“Film Author, Film Author,” Part One

“Writing and directing moving pictures… (are) the two components of a hyphenated entity. Put it as you will—that the direction of a screenplay is the second half of the director’s work, or the writing of a screenplay is the first half of the director’s work. The fact remains that a properly written screen play has already been directed—in his script, by the trained screen writer who has conceived his film in visual symbols and translated them into descriptive movement and the spoken word.”

If you imagine that this quote is by a disgruntled scriptwriter, who believes he, not the director, is the “author” of a film, you are half correct. Joseph L. Mankiewicz is one of the great writers in film history. He won two Oscars for screenplays. But in the very same years, he also won two Oscars as best director. In a feat unduplicated in Oscar history, he won Oscars in both categories in successive years, in 1949 for  A Letter to Three Wives and in 1950 for All About Eve. If that is not impressive enough, he also directed two other films House of Strangers and No Way Out between these Oscar winners. The latter film marked the screen debut of Sidney Poitier as a black doctor in a hospital. He is the victim of a rabid racist played by Richard Widmark. It was a brutal and controversial film, still shocking in its venom.

mankiewicz

Perhaps this writing talent resides also in the genes. He is the younger brother of Herman Mankiewicz, the troubled screenwriter of Citizen Kane.

Joe Mankiewicz garnered ten Oscar nominations in a career than began in Hollywood in 1929 as a title writer during the transition from silent to sound films. His first nomination was only two years later as a writer for Skippy and his last nomination was in 1972 for directing the two-character drama Sleuth. He directed 23 films, including a documentary on Dr. Martin Luther King. He was president of the DGA during a turbulent time at the height of the McCarthy era. Here is a list of his awards:

Mankiewicz Awards link

Yet, for many, his is a name that does not loom large in the “pantheon” of American directors. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I met and spent some time with him at the 1979 Venice Film Festival, which was honoring him with a retrospective, and the award, Leone d’Oro. Mankiewicz, late in life, felt he was much respected in Europe but not so much at home. His domestic career did go into a decade long tailspin after Cleopatra, a film he initially had not wanted to direct but which he took over from Rouben Mamoulian only at the strong urging of Spyros Skouras, who was the then head of 20th Century Fox. His long time ally/nemesis, Daryl Zanuck, was in Europe guiding his long planned film The Longest Day. Whether Cleopatra helped do Mankiewicz in (even though it was ultimately financially successful) or whether the American New Wave sensibilities of films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde (both from 1967) left him a relic of another era, is a question that remains unresolved.

A book of interviews with Mankiewicz covering a forty-year period from 1951 to 1991 explores his still enigmatic career. It is one in a series by the University Press of Mississippi Conversations with Filmmakers. The editor is Brian Dauth:

Amazon.com link

Mankiewicz says that his career encompassed “the beginning, rise, peak, collapse, and end of talking pictures.” Perhaps, it is this “end” that holds a clue to his eclipse. The “end of talking pictures” to which he refers is the end of the great era of uber-literate dialogue. (My guess is that the stumbling speech of emerging British Angry Young Man theater and film, and of Beckett on Broadway, were for him nails in the coffin of adult social drama).

He wrote clever “titles” for silent films in an era when the writer of the scenario and the writer of the dialogue were distinct professions. Shortly after his initial foray into titling, he did begin to write dialogue and then full screenplays. His unexpected Oscar nomination for Skippy at age 21 secured his status. He moved to MGM in 1936 and began assignments as a producer, even while doing additional writing, often uncredited, on films such as Fury, The Philadelphia Story, and Woman of the Year. It was his additional dialogue work on Three Comrades that got him into a dust-up with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who went public with his unhappiness. Mankiewicz made it clear that he deeply respected Fitzgerald as a novelist. “It was fine novel dialogue, it read, but as dramatic dialogue it wasn’t good.” This incident haunted Mankiewicz, as he was above all else a writer of keen and smart film dialogue. This was the glory and the bane of his career.

But he wanted more. He wanted to create the screenplay and then to realize it as a feature film director. He is quoted as saying “I felt the urge to direct because I couldn’t stomach what was being done with what I wrote.” This is exactly the rationale many writer/directors with whom I have worked, have given me.

