Here, in the den of his big brick house, at the end of a hard dirt road, in the midst of a leafy, punctureproof country quiet that he has perhaps never known in his soul, and that he certainly never put on the screen, Joseph Mankiewicz, the extraordinary man of movies, fishes in his pocket for a biscuit he offers his black Labrador, Cassius, who beseeches him with an appropriately lean and hungry look.
"You know you're getting old when you start buying affection from your dog," he says. "He's a whore, and I'm a pimp," he says, half to Cassius, half to his visitor. "Yes, that's right, sure."
At 77, he is still handsome, a face etched by intellect, a broad forehead and square jaw. And those marvelous eyes! Pale and pearly blue as the sky over Hollywood, eyes that make the frames of his glasses a proscenium arch, behind which passes a drama of winces, winks and bull's-eye stares.
"Man of movies" is the best you can do. The usual vocabulary -- producer, director, screen writer -- fails to encompass him, for at various times he has been one, the other or three at once; and among the best at all of them.
"I have a lot to be sad about," he says. "Not bitter in any way. But I think it can be said fairly that I've been in on the beginning, the rise, peak, collapse and end of the talking picture."
On the mantelpiece preside four Oscars from xl 1949 and 1950, the miracle years when he won back-to-back writing and directing awards for "A Letter to Three Wives" and "All About Eve"; around the room, shelves full of books on English drama. Twin poles of a life, of a career rich with achievement, and a career that was lost.
In the coming weeks, as part of its celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Directors Guild, the American Film Institute will honor Mankiewicz with a series of screenings of his films, culminating in his appearance here June 25 at a presentation of "All About Eve."
The AFI tribute may augur a renewed, and long overdue, appreciation of Mankiewicz's work, which began at the end of the silent era at Berlin's famous UFA studio, where he translated titles into English, and ended in 1972 with "Sleuth," for which he was nominated for the Best Director Oscar.
The general neglect of Mankiewicz stems from an emphasis that has developed over the last 25 years on the visual, or cinematic, element in films, a light in which Mankiewicz's films suffer. For the most part, his movies were visually routine, the filmmaker's tools -- the camera, lights, sound and editing -- merely functional. Or as he says now, "I'm a guy who doesn't know anything about a camera."
What he knew, and cared passionately about, was words. "Since the beginning of western theater," he says, "the conflicts of the human being have been best dramatized, and best understood, and best enjoyed, and best wept at, by conversation, by conflict of talk. Not by wars, not by being blown up or sunk. It started with the Greeks and their complaints against the gods, man against God, and later man against society, man against himself."
When Mankiewicz refers to the "talking picture," the emphasis is on talking. In the specialized world of the old studio system, Mankiewicz started as an expert in dialogue, sitting across the desk from another writer who wrote the scenario on one side of the page, then passed it across for him to fill in the words, and the craft stayed with him. You knew his characters by how they talked, and he was a virtuoso of sarcasm, brittle, brutal, astringent and ultimately exhilarating sarcasm -- his movies were always best when he had actors like Cary Grant or Bette Davis or George Sanders or Katharine Hepburn, who knew their way around a line.
Today, it's simply accepted that a film belongs to its director. But Mankiewicz was a screen writer auteur -- his films were his because he wrote them -- and as a screen writer auteur, his only equal, perhaps, was Billy Wilder. He came to Hollywood at a time when -- despite the dictum of Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder of MGM, that writers were just jerks with Underwoods -- writing mattered. His colleagues were men and women who grew up in the disciplines of the theater and the short story, who knew the essentials of storytelling; and more than his flair for dialogue, what made Mankiewicz a truly great screen writer was his sense of structure, his intimacy with an audience's expectations.
Listening to Joe Mankiewicz talk about a story is like listening to Ted Williams talk about hitting a baseball. Consider "Woman of the Year," the classic '40s comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, which he produced for director George Stevens. The highlight of the film is a sequence at the end where Hepburn, a high-powered newspaper columnist, tries to make breakfast for Tracy, her husband, and spectacularly, hilariously fails -- a sequence that, as Mankiewicz remembers, was not in the original movie.
