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Golden Age on the Printed Page: My Life as a Mankiewicz

Any classic film fan worth their salt knows the name Mankiewicz; whether its legendary director Joseph Mankiewicz who directed Cleopatra or Ben Mankiewicz who hosts on TCM.  The biography My Life as a Mankiewicz follows the highs and lows of Tom Mankiewicz (who died in 2010), Joseph’s son, and his adventures as a Hollywood director, screenwriter, and script fixer.  The book tells of a Hollywood insiders frustrations with the Hollywood game, drops names, and tells the crazy story of the Mankiewicz clan.  Tom Mankiewicz himself tends to get lost in the narrative, it’s obvious he wanted to keep his personal life personal, but the book’s conversational writing and “snapshots” of the industry make this a fun and insightful read.

My Life as a Mankiewicz follows the trials and tribulations of Mankiewicz’s life; predominately his work fixing scripts and making his own movies.  From the beginning, he sets up the idea that “I grew up in a household where to be ‘a Mankiewicz’ really meant that you had to be somebody” (4).  Tom Mankiewicz lived an intriguing life, but he had to or risked being the one normal member of the clan.  The first chapter sets up all the various people in his life and in his family, each having their own story worthy of a biography.  Mankiewicz grew up in a life of privilege, intelligence, and lofty expectations starting with his grandfather who demanded excellence from his own children.  Tom’s father, the legendary Joseph Mankiewicz, was nominated for an Oscar at 21 and his Uncle Herman was a popular hell raiser at the studios.  It’s easy to see the burden that was upon his shoulders to make something of himself, and a tinge of regret runs throughout the book that Tom didn’t possess nearly the accolades of his famous father.  Dovetailing with the desire for success is sadness and loss.  Mankiewicz details several stories about the broken women in his life, all of which connect back to his mother who committed suicide.  Their relationship becomes oddly incestuous, as he states, as she became more  steeped in alcoholism and mental illness.  It’s obvious there’s still painful reside left from her death, and confusion over it.

His book has a storytelling flair where he easily jumps between time periods and never allows the reader to become lost.  Throughout the book’s 400 pages the tone is light, conversational, and easy to read.  Chapters are broken up further into subheadings detailing particular events.  A few sections are labeled “Snapshots” that discusses the films Joseph Mankiewicz made during a particular decade that sets up the time period and the stress inherent in the Hollywood system.  All of this makes the chapters breeze by and helps make less interesting segments feel shorter.  Each chapter opens with a quote from Joseph Mankiewicz (again showing the profound effect he had on his son) that set the tone for the chapter.  A favorite of mine has to be “In movies today, if you steal a scene from another writer, line for line, it’s still called plagiarism. If you steal a scene from another director, shot for shot, it’s called an homage” (25).   The quotes throughout show how Hollywood hasn’t really changed much, and how old Hollywood could see the writing on the wall for new Hollywood.

Make no mistake this book is filled with dropped names, although the salacious gossip is kept to a minimum.  Crazy stories include Tom Mankiewicz getting drunk as a child with Humphrey Bogart, Joseph Mankiewicz being involved in a lengthy affair with Judy Garland (and making her have an abortion although Tom says he can’t prove it), Joseph Mankiewicz being offered a seat on the tragic Mike Todd flight (and being listed as dead for a few hours after the crash), and allegations of Joseph Mankiewicz becoming dependent on drugs during the making of Cleopatra.  The book never strays from blending Tom’s personal life with his work as both go hand-in-hand.  Tom Mankiewicz grew up surrounded by heavy hitters so it would only make sense his personal life would be molded by the Hollywood élite.  My only gripe with the book is Mankiewicz’s conversational tone does make him digress from the main narrative to something else, only to mention that he’s returning to a past point.

This leads into the strongest theme of My Lifeas a Mankiewicz which is the burden of the name.  Several times in the book Mankiewicz discusses that while his last name could bring advantages, there were just as many people hoping for his failure due to it.  Thus why the man became a screenwriter as it didn’t boil down solely to nepotism.  Tom Mankiewicz definitely had a fascinating career of his own despite most of it taking place in a lesser capacity than his father.  He devotes large portions of the book to his work writing the scripts for the James Bond films Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die.  Throughout he dispenses film making advice that he accrued while “paying his dues,” something he feels most directors don’t do today.  Towards the end he details his observations about the current state of the movies, media, and popular culture that are insightful and showcase how those last remaining people of the old Hollywood regime feel about things like the collapse of the studio system, and the rise of global communication.  Of course there’s also fun Hollywood stories like Ann-Margaret almost being signed on for Superman, and Tom almost being stabbed by Superman producer Alexander Salkind‘s wife.

The picture section details the extended family, and against highlights the burden of having  such a famous last name.  There are photos of Tom and his parents; obviously happier times before his mother’s death.  There are also photos of Tom’s famous Hollywood friends including Roger Moore and Natalie Wood; photos of filming James Bond and Superman; and photos of other famous Mankiewicz members including Ben Mankiewicz!  My Life as a Mankiewicz is filled with bittersweet memories and funny Hollywood stories.  Mankiewicz’s biggest regret is not having children, and for such a large family you can feel his pain when he says that.  The book is a must-read for those wanting the ultimate Hollywood scoop from a true Hollywood insider.

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My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey through Hollywood (Screen Classics)

Kindle Edition

My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey through Hollywood (Screen Classics)

 

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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