The quote at the beginning of this piece is from an article titled “Film Author, Film Author” that he wrote for the May 1947 issue of Screen Writer, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. In it he discusses at length his view that it is the writer who is the prime creator of the film and that in a certain sense the writer directs it as he writes it. In an ideal world for Mankiewicz, the writer and director is the same person and if the director is not the author of the screenplay he must immerse himself into it as if he were. In this sense his sensibilities are against the grain of what came to be known in the Sixties as the “auteur theory” which in its American incarnation even suggests that it is the director who uses the screenplay, or rises above a mediocre one, to forge his own signature style. This theory worked best for films that were not dialogue heavy, films that placed visuals and action above talk. For Mankiewicz, it is dialogue, not action that is the window into character. He was sufficiently dialogue oriented that several French critics called him a director of “film theatre,” a condescending suggestion that his movies were stage bound. Of course, it is a fitting irony that a film widely considered to be one of his least successful, The Quiet American from 1957, was named by that arch auteurist Jean Luc-Godard as “Best Film of the Year.”

And for a director widely reputed to be not much interested in the camera, Mankiewicz collaborated with an extraordinary roster of cinematographers: Arthur C. Miler (2), Norbert Brodine (2), Milton Krasner (4), Joseph LaShelle, Charles Lang, Jr., Freddie Young, Joe Ruttenberg, Jack Cardiff, Harry Stradling, Jack Hildyard, Leon Shamroy, Gianni De Venanzo, Oswald Morris. Ever sensitive to the rightness of the actors he cast, it would seem he was equally astute about his choice of cinematographers.

One of Mankiewicz’s lesser-known films is Five Fingers, an offbeat spy film, tongue planted firmly in check, from 1952. It is the film he made just before Julius Caesar. In a scene between the ever-urbane James Mason and French star Danielle Darrieux you can see the economy of camera movement and staging that Mankiewicz uses to play out an exposition heavy scene in four simple shots:

But it is just this mix of sophisticated dialogue and non-intrusive camerawork that prevented Mankiewicz from being elevated into the pantheon of American directors promoted by auteurist critic Andrew Sarris. Both Sarris and his sometimes bête noire, Pauline Kael, helped keep a true evaluation of such literate directors as Mankiewicz, Zinnemann, and Huston on the back burner through the last decades of their lives. Even so, Sarris has had an undeniable influence on American film critical theory. You can evaluate it in this essay by Kent Jones from Film Comment.

Film Comment link

Mankiewicz left MGM partly because Louis B. Mayer valued him so much as a producer that he refused to let him direct. After Irving Thalberg’s death he even offered Mankiewicz the young mogul’s job.

In a short but pithy interview by Paul Attanasio also included in the book, Mankiewicz says without irony that he attributes his escape from MGM partly due to an incident that takes place during an executive meeting with MGM’s head boss from NYC, Nick Schenk. He has come out to LA for a studio meeting to address the out of control costs on The Wizard of Oz which is being produced by Mervyn LeRoy. In the office, Mankiewicz’s mind is drifting after a heavy lunch and he half listens as Schenk blurts out to Mayer, “ Louie, you don’t seem to be in control here.” I quote Mankiewicz from the interview:

“It was getting very dicey for L.B. And L. B. says ‘Look, why are we talking back and forth? General, I’ve got a man here: Harvard College. (Mankiewicz actually had studied at Columbia). He knows production, he knows screenplays, he knows acting, he knows everything. Believe me, he’ll tell ya.’ And he looked back at me. And Nick turned to me, I’m sitting right next to him, and he said, ‘Well?’ I looked up and down the table, and the General said, ‘Yes, tell me.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the question.’ And Nick Schenk, president of Loew’s Incorporated, said to me ‘Why is The Wizard of Oz running to over two million dollars? You’re supposed to know these things.’

And I said, ‘Well… LeRoy s’amuse.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He said, ‘Yes, you did, you said something in French! Louie, he’s talking French to me.’

If I had said that at the writer’s table, boy, they would have all broken up. It was the worst gaffe I made in my life.

I tell this story because I think it is a key to the dilemma Mankiewicz faced in Hollywood. Though this is where he found “fame and fortune” his heart remained in the East. He was not one of those transplanted NY theater writers or wits from the Algonquin Round Table. He had learned his craft writing film inter-titles, beginning in Berlin after his student days at Columbia, and then maturing in Hollywood at Paramount. Yet he had an abiding love for the New York Theater and the shape, sound and nuance of its language. Oddly, he never wrote for Broadway. His major film All About Eve is a love song to the world of the stage, even as he throws verbal acid on its sloping boards.

(We will continue this look at Joe Mankiewicz as writer/director in the next posting. It will begin with a scene from All About Eve.)

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