Award-winning film director Joseph Mankiewicz dies at 83

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JOSEPH L MANKIEWICZ, the Academy Award-winning writer and director whose films included the classics All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives and Suddenly Last Summer, has died in Bedford, New York. He was 83.

Mankiewicz's film career began at the end of the silent era, peaked during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, encompassed the controversial Cleopatra (a commercial failure, which was one of the most expensive films ever made), and ended with the hit Sleuth in 1972.

He won Academy Awards for writing and direction in 1949 for A Letter to Three Wives and repeated the Oscar double the following year for All About Eve.

Mankiewicz also coaxed memorable performances from James Mason and Marlon Brando in a 1953 version of Julius Caesar. He coined the phrase 'my little chickadee' for W C Fields in If I Had a Million. He produced the first movie in which Katharine Hepburn was teamed with Spencer Tracy.

As a director, he was hailed for his mastery of flashbacks and use of soundtrack narration. As a writer, he was known for his witty, biting dialogue.

'I've lived without caring what anybody thought of me,' he said in a interview last year. 'I followed very few of the rules. I think I've written some good screenplays, gotten some good performances and made some good movies.'

Joseph Leo Mankiewicz was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on 11 February 1909, youngest of three children of immigrants Frank and Johanna Mankiewicz.

After working briefly in Berlin, he went to Hollywood and began his career by writing subtitles for silent films such as The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu and Fast Company. He was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Skippy in 1931 and continued collaborating on scripts, but his real ambition lay elsewhere.

'I felt the urge to direct because I couldn't stomach what was being done with what I wrote,' Mankiewicz once said. 'Every screenwriter worthy of the name has already directed his film when he has written his script.'

While working for MGM, he 'went in to see Louis Mayer, who told me he wanted me to be a producer. I said I wanted to write and direct. He said, 'No, you have to produce first, you have to crawl before you can walk.' Which is as good a definition of producing as I ever heard.'

As a producer, he had some early critical successes, but The Philadelphia Story, with Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant, was his first smash hit. Another was Woman of the Year, the first film to pair Hepburn and Tracy.

His first chance at directing came in 1946 with the historical romance Dragonwyck. A Letter to Three Wives soon followed and then the triumph, All About Eve - a backstage story of an ageing star and a ruthless young actress.

'Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night]' says Bette Davis's character Margo Channing, in one of Mankiewicz's most memorable lines.

As well as the awards for writing and directing, All About Eve won an Oscar as Best Picture and George Sanders was Best Actor.

In 1961, Mankiewicz was hired to take over a foundering Cleopatra. He would later call it 'the toughest three pictures I ever made. It was shot in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in blind panic.'

The off-screen romance between stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom were married to other people at the time, overshadowed the film.

Before it was finished, two years later, it had cost a then- record dollars 40m. Twentieth Century Fox took the final editing out of Mankiewicz's hands and the finished epic ran 4 hours and 3 minutes. The critics panned it.

His final film, Sleuth, starred Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. 'All I wanted was two actors and not another living thing, not a bird, not a goldfish,' said Mankiewicz. 'Just words . . . (and) two virtuoso actors who could go all-out.'

The director and the stars were all nominated for Oscars.

Mankiewicz was honoured for his lifetime achievement in film with the D W Griffith Award from the Directors Guild of America in 1986, the Golden Lion Award from the Venice Film Festival in 1987 and the Akira Kurosawa Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1989.

He is survived by wife Rosemary, a daughter and three sons.

(Photograph omitted)