Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 12, 2010
On July 31, 2010 screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz passed away at his home in Los Angeles due to complications from cancer. The Mankiewicz family is the stuff of Hollywood legend and consists of Tom Mankiewicz’s father, the Academy Award winning director and writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, as well as celebrated screenwriters Herman J. Mankiewicz and Don Mankiewicz; and Turner Classic Movie’s very own Ben Mankiewicz. Before Tom Mankiewicz died he spent some time talking to writer David Konow (SCHLOCK-O-RAMA: The Films of Al Adamson, Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal, etc.) about his family and what it was like trying to find work as a writer in Hollywood when the shadow of your ancestors is weighing heavily on your shoulders. Below is the first half of David Konow’s insightful piece on Tom Mankiewicz. I’m sharing it here in an effort to shine a light on Mankiewicz and honor his memory. The second half will be posted later today.
Young Tom Mankiewicz is in the center surrounded by his older brother Christopher and father Joseph.
Whether you’re talking about Citizen Kane, All About Eve, or Superman, the name Mankiewicz, has been synonymous with great filmmaking throughout film history. Now Tom Mankiewicz recalls the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of growing up in one of Hollywood’s most famous literary families.
One day in the early ’60s, Tom Mankiewicz, son of the famous writer/director Joe Mankiewicz, was having lunch at Universal Studios with Peter Stone. Stone had written the screenplay for Charade, which was shooting on the lot, and was a mentor to Mankiewicz. The director asked, “How would you like to come to the set and meet Cary Grant?” Who could say no? When they got to the set, there was the unmistakable Cary Grant.. The set was on a standing platform, and Mankiewicz started climbing the ladder to get to the top. Grant asked him, “Are you Joe Mankiewicz’s boy?” Mankiewicz said yes, he was. Grant then extended his hand and said, “Here let me help you up, that must be such a terribly heavy burden.”
It’s certainly difficult to follow in a famous father’s footsteps, but try to imagine what it would be like to be an aspiring writer when your father wrote and directed All About Eve and your uncle wrote Citizen Kane. This said, it took time for young Tom Mankiewicz to really understand his father’s standing in the Hollywood community, a community he didn’t feel a part of at first.
Joesph L. Mankiewicz with Bette Davis
“We moved to New York right after Dad did All About Eve,” Mankiewicz said. “Dad had grown up in New York and loved it, and he didn’t hang out much with “Hollywood people.” Dad hated Hollywood. He used to say he didn’t think people were meant to physically live here, that it was an artificial community in what should be a desert and it was one day going to crack off and fall into the ocean! And when the neon signs would float to the surface twenty years later, everyone would wonder what we did here! He was never kind about it for a place that was very kind to him in general.”
Joseph Mankiewicz was a giant in Hollywood during an era where the director was clearly in charge. When Tom was working on Superman with Richard Donner, Marlon Brando told him a story about the power directors held back in the day: “When I worked for Elia Kazan and your father, it was completely their film, and you were a student in their classroom. And I’ll never forget, on Julius Caesar, your father was on a crane and we were shooting Caesar’s entrance into Rome. Down below we were waiting for a day player who’s got one line, and was out taking a leak. The guy runs in out of breath and says, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ Your father looked down at this guy and said, ‘You don’t have nearly the talent to keep this company waiting five minutes young man,’ and we all trembled!”
It’s tough for screenwriters to get respect, and some would say it was that way even in the golden days of Hollywood. But as Mankiewicz recalls, “Screenwriters were looked at with much more respect in my father’s time. Billy Wilder, Philip Dunne, Nunally Johnson were major figures in the town and screenwriting was a big deal in those days, much more so. Darryl Zanuck, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn picked writers the way George Steinbrenner picks ballplayers for the New York Yankees. It was a team of people they had working on the lot.”
The elder Mankiewicz wrote great roles for women and was considered a strong women’s director. “Dad was one of the few 100% womanizing heterosexuals who was a woman’s director. Dad was a man’s man, and unfortunately within our family, he played around a lot and had liaisons with many different actresses. However, I would maintain he wrote women better than men, and the performances from the women in his films were better.”
