(University Press of Mississippi, 250 pages, $20)
Edited by Brian Dauth
Reading this splendid compilation of interviews with the director-producer Joseph Mankiewicz, one theme continually recurs. Mankiewicz is forever convinced that “my kind of filmmaking”—literate, witty, grown-up and filled with sparkling dialogue—is in its death throes. It’s always true to a certain extent, but here is Mankiewicz saying the same thing in 1945 as he does in 1960, 1970 and 1982, and yet his style of filmmaking somehow always manages to endure, if just barely.
Mankiewicz’s career in Hollywood was a long and storied one. He arrived as a teenager in the wake of his older brother Herman, the champion drinker and gambler who somehow managed, between binges and purges, to grind out the masterly screenplay for Citizen Kane (Joseph offers his own take on “Rosebud”; it was the name of Herman’s childhood bicycle, stolen only two days after he received it: “He never got over it”). Joe worked first as a writer (his first Oscar nom came in 1931 when he was 22 years old for adapting the then-popular cartoon strip Skippy). He had ambitions to direct, but found himself trapped as a successful producer at prestige-hungry MGM for most of the 1940s. “You have to learn to crawl before you can walk,” Louis B. Mayer told him. “An inadvertently brilliant description of an MGM producer’s plight,” counters Joe. Eventually, Mankiewicz re-hyphenated himself as a semi-independent director-writer-producer in the relatively sympathetic environs of Darryl Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox in the late ’40s and ’50s. In 1949-50 he won unprecedented—and still unmatched—back-to-back director-writer Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. He also won the first DGA Award for Letter and served as the Guild’s president from 1950 to 1951.
The real treat here is that we get to hear Mankiewicz talk—and what a great talker he is. He was long-admired as a wit around the studio commissary writers’ tables for his erudition and combativeness (oh, the mean things he says about Mel Brooks or Hitchcock’s Notorious!). The rich mine of anecdotes from his long service in Hollywood between the end of the silent era and the death of the studio system makes this a welcome addition to the excellent University of Mississippi series of interviews with directors. One might carp at the repetitiveness of certain turns of phrase, tales and opinions honed to perfection over the years. But heavyweight interviewers like Andrew Sarris and Michel Ciment continually draw new and fascinating material from the director who, unconvincingly, once called himself “the oldest whore on the block.”
Review written by John Patterson.