In the May 1947 issue of Screen Writer, writer/director Joe Mankiewicz said, “I felt the urge to direct because I couldn’t stomach what was being done with what I wrote.” This has been a common motivation for many writers to leap into the directorial ring. In Mankiewicz’s ideal film universe, the writer and director are the same person. And he said so a decade before the auteurs of the French New Wave made similar pronouncements.
It was on this note that on Aug. 13, the Academy Film Archive’s monthly screening series Films on Film spotlighted Mankiewicz’s 1950 drama, All About Eve.
The Linwood Dunn Theater of the Academy’s Pickford Center was packed with veteran fans of this highly literate and often biliously cynical movie, and many were anticipating nearly every well known line of its canonic dialogue, such as Margo Channing's famous drunken threat at her own party —“Hang on to your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” — after which she runs into stuffed-shirt drama critic Addison DeWitt, who has in tow a deliciously wry ingénue played by Marilyn Monroe in her first speaking role.
Also in the Dunn audience were first-time and young viewers of this legendary movie of the studio era’s late golden age, many of whom likely knew the name Mankiewicz (if at all) for the personable TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, the great-nephew of the director.
Joe Mankiewicz began in movies as a title writer during the late silent era, but he quickly graduated to scripting dialogue for early talkies, and he received his first screenplay Oscar nomination at age 21 for the 1931 Jackie Coogan vehicle Skippy. Nine more Academy nominations followed. Mankiewicz went on to win four statuettes, two for writing and directing Letter to Three Wives and two (the very next year) for writing and directing All About Eve. This home run of four Oscars for writing/directing in successive years has never been repeated.
Mankiewicz’s directing career began in 1946 with Dragonwyck, a mystery starring Gene Tierney and Walter Huston. Wisely, he hired the great cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, who had recently won Oscars for The Song of Bernadette and How Green Was My Valley. (The latter was screened in the Films on Film series in June.)
All About Eve itself was no less honored than its director, with 14 Academy Award nominations and six wins. Despite the four acting nominations for the film’s key women — Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter — it was, ironically, George Sanders who took home the film's sole Oscar for acting, for his performance in the supporting role of Addison DeWitt.
When Mankiewicz cast Davis in All About Eve, many in the film industry believed her career had already peaked. She was only 41, the same age as Mankiewicz, but she was at a professional crossroads. Her volatile, two-decade contract with Warner Bros. had recently ended, and with more than 50 films to her credit, she was no longer the doyenne of the silver screen. But that was to change again with All About Eve. In an interview in 1983, Davis affirmed that Mankiewicz “resurrected me from the dead.”
After All About Eve, Davis starred in nearly two-dozen more features, including the 1987 drama The Whales of August with the equally redoubtable Lillian Gish. In the 1960s, the sexagenarian actress found a generation of new fans with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, as well as dozens of guest appearances on television dramas.
Mankiewicz was never regarded as a visual stylist — a Cahiers du Cinéma film critic once dubbed him a director of “film theater.” He was the first to acknowledge that his love of a finely tuned script with sparkling, punchy dialogue lay at the heart of his directorial focus. Nonetheless, he always worked with the most gifted cinematographers, including Miller, Milton Krasner, Charles Lang Jr., Freddie Young, Joe Ruttenberg, Jack Cardiff, Leon Shamroy, Gianni De Venanzo and, on his final film (Sleuth), Ozzie Morris.
A behind-the-scenes documentary made for Backstory in 2000 offers a revealing history of how Mankiewicz and Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck developed and made All About Eve. The director’s son Tom, film historian Rudy Behlmer, Davis biographer Roy Moseley, and actresses Baxter and Holm expose some of the highly polished egos that came together and somehow turned a potential disaster into one of the most respected and beloved movies in all of American film. (Claudette Colbert had been cast to play Margo Channing, but had an accident on the set of another movie only a few weeks before production on Eve was set.)
Mankiewicz’s lifelong love of the theatrically polished written word was not only evident in Eve, his love letter to Broadway (though perhaps one written with a poison pen), but also in his choice for his final project, the Tony Award-winning play Sleuth.
There was also his 1953 film Julius Caesar, for which an even more eminent writer for the theater, a fellow named Bill Shakespeare, received the sole writing credit.
I met Mankiewicz in early September 1987 at the Venice Film Festival, where he had a major retrospective and was awarded an honorary Golden Lion. Every morning’s screenings in the Palazzo del Cinema began with one of his movies. Most filmmakers were at the festival to flog their own pictures. I was on the jury and was able to see as many films as I wanted. So, for almost two weeks, I sat next to Mank at 9 a.m. every morning, watching him watch his films. Most of the time, he was quiet and kept pretty much to himself. This may have been partly because his colleague John Huston had just died, and Huston’s last film, an adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, had opened the festival. After the very emotional evening premiere of The Dead, which ends with a poetic voiceover evocation of snow falling all over Ireland, there was weeping throughout the theater. The next morning, before Mank’s own film began, I asked him how long it had been since he had seen his own movies. He thought a minute and then said, “John, I don’t think I’ve seen any of them since they were released. I was always too busy trying to get the next one made.”
Mankiewicz wrote 67 movies, produced 23 and directed 22. Yes, indeed, he was busy.