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Mankiewicz, Joseph Leo

Mankiewicz, Joseph Leo

(b. 11 February 1909 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; d. 5 February 1993 in Mount Kisco, New York), one of the most celebrated writer-directors in U.S. cinema, known for such classics as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), and All About Eve (1950).

Mankiewicz was the youngest of three children born to the German immigrants Franz Mankiewicz, a secondary schoolteacher, and Johanna Blumenau, a homemaker. Mankiewicz’s father wanted to become a college professor, so the family moved to New York City in 1913. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School at age fifteen, Mankiewicz immediately enrolled at Columbia University. He received a B.A. in English in 1928, when he was only nineteen. The fact that he grew up in and was educated in the

New York City area may explain his decision to settle in suburban Westchester County, where he lived from 1951 until his death.

Like others of his generation, Mankiewicz embarked on the grand tour after graduation, unaware that a visit to Berlin would change his life. Mankiewicz’s fluency in German and the contacts of his brother Herman Mankiewicz, then head of Paramount’s scenario department, landed him a job providing English translations for the intertitles in German films scheduled for release in Britain and the United States. On his return to the United States in 1929 Mankiewicz took a similar position at Paramount, writing titles for sound films to be shown in theaters still unequipped for talkies. The written word became Mankiewicz’s passport to Hollywood, and soon it became his signature. Unlike his brother Herman, known primarily as the coauthor of the Citizen Kane (1941) screenplay, Joseph Mankiewicz enjoyed a career that spanned four decades, during which he won two Oscars two years in a row for the script and direction of both A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve.

Paramount realized Mankiewicz had a gift for language, and he quickly progressed from titling to screenwriting, receiving dialogue credit for eight films and screenplay credit for eight more. Mankiewicz’s best Paramount films were comedies: Million Dollar Legs (1932) with W. C. Fields; If I Had a Million (1932), an anthology film for which he wrote, among other episodes, the celebrated “Rollo and the Roadhogs” with W. C. Fields and Alison Skipworth; and Diplomaniacs (1933), featuring the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. In 1934 Mankiewicz married Elizabeth Young, a stage actress. They had one son. Mankiewicz and Young divorced in 1937.

In 1934, after five years at Paramount, Mankiewicz moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), where he functioned primarily as a producer. During his eight years at MGM (1934-1942) he produced eighteen films, including The Philadelphia Story (1940), in which Katharine Hepburn scored a personal triumph after being labeled ’box-office poison’; and Woman of the Year (1942), the first of nine films that Hepburn made with Spencer Tracy. Mankiewicz was the producer Of Three Comrades (1938), but when the star, Margaret Sullavan, complained about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s script, which she found unactable, Mankiewicz agreed and rewrote considerable portions of it. Dismayed, Fitzgerald was forced to admit that good novelists do not necessarily make good screenwriters. In 1939 Mankiewicz married Rosa Stradner, an actress, with whom he had two sons.

In 1943 Mankiewicz’s desire to direct as well as produce and write brought him to the studio with which he has been most identified, Twentieth Century—Fox, then headed by Darryl F. Zanuck, whose obsession with well-written scripts equaled Mankiewicz’s. Significantly all the films Mankiewicz directed at Fox with the exception of No Way Out (1950), a powerful indictment of racism, were adaptations. Dragonwyck (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and House of Strangers (1949) were based on novels; Somewhere in the Night (1946), A Letter to Three Wives, and All About Eve originated as short stories; The Late George Apley (1946), Escape (1948), and People Will Talk, (1951) derived from plays; and Five Fingers (1952) originated from a work of nonfiction. In 1951 Mankiewicz moved from Hollywood to Bedford, New York.

After he left Fox in 1952 Mankiewicz was still drawn to stage and literary properties. He adapted and directed Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1953); Guys and Dolls (1955), a faithful recreation of the Broadway classic; The Quiet American (1957), adapted from Graham Greene’s 1956 novel; Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), based on Tennessee Williams’s 1958 one-act play; The Honey Pot (1966), a modern reworking of Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1605); and his last film, Sleuth (1972), which Anthony Shaffer adapted from his own stage success. Even Mankiewicz’s original screenplay, The Barefoot Contessa (1954), with its impotence subplot, owed much to Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926). Mankiewicz’s wife, who suffered from periods of depression, committed suicide in 1958.

While Cleopatra (1963) might be called an original screenplay, other writers in addition to Mankiewicz were involved, and even the credits acknowledged Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian. Unfortunately, the romantic escapades of the stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, during the shooting received more attention than the film, which was for the most part historically accurate. In 1962 Mankiewicz married Rosemary Matthews, who had been his production secretary during the filming of Cleopatra. That marriage produced a daughter.

Mankiewicz, a stocky man with piercing blue eyes, once hoped to be a playwright. He brought great theatricality to his films, even having characters deliver lengthy monologues on camera or narrate large portions of the film in voice-overs. His most famous film, All About Eve, portrays theater people living as if life were a play in which discourse takes the form of witty repartee. In 1991 Mankiewicz was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In his tribute Michael Caine, who costarred in Sleuth with Sir Laurence Olivier, called Mankiewicz “the most civilized man I ever met in the cinema.” ’Civilized’ is equally applicable to his films. Mankiewicz died of heart failure shortly before his eighty-fourth birthday.

Kenneth L. Geist, Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1978), includes many details about Mankiewicz’s personal life. Bernard F. Dick, Joseph L. Mankiewicz(1983), is a critical study that drew on Twentieth Century—Fox production files. Sam Staggs, All About ’All About Eve (2000) documents the making of Mankiewicz’s most popular film. An obituary is in the New Yor Times (6 Feb. 1993).

Bernard F. Dick

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