Obituary: Joseph Mankiewicz
Monday 08 February 1993
Joseph Leo Mankiewicz, film director, producer, writer, born Wilkes- Barr Pennsylvania 11 February 1909, married 1934 Elizabeth Young (one son; marriage dissolved 1937), 1939 Rosa Stradner (died 1958; two sons), 1962 Rosemary Matthews (one daughter), died Mount Kisco New York 5 February 1993.
JOE MANKIEWICZ, in his study, looks at the books on his shelves and says 'Those are the movie books. Over here are the Restoration playwrights which I really care about.' It was a defensive remark from a man celebrated as one of the great wits of the century. 'Fasten your safety- belts,' says Bette Davis, getting drunk at a party. 'It's going to be a bumpy night.'
He studies my manuscript and says with a smile, 'I don't want you to set me down as just another Get-Lucky Hollywood producer.' 'Of course not, Joe,' I reply, looking at the mantelpiece and the four Oscars he was awarded for two of the most enduring of all films, A Letter to Three Wives (1948) and All About Eve (1950). He made his last film in 1972, Sleuth, and, since it was a box-office success and brought Academy Award nominations for him as Best Director and for Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine as Best Actor, he did not want for offers thereafter; but he found himself out of sympathy with what audiences wanted.
He was astonished by some of the films which had been hugely popular - and was particularly contemptuous of ET and Home Alone, not to mention the various costly versions of comic strips. We didn't discuss all of them - he wouldn't have thought it worthwhile - but I got brownie-points since (in general) I agreed with him. 'I just saw the sort of civilised movie you used to make,' I ventured once, 'Mr and Mrs Bridge. And it was terrible.' 'Yeah,' he replied, 'I can't think why Paul (Newman) gets involved in such things. It must be that wife of his. Don't get me wrong. She's a nice woman and a good actress, but . . .'
It helped with Joe if you didn't like today's movies. He puffed at his pipe and looked owlishly through his glasses. His blue eyes could pierce you but he was completely unintimidating. Yet he could frighten people. Deac Rossell, currently the programming head at the National Film Theatre, once upset him and Joe shouted every adjective of invective down the telephone. 'At first I was terrified,' Rossell said, 'and then I began to be fascinated. This man had survived sharks like Louis B. Mayer and Darryl F. Zanuck. That was how he had done it.' After all, it was Mankiewicz who had said to Mayer, head of the almighty MGM, when they were quarrelling as to whether Judy Garland should consult a psychiatrist, 'Well, Mr Mayer, I can see this studio isn't big enough for both of us.'
'This is rubbish,' he said of my manuscript. 'You know more about Hollywood than anyone and you've still got it wrong.' He put me right, because he knew more about Hollywood than anyone. As he put it in 1970, 'I am never quite sure whether I am the cinema's elder statesman, or just the oldest whore on the beat.'
As producer, director and/or writer his name appeared on the credits of over 60 movies, a score of which will survive as long as there are screens to show them on. Yet he always saw himself as apart from Hollywood. He enjoyed the company of the intellectuals in the business, and loved (and was loved by) the other movie-makers of his generation who really tried to raise the quality of movies - Fred Zinnemann, Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder. He enjoyed the company of the straight talkers and down-to-earthers, however crude they were. He loathed the hypocrites and the cynics, and didn't regard himself as hypocritical because he was cynical himself. He was marked out not only for his intellect but for his looks. For his sex appeal. He made no disclaimer about having been the lover of Garland, Loretta Young, Linda Darnell, Joan Crawford and doubtless countless others. He said, 'You can't believe what it was like. Mind you, it was a convent to what it's like now.' But he was proud when he told me that he had never been as happy as with Rosemary, his third, English, wife, the daughter of a chaplain to King George VI. The young Joe is best explained by Lena Horne's daughter in her book on her mother, specifically describing the atmosphere at MGM when she arrived there: 'Everyone was in love with Joseph L. Mankiewicz.'
He was the son of an academic and as a youngster was once baseball and drama coach at a summer camp owned by the Marx Brothers. His brother Herman was a friend of Groucho, and it was Herman who saved him from a career in journalism by cabling him that there was a job alongside his own, writing for Paramount Pictures. Joe's first credit was in 1929, on The Dummy. Sound had just arrived and Herman write the dialogue for the talkie version. Joe wrote the titles for the simultaneous silent version.