"We took 'Woman of the Year' out and previewed it, and it laid the biggest egg," he says. "So back we went to the studio and I sat there with George and we called in John Lee Mahin, who was a very good writer. Visualize the effect on a woman sitting there in the audience, a plain, ordinary woman from Glendale or Riverdale or anywhere. And Kate Hepburn -- God she's beautiful, God she plays golf well, God she can get anyone in the world on the phone, God she knows what to do all the time, God she wears clothes well. And the woman says to herself, 'What can I do that she can't do?'
"So I said, 'George, I think that's the key.' He said, 'You're damn right it is. We gotta put her on her rear end.' So I sat down with John Mahin and I wrote the kitchen scene, where she tries to make breakfast. At that moment this woman in the audience can say, 'She can talk to Batista but she can't make a goddam waffle! I can make a cup of coffee!' And then she loved Kate. She felt sorry for her -- she can't keep a man! And that was as simple as that."
Mankiewicz didn't just know screenplays -- he knew actors, and the chemistry between actors. The pairing he created in "Woman of the Year" became a noun, and an adjective, in the Hollywood lexicon: Tracy-and-Hepburn.
"I introduced them," Mankiewicz remembers. "Spence and I were walking over to the Thalberg Building one day on our way to lunch, as Kate was coming up. She looked at him and you could tell there was gonna be a conflagration there. Big fire. And I said, 'I think you two should meet.' He said, 'How do you do?' And she said, 'I think I may be a little tall for you, Mr. Tracy.'
"I said, 'Look, Kate, don't worry about that. He'll cut you down to size.' "
What Mankiewicz saw in an instant, of course, became the essence of a series of classic films -- Tracy cutting Hepburn down to size was what the Tracy-Hepburn films were all about.
He saw possibilities in actors that other directors didn't always see. Elizabeth Taylor was as good in "Suddenly Last Summer" as she ever was. And Mankiewicz was the man who took the T-shirt away from Marlon Brando by casting him as Marc Antony in "Julius Caesar."
"Marlon and I were both scared, oh boy," Mankiewicz remembers. "When I cast him as Marc Antony, he was material for every stand-up comic in the English-speaking world. They couldn't wait to do their Marlon Brando bit, doing this 'Friends, Romans, countrymen' speech.
"We were both living in New York. He said, 'Just let me study this for a couple of weeks.' And what he did was wonderful, disarming and wonderful. He had a pad on 57th Street across from Carnegie Hall, and he called me in a couple of weeks. Oh God, what a place! He kept possums in there. He had wildlife . . . filthy place. He sat me down, and he played some tapes that he had made. Apparently he had gone out and gotten all the recordings that had ever been made, starting with Forbes-Robertson and Gerald du Maurier, Beerbohm Tree, right up to Michael Redgrave and Gielgud. And I listened to these tapes.
"And at the end of it, he said, 'Well?' I said, 'Marlon, it sounded exactly like June Allyson.' All I could think of was June Allyson reciting Shakespeare. I said, 'Boy we got work to do.' He said, 'That's what I thought, too.' And we worked."
The result was a performance that captured Marc Antony's caginess, but, more than that, found the animal anger at a warrior's center, something Mankiewicz and Brando discovered in rehearsal.
"We were in rehearsal clothes, I'm sitting on a ladder right behind Marlon, and I'm looking past James Mason, who played Brutus, at these faces, the Roman citizens, 300 bits of Los Angeles riffraff, and they're all listening to Mason, and they're very intent. And suddenly, at the proper moment, I squeezed a button and the light comes on and out comes Marlon carrying Louis Calhern -- it was like carrying the Frigidaire. He weighed 250 pounds, enormous actor. Good actor.
"And Brutus says, 'Now here comes Marc Antony, and I beseech you to listen to him.' And Brutus starts off, and they're mumbling to each other. They're obviously upset at the sight of Caesar, but they bought what Brutus has told them. And as they get done there's Marlon. 'What does he have to say, that SOB -- they're talking that way. And suddenly, Marlon speaks up, and he says, 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me . . . ' And they can't hear him. 'Bury the bastard!' And he starts again.
