorgeous Hussy and the still powerful Fury starring Spencer Tracy as a wronged man. He produced many films in this period, including The Shopworn Angel starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, The Philadelphia Story (which earned him another Oscar nomination) and the first pairing of Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year. The writing bug must have returned because he both produced and wrote 1944's The Keys to the Kingdom and he wasn't credited as a producer again until the 1960s. He wrote 1946's Dragonwyck, originally meant as an Ernst Lubitsch project but when Lubitsch took ill, Mankiewicz took over directing duties as well and his directing career was born. His fifth film as a director, 1947's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, was the first to gain some notice, mixing comedy and pathos as a widowed Gene Tierney and her daughter (Natalie Wood) move into a haunted seaside home and instead of running as most have, learn to live with the ghost of the sea captain who still resides there (Rex Harrison). Mankiewicz didn't write this one, but there is a sweetness to it and it did pair the director with George Sanders for the first time. Based on a novel, the movie would later be turned into a TV sitcom in the 1960s. January 1949 began what truly was an incredible run for Mankiewicz as a director and the first of the two films that would win him consecutive writing and directing Oscars. In a way, you can see why people who whined about Revolutionary Road whined about its take on the problems of marriage in suburbia because A Letter to Three Wives was doing it 60 years ago. The narrator, an unseen character named Addie Ross (voiced by Celeste Holm), even remarks early on how if you traveled down the suburban streets you'd find marriages in various stages of ascent and descent. Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern and Linda Darnell play the three wives of the title who, off supervising some kids on an outing, receive a letter from Addie informing them that not only has she left their town, she's taken one of the trio's hubbies with her as a souvenir. Most of the film unfolds in flashback as the three women recall crucial points in their courtships and marriages while wondering if it's her man that might be the one that got away. Mankiewicz's writing is sharp and the performances are strong, especially Sothern as a radio writer and Kirk Douglas as her school teacher husband who gets a great scene dressing down some radio executive vulgarians about what the meaning of real writing is and what the result of dumbing down America will be. Sixty years later, some things not only never change, they only get worse. As if that weren't enough for a film fan to bite on, Mankiewicz even tosses in Thelma Ritter in an uncredited role and Ritter in a movie is seldom a bad thing. Mankiewicz wasn't done for 1949 either. Later in the year, he also directed a now nearly forgotten pseudo-noir called House of Strangers starring Richard Conte, Edward G. Robinson and Susan Hayward. The film opens with Conte returning home to see his brothers at their bank after a seven year absence, five years after their father (Robinson) has died. Like Letter, the story unfolds in flashback, which proves to be a frequent tool in Mankiewicz's film career, despite the wide variance in subject matter. Robinson plays Gino Monetti, a stubborn but proud Italian immigrant who is tough on his sons, favoring Max (Conte) over his three jealous brothers. Gino runs a bank, though he's really a glorified loan shark, only he works out of well-equipped office building. Robinson is great as always, even if his Italian accent is a bit hokey. Even though the script is credited to Philip Yordan, I can't help but detect a bit of that Mankiewicz flavor, especially in the scenes between Conte and the woman who comes into his life (Hayward). In fact, House of Strangers almost seems to be moving on two tracts for awhile: the story of the Monetti family and the sparring romance between Conte and Hayward. Eventually, they merge to some extent and the film's themes of loyalty, family and not repeating the mistakes of an earlier generation come through. While it isn't a great movie, it is a good one that is worth rediscovery. Next up, Mankiewicz tackled an issue film, namely racism in No Way Out, which is most notable as the film debut of Sidney Poitier as a doctor beginning his residency in a hospital's prison ward. Unfortunately, as with many message movies, the older they are, the more dated they feel and that is certainly the case here though there is still a palpable sting of hate when you hear Richard Widmark as the racist robber spit out the n-word. The film isn't helped by some gaping plot holes and an ending you can spot within the first minutes of the film. Thankfully, Mankiewicz had something much better to offer moviegoers later in 1950, in fact, it was his masterpiece, the film that won him the second half of those consecutive writing and directing Oscars. If Joseph L. Mankiewicz had made no film other than All About Eve, that film alone would make him worthy of a centennial tribute. The ultimate backstage theater story, it gave Bette Davis what was perhaps her greatest screen role and had so much quotable dialogue, you almost just want to list lines from it. In fact, All About Eve deserves its own separate post and review, which I hope to get to someday, if only so I can write a love letter to George Sanders' Oscar-winning role