At Paramount he worked on such films as June Moon (1931), the all-star If I Had a Million (1932) and Too Much Harmony (1933), with Bing Crosby. There is one delirious, hilarious epic which is all him, Million Dollar Legs - the title refers to the athletes at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. Impossible to say what else it was about, except that it takes place in a country called Klopstockia, which has the good fortune to have WC Fields for president. It was a far cry from that to King Vidor's grim Depression study of wrenching a living from the soil, Our Daily Bread (1934).
By this time he was also at MGM, writing Forsaking All Others (1934) for Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. One film later Mayer gave him the chance to be a producer - at the age of 24 - and he found a script for Fritz Lang, the prestigious director whom MGM had signed - a refugee from Hitler's Germany - and didn't quite know what to do with. This was Fury (1936), a movie about mob- lynching, with Spencer Tracy, and it was certifiably MGM's most acclaimed film for years. Mayer, however, did not like either it or Lang, who quit the studio.
Production there was either in the hands of the 'boy genius' Irving Thalberg, or the more prosaic Sam Katz. Mankiewicz was part of the Katz unit, selecting scripts for Myrna Loy, Rosalind Russell, Gable and Crawford - and some of those for the last-named could only have been produced by a man with a low opinion of her fans. He did get to make three quality productions: Three Comrades (1938), from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque set in contemporary Germany, with Robert Taylor and Margaret Sullavan; A Christmas Carol (1938) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939). Both were written by Hugo Butler and have journeyman directors; because the last of these has Mickey Rooney, then a big star, it had a large budget. A Christmas Carol has a Scrooge feeling - it's MGM's all-purpose London. Reginald Owen, surprisingly, is poor as Scrooge, but the film is otherwise as close to the spirit of Dickens as any other made from his novels (always excepting Cukor's David Copperfield and David Lean's Great Expectations and Oliver Twist).
Mankiewicz became the most admired producer on the lot with two vehicles for Katharine Hepburn, her first for the studio, The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by Cukor, and Woman of the Year (1942), directed by George Stevens, her first teaming with Spencer Tracy. When she observed that she was too tall for him, Mankiewicz said, 'Don't worry, he'll soon cut you down to size.' It was he himself who devised the last (silent) sequence, in which she tries to prove her femininity with an (inept) attempt at cooking breakfast while Tracy watches. He wanted to direct himself, but Mayer refused him: yet these pictures had given him enough clout to insist on returning to writing - ironically with The Pirate, which Garland later did, with a different script. For this was the time of the row over Garland - and a week later Mankiewicz was at 20th Century-Fox, which gave him freedom to write, produce, direct or any combination of these.
Zanuck of Fox asked him first to produce The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), from AJ Cronin's novel about a Roman Catholic priest in China, played by Gregory Peck. He wrote Dragonwyck (1946), a Gothic melodrama which was to have been Lubitsch's first move away from comedy in over a decade - and he directed it himself, with Gene Tierney, when he became ill. He directed another half-dozen pictures, including The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), with Rex Harrison as the spirit of a sea captain and Tierney as the widow who falls in love with him, and A Letter to Three Wives, which brought him his first two Oscars - for writing and directing. The premiss was simple: three women are leaving on a riverboat excursion, and as they do so, they receive a letter from a friend saying that she has run off with one of their husbands. Each has flashbacks as she wonders why. The first, with Jeanne Crain, is ordinary, but the others are extremely funny: Kirk Douglas as a teacher, Ann Sothern as a writer of radio soaps; Paul Douglas as a tycoon, Linda Darnell as the trampy girl who trapped him into marriage, and Thelma Ritter as her mother's drinking crony.
After House of Strangers (1949), a heavy drama about an Italian patriach, Edward G. Robinson, Mankiewicz wrote and directed the first really decent movie about race relations, No Way Out (1949), with Richard Widmark as a crook who has sworn to kill the intern, Sidney Poitier, whom he believes responsible for the death of his brother. Then Mankiewicz made All About Eve, a complex story of theatre people, with Anne Baxter as an outsider who secretly schemes to steal whatever she can from Bette Davis, the ageing actress who had taken her up as a protegee. Davis, against competition which included Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, failed to win an Oscar; but Mankiewicz won again as both writer and director - and the film itself won Best Picture as well as bringing an Oscar to George Sanders for playing the critic Addison de Witt, whose sarcasm was only too much like the man who had put it into his mouth. But, all in all, this is the wittiest picture in Hollywood history.