"And suddenly it occurs to me, and I say, 'Marlon, get mad.' And he said, 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, LEND me your ears.' And I swear to you, the only time in my life that I felt a chill go up my spine, that's the only moment I ever felt in my entire career. 'Oh my God, I know why this man, this greatest of all writing or thinking men, used the word "lend." ' For a minute, lend me your ears, not give me your ears. Lend me your ears, and that had the effect of quieting them down, that word "lend." I'd never heard it read that way before.
"But that moment of revelation that you get, when you understand why he picked a particular word, that joy comes out of direction. It happened, that's all. It's one of those pleasures."
Once upon a time, Joe Mankiewicz swore he would never go to Hollywood.
He delivered that oath to his father, a professor at New York's City College and elsewhere, and to John Erskine, a playwright who had been his mentor at Columbia University, saw some talent in him and had groomed him for a career in academia. But when he found himself in Paris a year later, washing dishes for food, fresh out of Columbia and fresh out of cash, he cabled his brother Herman, already established as one of Hollywood's best screen writers (he would later write "Citizen Kane"), who told him to head West.
He arrived in Hollywood in 1929, 19 years old and 19 hours late. "Herman met me at the train, and he said to me, 'Did you bring a dinner jacket?' I said, 'A what?' He said, 'A tuxedo, tuxedo.' I said, 'What, are you out of your mind?' I had one pair of underwear! Brown shoes! So he said, 'I'll lend you one of mine.' He said, 'I'm taking you to a party tonight, that's why I asked. A party at Jesse Lasky's beachhouse Lasky was then head of production at Paramount .' Just picture: Nineteen years old, I had just come across the country on this train. I spent the afternoon, I remember, putting black polish on my brown shoes, to go with my brother's tuxedo. I had a straw hat which I gave to Lasky's butler and I never saw it again, and I've never worn a hat since.
"I went to Lasky's beach house, first night in Hollywood. I gave my hat to the butler, he vanished with part of my trousseau, and I stood there like a kid who had been locked into a candy store, or F.A.O. Schwarz. My God, there was Clara Bow! Olga Baclanova, Kay Francis, Gary Cooper, George Bancroft . . . these women, stars, they all were there.
"I couldn't take it, and I saw a familiar back. A familiar back, broad, tall. And it turned around.
"And it was Professor John Erskine.
"Who else in the world could have shown up and made me feel guiltier? Horror. I had given my oath to this man. And he looked at me and he said, 'Joe?' And I said, kind of sickly, 'Hello, Professor Erskine.' He said, 'Joe, what are you doing here?' I said, 'Well, what are you doing, Professor Erskine?' He said, 'I'm writing at Warner Brothers, where are you?' "
At 22, Mankiewicz was nominated for an Oscar for writing "Skippy" and would have won if David Selznick hadn't shown up at the eleventh hour with a fistful of votes for "Cimarron." ("The votes in those days -- there was none of that nonsense about Price Waterhouse," he recalls. "The votes were counted like a floating crap game on the floor of a bedroom in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.") He wrote gags for W.C. Fields. He rewrote F. Scott Fitzgerald's dialogue ("Maggie Sullavan took me aside and said, 'I can't read this, it's unplayable,' and I did what I could"), dined with William Faulkner, drank with Sinclair Lewis. At 31, he produced "The Philadelphia Story" for Louis B. Mayer's MGM.
Mankiewicz worked for six years as a producer for Mayer, who referred to him, for reasons that remain obscure, as "Harvard College."
"Have you ever been present when you yourself have said something very witty, you know it's witty, but you've said it in the wrong place, with the wrong people?" Mankiewicz begins. And suddenly, though you sit in a den in Bedford, N.Y., you're transported to a bygone, magical Hollywood.
"Mervyn LeRoy was the producer of 'Wizard of Oz.' And they ran way over budget. Nick Schenck himself [the head of MGM's parent company, Loew's], we used to call him the General, has come out from New York, and he says, 'Why is 'The Wizard of Oz' costing so much, Louie?'
"So Louie called this executive meeting, and everybody's there, the production manager, other producers, and so on. All of them, 'Yessir, yessir General, yessir.' I'm sitting down, a little too much lunch, kind of dozing. Wasn't paying attention to it. 'LeRoy's doing this, for God's sake, where's Mervyn?'