Joe Mankiewicz was considered, as Vanity Fair contributor David Kamp put it, “a highly skilled diva wrangler.” His son remembered, “He had an enormously strong personality, it was almost hypnotic. He was an amateur psychiatrist, and he would wangle his way into dominating strong personalities. Before he worked with Bette Davis, one executive told him, ‘This woman is going to kill you, don’t hire her!’ But he never had any problems with her. He and Elizabeth Taylor never had any problems. He was very strong, and I never heard him raise his voice. His sets were the quietest sets you’d ever walk on.
When he was eight years old, Mankiewicz sat up with his brother Chris and listened to the Academy Awards on the radio the night their father won the Best Screenplay and Best Director nominations for All About Eve. (Eve also won Best Picture). As Mankiewicz recalls, “Dad winning the Oscar was a little bit like me winning best scout in my troop. I wasn’t fully aware of what it meant, but I knew it meant a great deal. I don’t think I saw All About Eve in any way to appreciate it until I was probably eighteen years old. Suddenly, after not having seen it since I was twelve, I went ‘Wow.’ It was much better than I remembered it. At twelve years old, it’s a lot of walkin’ and talkin.’”
Although he grew up in a strong literary family, Mankiewicz’s initial career goal was to be an actor. He studied at Excelsior and was a drama major at Yale. Joe Mankiewicz came up to see his son perform in a production of “The Visit” with E.G. Marshall, and after the show told his son, “Tom, you can do anything you want in life. If you want to be a dentist, be a dentist. You want to own a filling station, that’s fine with me. But as far as acting’s concerned, sleep with them, eat with them, marry them, divorce them, love them, argue with them, but for God’s sake, don’t be one. I can’t imagine what would be worse: if you weren’t successful at it, or if you were terribly successful at it!”
It was advice that left Mankiewicz feeling deflated. He slowly started getting his feet wet as a writer while he was still attending Yale. Understandably, he had a natural fear of writing, of following in his father’s and uncle’s footsteps. One night after a couple of drinks, he told his father, “It’s all your fault anyways! I was gonna be an actor and you talked me out of it!” “I didn’t talk you out of it,” Joe Mankiewicz replied. “You talked yourself out of it. If you really wanted to be an actor, you would have shrugged off my speech and gone right ahead, but you never really wanted to be one, did you?”
After graduation, Tom came out to Los Angeles to give himself some separation from his father. He worked as an assistant to producers Stuart Millar and Lawrence Turman, where he made $150 a week and lived in the “Tyrone Power Suite” of the Montecito Hotel, which was known as “the poor man’s Chateau Marmont.” While there, Mankiewicz wrote an original screenplay called Please, which was about the last 90 minutes of an actresses’ life before the pills she ingests kill her, with flashbacks illustrating her past. “My family is king of the flashbacks,” he says. “Citizen Kane, A Letter to Three Wives, The Barefoot Contessa are all flashbacks.” The script never got made, but Mankiewicz was able to live off the project for two years because it was optioned by a number of different studios. It also got him noticed at Columbia, where he was hired to write the first draft for a Matt Helm picture, the super spy series starring Dean Martin. “I almost got my name on the picture and the infection had set in,” Mankiewicz recalled. “I wanted to be a writer.”
Mankiewicz first credit (as Thomas F. Mankiewicz) was for a rewrite on an episode of the Bob Hope Chrysler Theater television show. Mankiewicz figured that since his father was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, he could be Thomas F. Mankewicz. “Then I saw it on television and it looked so pretentious and stuffy that I changed to Tom Mankiewicz under the theory that Billy Wilder’s always been Billy Wilder, why can’t I call myself Tom Mankiewicz?” Mankiewicz continued to write for musical variety specials, then earned his first big screen credit with The Sweet Ride, a film starring Jacqueline Bissett that he wrote for Fox.
Tom then wrote the book for Georgy, a stage play based on the film Georgy Girl. The play closed in three days, and Tom retreated to a small house he was renting in Malibu that was falling apart. “I was sort of scared to come out,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what to do.” But his fortunes turned around quickly with one phone call from his agent: “How would you like to write a James Bond movie?”
Update: Part II. can be found here.
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