Friday, February 19, 2021

The Brothers Mankiewicz: From “Horse Feathers” to “Sleuth”

As a film buff, I knew that more than one Mankiewicz had made his mark in show biz. Apart from younger generations (one the late president of National Public Radio, one currently a host on Turner Classic Movies), there were two patriarchs who dated back to the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system. One of them, Herman J. Mankiewicz (1897-1953) worked with the Marx Brothers and won an Oscar in 1942 for the screenplay of Citizen Kane. His younger brother, Joe (1909-1993) kept so busy as both a writer and a director that it’s hard to keep track of his diverse accomplishments. Suffice it to say here that he both wrote and directed a backstage classic, 1950’s All About Eve.

 One Mankiewicz has been in the spotlight lately because a new film about him, Mank, has been scooping up Golden Globe nominations and other prizes. This ambitious work by director David Fincher, working from a long-gestating screenplay by his father Jack, focuses in on curmudgeonly Herman—his leg encased in plaster following an auto accident—lying in bed at an out-of-the-way Palm Springs bungalow. While trying half-heartedly to stay off the sauce (he’s a legendary alcoholic), he’s struggling to concoct the beginnings of the Citizen Kane screenplay, while John Houseman runs interference between Mank and boy wonder Orson Welles. Emulating the elaborate flashback structure of Welles’ famous debut film, Fincher hops between Mank on his sickbed and his memories of past madcap dinners at San Simeon with William Randolph Hearst (who was to become the model for Charles Foster Kane) and his spirited sweetheart, Marion Davies. It’s a bold idea, and one that lends itself to gorgeous black and white cinematography along the lines of Gregg Toland’s legendary work on Kane. But Fincher muddles matters by digressing into MGM studio politics and Louis B. Mayer’s sabotaging of Upton Sinclair’s run for the California governorship, issues almost wholly peripheral to the story of Mank and Citizen Kane (which was made by RKO).

 I’d much rather get my Mankiewicz family history from a smart new biography by my colleague, Sydney Ladensohn Stern. Her The Brothers Mankiewicz puts the brothers’ lives in context, exploring their German-Jewish immigrant roots and the impact of their strong-minded father on their own life choices. There’s plenty of Citizen Kane lore to be found between these pages. I learned that Herman’s loss of a childhood bike probably led directly to Kane’s famous sled. Also, that the moment when Kane finishes up Jed Leland’s scathing review of Mrs. Kane’s operatic debut as Leland himself would have written it probably evolved from Mank’s own early newspaper career, when his editor at the New York Times took over the review of a vanity project he himself was too soused to complete.

 But much of Stern’s book belongs to the long-lived Joe Mankiewicz, who became a film director almost despite himself. Blessed with the family wit, he was doing well as a screenwriter when he was drafted into the director’s chair, first at Fox and later for other studios. He’s perhaps not better known for his directorial skills because he’s hardly an auteur type: his films run the gamut from social comedy (A Letter to Three Wives) to tense racial drama (No Way Out), from Shakespeare (Julius Caesar) to Broadway musicals (Guys and Dolls). Doubtless  All About Eve (which won six Oscars, two of them for him) was his best experience. The worst was surely the 1963 behemoth Cleopatra, which was wracked by budget problems, logistical nightmares, an unfinished script, and (of course) a love affair that filled the tabloids.    

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