“Gentlemen, it’s a wonderful art we’re doing business in.” That line, a pungent summation of the movie industry, is from “The Barefoot Contessa” and was penned by writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the most renowned member of a behind-the-scenes Hollywood dynasty that continues to thrive. The Mankiewiczes often provided stars with the kind of dialogue that makes legends. It was Joe who had Bette Davis telling partygoers to “fasten your seat belts” in “All About Eve,” and it was Joe’s brother Herman, along with Orson Welles, who gave us “Rosebud” in “Citizen Kane.” Tom (Joe’s son) was one of the fellows who put those clever quips into the mouth of James Bond. And Tom (1942-2010) also wrote (with Robert Crane) “My Life As a Mankiewicz” a memoir of his years in Hollywood.
The Mankiewicz family is not inclined to “outward affection,” but Joe comes across as a good, if emotionally distant, father. The trauma of Tom’s life was having to cope with his schizophrenic mother, Austrian actress Rosa Stradner, loving and wonderful one minute, terrorizing and desperate the next. Tom says that her illness and suicide (when he was 16) led to his lifelong attraction to similarly fascinating but troubled women (usually actresses, including Tuesday Weld and Margot Kidder). He never married, never had children and always feared abandonment, all of which he connects to the tragic Rosa.
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.”
My Life as a Mankiewicz
An Insider’s Journey through Hollywood
By Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane
Univ. Press of Kentucky. 370 pp. $39.95