Mankiewicz speaks candidly about the professional perks and burdens of being Hollywood royalty, acknowledging that the advantages finally outweigh the drawbacks. He was a childhood witness to his father’s emergence as a top writer-director and the winner of four Oscars. No other dad introduced Katharine Hepburn to Spencer Tracy, or gave Sidney Poitier his Hollywood break. The most memorable of the author’s interactions with Joe’s films comes when Tom visits the seemingly never-ending spectacle of his father trying to direct “Cleopatra” (1963). On location in Rome, there’s college-boy Tom having an innocent dinner with Elizabeth Taylor at her villa when Richard Burton suddenly arrives at the back door, followed by Eddie Fisher coming downstairs. Awkward but priceless, with Tom an uncomfortable front-row spectator at the scandal of the day.
Other prime firsthand anecdotes fill this consistently readable and entertaining book, including Humphrey Bogart giving a pre-teen Tom his first alcoholic drink, and Marlon Brando later saving him from a knife-wielding producer’s wife. Mankiewicz’s snapshot portraits of the famous are primarily positive and generous, without being fawning. Here’s Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Gore Vidal, Sophia Loren, each seeming true-to-form yet, thanks to Tom’s fresh insights, something more. If anyone will be displeased, it’s Robert Redford, who comes off as a childish, perpetually late diva, quite unlike his modest, low-key persona.
Inevitably entering the family business, Mankiewicz worked in film, television and theater in the 1960s, staking his claim with “Diamonds Are Forever” as the premier Bond-film writer of the 1970s. Bond fanatics will savor Mankiewicz’s enjoyment of both his Bonds. He considers Sean Connery the most unselfish of actors and, as for Roger Moore, well, “you just had to love him.”
Mankiewicz found steady, lucrative employment as one of Hollywood’s prized script doctors. If the book has a centerpiece, it’s his experience “doctoring” “Superman” (1978), a film that initially seemed destined to be another “Cleopatra.” (The biggest surprise of its making may have been the joy of working with late-career Brando.)
Mankiewicz’s later projects became increasingly disposable, including his writing and directing chores on television’s “Hart to Hart” (1979-84) and his big-screen directorial debut with “Dragnet” (1987).
Mankiewicz’s lasting achievements may be minor (the ’70s Bond pictures don’t exactly rate with the ones from the ’60s), but there’s a tingling immediacy and value in much of what he observed: Connery advising Christopher Reeve on handling typecasting, Don Rickles puncturing Marlene Dietrich’s ego during a party game, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly consoling Wagner after Natalie Wood’s death.
The book ends with “All the audience knows is what they see,” but thanks to Mankiewicz’s posthumously published words, we get to know a little more than we did.
DiLeo’s latest book is “Screen Savers II: My Grab Bag of Classic Movies.”