Mankiewicz became more serious with People Will Talk (1951) with Cary Grant as a doctor. It has some veiled references to the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era but, as president of the Directors' Guild, Mankiewicz was one of their most outspoken opponents. He left Hollywood at this time, to live in New England, and that is easy to understand when you know that he opposed the founding of a film school unless it functioned anywhere except in the Los Angeles area. He also wanted to leave Fox, unhappy that Zanuck had taken credit for his films when he hadn't even read the script as they went into production. So he grabbed the chance of finishing his contract by making a thriller, Five Fingers (1952), based on the case of the valet in the British embassy in Ankara who had sold secrets to the Germans, including the plans for D-Day - which, fortunately, they chose to disregard. With a cast headed by James Mason and Danielle Darrieux, the film is as civilised as it is exciting.
He was invited back to MGM to make Julius Caesar (1953), with Mason as Brutus, John Gielgud as Cassius and Marlon Brando as Mark Antony. He was in Britain when it was due to open and left the country rather than face the reviewers' wrath - only to find that he had received some of the best notices of his life, which still years later amused him. It was widely agreed that it was, with Olivier's Henry V and Hamlet, the best screen Shakespeare. He turned his attention to his own profession and cast Humphrey Bogart as a movie director. Ava Gardner was the girl Bogart discovered and made a star, The Barefoot Contessa (1954) - a role for which half the actresses in Hollywood had pleaded. The film was not as funny or pointed as All About Eve, and Mankiewicz himself was not happy with the role of the Italian count whom Gardner marries. The censor insisted that the count be impotent rather than homosexual; and at the last moment Mason changed his mind about playing him, to be replaced by the weak Rossano Brazzi.
Mankiewicz took on the task of writing and directing Guys and Dolls (1955) for Sam Goldwyn, based on Frank Loesser's Broadway musical in turn based on Damon Runyon's characters. Jean Simmons was the Salvation Army heroine, and it was a coup to get Brando to make his first musical. The fact that neither was really a singer was neither here nor there. Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine were: and Mankiewicz was wryly amused when Brando told him to tell Sinatra how to sing. Working for himself again, he wrote and directed The Quiet American (1958), with Michael Redgrave, from Graham Greene's novel, about the American intervention in Korea: a superbly made movie, but at the very finish it upended Greene's theme - which didn't please Greene much. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), with Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, Mankiewicz directed only, finding the right hothouse style for Tennessee Williams's story (originally a play) about a girl who pimps for her cousin until she sees him raped, killed and eaten by a gang of beach boys.
Mankiewicz directed Taylor again, in Cleopatra (1963), taking on the job after 20th Century-Fox changed the creative personnel during a period when she was ill. Rex Harrison came in as Caesar and Richard Burton as Mark Antony. The terms Mankiewicz were offered made him a rich man, but it was an unhappy film. He said: 'The toughest three pictures I ever made. It was shot in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in blind panic.' He was having to rewrite throughout the night; the love affair of Taylor and Burton often kept them from the set - which made the film dangerously expensive: indeed, at dollars 36m no English-language movie had cost more. It could only get that money back if a miracle occurred. Mankiewicz felt the responsibility of the protracted shoot, and was angry when he was not allowed that for the final cut - which made him all the more bitter when the film was greeted adversely. For years he refused to discuss either the film or the experience; and he chose not to work again until The Honey Pot (1967), a modernisation of Volpone which he had prepared for Harrison, a notoriously difficult man. 'Let's put it this way,' said Mankiewicz, twinkling, 'I'm the only person who directed him four times.' In the event, the film was stolen from Harrison by Maggie Smith. It was not universally liked, and he again thought the result would have been better if it had been released in the version he had envisaged.
His last two pictures were undoubted successes, There Was a Crooked Man . . . (1970), a western with Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda, written by David Newman and Robert Benton, who had penned Bonnie and Clyde, and Sleuth. He turned down everything else, planning a number of books - an autobiography, a treatise on the psychology of actresses: and, given his marvellous abilities as a raconteur, it is a pity he never wrote them. He was honoured twice by the Festival of Deauville - again last year, when he was mobbed from the moment he appeared in the hotel lobby, which he pretended not to enjoy. At one point when he was not enjoying it, his wife said to the crowd of reporters and photographers, 'Look, there's Clint Eastwood', but nobody looked. But it wasn't only journalists who knew him; fans accosted him as he walked to a restaurant. He hadn't made a movie for 20 years, and was recognised instantly. He didn't think this could happen in America. But last autumn New York's Film Forum did an almost complete retrospective: 'Forty Years of Movie Magic' went the banner headline in The New York Times.
'Who'd have thought it?' he said.
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