Film Studies: The kid stays in the picture (unless the brotherly love runs out...)

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The Independent Culture

For decades, the movies were a family business. Certain names persisted over the years because nephews, cousins and brothers were given jobs - to appease them, but also to make sure that there weren't too many enemies close at hand, waiting to put a knife in an unsuspecting back. But that folklore held good only until someone said that he'd never seen any two guys more aggressive, ornery and out to get each other as brothers. So, to the outside world, the career of Joseph L Mankiewicz (born 1909), writer, producer and director, was busily promoted by his brother, Herman J Mankiewicz (born 1897).

They were brilliant boys, too: Joe entered Columbia when he was only 15! Whereupon, Herman was likely to remind the kid that he had actually passed the Columbia entrance exam at 13! In other words, what looked like natural bonding to outsiders was actually a source of sibling rivalry. In his last years, Joe told me - ruefully, with sadness and a little shame - that all his life he had been trying to do better than his brother. So Joe was elated at winning directing Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve in successive years. But it ate away at him that history might still remember Herman as the Mankiewicz because Herman had written Citizen Kane.

Such thoughts are brought to mind by the recent death of Chris Penn, a good actor in small roles, a steady presence, yet someone who seemed to have cracked up at 40 or so. I don't know why, but to look at Chris was to see the overweight younger brother of Sean Penn, who is generally regarded as the star actor of his age. They seemed close, they worked together and they had grown up in a show-business family - their father was Leo Penn, a director, blacklisted in his day, and their mother was the actress Eileen Ryan. No, they were not related to the director Arthur Penn, but Arthur is the younger brother of the great still photographer, Irving Penn. And so it goes.

William Cagney was nothing like the dynamic actor, Jimmy Cagney, his older brother by three years. But Bill idolised Jimmy, and something odd happened. Though in real life, Jimmy was gentle, quiet, faithful and conservative in his manner, Bill wanted to be like the on-screen Jimmy - so Bill became a toughie, a heel to women, a manager who would employ muscle, a loudmouth. And as such, Bill became Jimmy's manager and then his producer - the guy who looked after his older brother, "And don't mess with Jimmy, or you'll have me to deal with!"

When the Coppola family was growing up, they were two boys, August and Francis and their sister Talia. August was the handsome guy, the mind and the talker. Everyone was saying, just you wait and see what happens when Augie gets going. In turn, Francis was a sickly kid, certain he was ugly, shy and not expected to do well. That background adds a lot to Francis's great film, The Godfather, in which the oldest brother, Sonny (James Caan), proves less of a leader than the quiet, studious Michael (Al Pacino). But even with that said, the one Francis most identified with was Fredo (John Cazale), the weakling and the screw-up.

There was a Francis Ford, three years older than the famous director, John. It was Francis who was ahead first in pictures, and who gave the younger brother his first jobs, and so later on Francis remained as a grateful actor in many of John's films. The actor George Sanders had some success before the Second World War, playing "The Saint" and "The Falcon" in B pictures, but as his career advanced so he managed to have himself replaced as "The Falcon" by his younger brother, Tom Conway.

Of course, there was never a movie brotherhood to match the Barrymores - John and Lionel. Lionel was the elder, born in 1879. He was a very popular stage actor - often doing villains and comic parts - in the first two decades of the 20th century, and he got into pictures as both director and actor. But his career was a little overshadowed by his younger brother John (born 1882), because John was dazzlingly handsome and more suited to such leading classical roles as Hamlet and Richard III. John got into pictures, too, and did Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the silent era as well as Topaze, Twentieth Century and Grand Hotel as talkies. He died early (in 1942), because he was a drunk. Lionel had been crippled by arthritis, but he went on until 1954, working often in a wheelchair - that's how he appears in such films as Duel in the Sun and It's a Wonderful Life.

But there are film fans today who do not know that John and Lionel had a sister, Ethel (1879-1959). She did The Lady of the Camellias and Trelawney of the Wells on stage, and she had a grand film career as an older lady - notably as Cary Grant's mother in None But the Lonely Heart and as the art dealer in Portrait of Jennie. The three Barrymores made one film as a trio, Rasputin and the Empress, in which Ethel played the Tsarina and John was Prince Youssoupoff, the man who assassinated Rasputin (it has to be Lionel).

And don't forget Beau and Jeff Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys, one of the best films about brothers, to say nothing of the Ritz Brothers, Warner Bros, and Julius, Leonard, Adolph and Herbert, sometimes referred to as the Marx Brothers, and a clear proof that no one will drive you crazy faster than your siblings. I should also mention that the great French director, Jean Renoir, had a brother, Pierre, who was a fine actor, and who played Maigret in Jean's La Nuit de Carrefour, the husband in his Madame Bovary and the king in La Marseillaise.

Sisters do not figure with quite the same frequency, but no one should forget Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac, June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee, the several Farrow sisters (Mia, Tisa and Stephanie), Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, who gave every lady-like impression of loathing each other, and Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, who have often behaved like the very best of friends. But the Redgraves are like the Barrymores and the Penns: they come from generations that have had acting in the blood so much that good and bad acting alike may be just an act.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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