as Addison DeWitt, who is nobody's fool, though he is an improbable person, with contempt for humanity and the inability to love or be loved, though that last part isn't true. I love Addison DeWitt. The following year, Mankiewicz continued his writing-directing streak with Cary Grant starring as an unorthodox doctor who draws the ire and scrutiny of the medical community because of his methods and his private life in People Will Talk. He scored again in 1952, though only behind the camera, with the great spy tale 5 Fingers starring James Mason in one of his very best performances as the valet of the British ambassador to Turkey who pursues a life of leisure funded by espionage. It earned Mankiewicz another Oscar nomination as director. In 1953, he let Shakespeare do the writing, but the casting seemed a bit unusual as he took one of the era's hottest stars of a new style of acting, Marlon Brando, and cast him as Antony in Julius Caesar. Brando got an Oscar nomination for the film. In 1954, he wrote and directed a different sort of study of fame than All About Eve was. The cynicism didn't have an air of fun, it was laced with sadness and tragedy in The Barefoot Contessa which starred Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner and won a supporting actor Oscar for Edmond O'Brien as well as a writing nomination for Mankiewicz. His 1955 offering was much more fun and he again used Marlon Brando in a surprising way: as a musical star, much to Frank Sinatra's chagrin. Mankiewicz wrote and directed the big-screen version of the Broadway hit Guys and Dolls. Then, in a casting decision that miffed Ol' Blue Eyes, he gave Brando the role of Sky Masterson, the larger singing part of the two male leads, leaving Sinatra to take on Nathan Detroit. Thankfully, Brando wasn't an embarrassment and the film is fun. After making that many movies in that many years, a man is entitled to a break, so it's not surprising that it was three years until another Joseph L. Mankiewicz-directed film hit theaters. Then again, it could have been complicated by the fact that much of it was being filmed in civil war-torn Vietnam as he adapted Graham Greene's The Quiet American. This original version, unlike the 2002 remake starring Michael Caine, was set in 1952 before U.S. involvement when Vietnam's emperor and the French military battled the communist insurgents in the north. What also sets the original apart from the remake is that it isn't a complete and utter bore, only a sporadically and partial bore. Michael Redgrave plays the British reporter who claims no sides and he's awfully good and in a strange paradox, Audie Murphy plays the title character and though he's nowhere near as good an actor as Brendan Fraser is in the remake, somehow Murphy's scenes with Redgrave are 10 times more compelling. In the wake of Vietnam, many reviewers preferred the remake, thinking that the original made Redgrave the villain and Murphy the hero for trying to launch terrorist acts that would make U.S. involvement justified, but I think people who lived through the Vietnam War era saw what they wanted to see. Mankiewicz's film doesn't really have heroes or villains. It's a sad love triangle about a lonely older man having his world views shattered in the middle of a mystery. The next year, Mankiewicz tried his hand at directing a Tennessee Williams adaptation, always a dubious proposition in the prudish 1950s. Even with Williams and Gore Vidal handling the screenplay duties, Suddenly, Last Summer still came out watered down, though it didn't help that it wasn't one of Williams' strongest plays to begin with. The film did, however, reunite Mankiewicz with Katharine Hepburn, for the first time as a director, and introduced him to Elizabeth Taylor who would star in his next production, one of the most infamous productions of excess in the history of Hollywood. Yes, poor Joe was the man who helmed 1963's Cleopatra, with its trendsetting budget overruns, off-camera romances, etc., etc. It still managed to earn Oscar nominations and has some positive qualities, but even Mankiewicz voiced regrets over his involvements. His next project would be for television, which I haven't seen, followed by the film The Honey Pot in 1967, another one I haven't seen, followed by a documentary on Martin Luther King. In trying to catch up on some of his work I haven't seen for this piece, I was introduced to 1970's There Was a Crooked Man, a comic Western starring Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda that was such a joy that I decided it deserves a full review, which I hope to get to soon. Two years later, Mankiewicz directed his final film, the original Sleuth, the gamesmanship movie starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine and adapted from Anthony Shaffer's stage play. Appropriately, he got one final nomination for director. While it marked the end of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's career, it wasn't of his life. He lived until 1993 and died eight days short of his 84th birthday.

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Of course, Eve is his masterpiece, but People will Talk is a comic gem aching for rediscovery.
I recently saw The Late George Apley and was delighted by it--a really funny movie, although I am sure it deviates quite a bit from the novel. It even has some pleasing camera work, though Mankiewicz is often slammed as a director who didn't how his films looked.
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