"At any rate, nobody knew why the picture was going over budget. And Schenck would say, 'Louie, you don't seem to be in control here.' It was getting very dicey for L.B. And L.B. says, 'Look, why are we talking back and forth? General, I've got a man here: Harvard College. He knows production, he knows screenplays, he knows acting, he knows everything. Believe me, he'll tell ya.' And he looks at me. And Nick turns to me, I'm sitting right next to him, and he said, 'Well?'
I looked up and down the table, and the General said, 'Yes, tell me.' I said, 'I'm sorry, I didn't hear the question?' And Nick Schenck, president of Loew's Incorporated, said to me, 'Why is "The Wizard of Oz" running to over 2 million dollars? You're supposed to know these things.'
"And I said, 'Well . . . LeRoy s'amuse.'
"He said, 'What?'
"I said, 'Nothing.'
"He said, 'Yes, you did, you said something in French! Louie, he's talking French to me!'
"If I had said this at the writer's table, boy, they would have all broken up. It was the worst gaffe I ever made in my life."
"This is the first time they've shown any interest in me at all," Mankiewicz says of the AFI tribute. "I've been on their public mailing list: 'Dear Friend of Films.' For example, when they had the best 50 films ever made, remember that occasion? It was about seven or eight years back and the membership was going to vote, and they got down to the top 50. I had one, maybe two in the top 50. And they sent me an inviation this thick, again, 'Dear Friend of Films. You are invited to pay 350 bucks a ticket and come and mingle with the people who've made these films.' So I said, 'How the hell do I go mingle with myself at 350 bucks a ticket?' At the start of the year I receive these religiously: Come and mingle with people like me."
After "Sleuth," which earned Oscar nominations for both Mankiewicz and his stars, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, Joseph Mankiewicz left the movie business, exiled in part by the times, in part by his refusal to bend to the times, in part by a sort of Hellenic desire to retire from the field with his reputation intact.
Aside from his long friendship with director Robert Benton and an occasional party, he has almost no connection with the Hollywood he helped build.
He remembers ruefully how Darryl Zanuck, the czar of 20th Century Fox, brought in his cutter and butchered Richard Burton's performance in "Cleopatra," a performance that Burton, shortly before his death, said was the best work he ever did. "These are all the things you sit and contemplate if you're me," he says, "and you say, 'Who needed it?' "
And he looks at the books of English drama, and the Oscars on the mantelpiece, and he weighs them in his mind. And he looks at the portrait of his father, a stern-looking man staring out from above the Oscars, and he muses on the plans Dad and John Erskine had for young Joe, plans that he be a professor and a playwright, an 18-year-old kid who had whipped through Columbia and might have had a little talent as a writer.
"I wish now that I had done that," Mankiewicz says. "Because by now I'd be sitting here, I hope, I'd have been a professor emeritus, I think. The thing I love is in those books. I would have written two or three very good plays, I think. Maybe even a good book or two. I would have had something I did that stood for something. Instead of which I did a lot of movies that I'm sorry my name is on, but who doesn't? That's not the point.
"You won't believe this, it'll sound like crap, but I finally figured out that I'm so in love with the theater that I'm in awe of the theater. One thing I did not want ever to fail in was the theater. And I think if I had followed my father's and Erskine's advice, I'd have a standing. These goddam things," he says, waving at the Oscars, "these don't give what I call a standing. I won a hatful of awards, but the award is a pretty defenseless thing when you think of it. What they're supposed to reflect on me I don't know."
Maybe he's right about the Oscars, but the movies that won the Oscars? No.
What Mankiewicz proved, in "The Philadelphia Story" and "Woman of the Year" and "People Will Talk" and "A Letter to Three Wives" and "All About Eve" and all the rest, was that movies could transcend the vulgarity that they have so often since slipped into, that they could be in every way the theater's equal, in mesmerizing us, enthralling us, provoking us, seizing our experience and capturing our hearts.
And as you walk out to the driveway with him and his dog, in Bedford's green serenity, you wish that Cassius were truly Cassius and could, without the resentment of Cassius, tell Joe Mankiewicz that he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.