|Elizabeth Taylor on the set of “Cleopatra.’’ (Girolamo Di Majo/Associated Press)|
At the HFA, a series that's all about Joe
The all-time Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie moment? That’s easy. “Fasten your seat belts,’’ Bette Davis announces in “All About Eve’’ (1950). “It’s going to be a bumpy night.’’ Winking screen style - at once perfectly preposterous and preposterously perfect - doesn’t come more memorable.
“Eve’’ earned Mankiewicz, as writer and director, two Academy Awards (one for the perfection, one for the preposterousness?). They followed the two he’d won the year before, for “A Letter to Three Wives.’’ That one-two punch made him the only winner of best screenplay and best director Oscars in consecutive years.
Those statuettes signified in one way how highly Hollywood valued Mankiewicz during the two decades after World War II. A more telling way, perhaps, came when “Cleopatra’’ (1963) went drastically over budget. How drastically? Adjusted for inflation, it remains the most expensive movie ever made. The director turned to by 20th Century Fox to rescue “Cleopatra’’ was Mankiewicz. The man was an artist? Fine, big deal. More important, so far as the industry was concerned, Joe was a pro.
That was then, though. Ask any movie lover to play free-association with the name Mankiewicz, and chances are it’s Herman, Joe’s older brother and the coauthor of “Citizen Kane,’’ who’ll get cited. What happened? The best way to answer that question, and certainly the most entertaining, would be to see as much as possible of “The Complete Joseph L. Mankiewicz.’’ The retrospective, which runs at the Harvard Film Archive through Aug. 29, kicks off Friday with “Somewhere in the Night’’ (1946). “All About Eve’’ follows on Saturday.
There are some very well-known titles among the 20 films to be screened. Besides “Eve,’’ “Letter,’’ and “Cleopatra,’’ they include “Julius Caesar,’’ with Marlon Brando as Marc Antony (1953); “The Barefoot Contessa,’’ with Ava Gardner at her most gorgeous (1954); “Guys and Dolls,’’ with Brando and Frank Sinatra (1955); the Tennessee Williams play “Suddenly, Last Summer,’’ adapted by Gore Vidal (1959); and “Sleuth,’’ starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine (1972).
Comedy, historical epic, theater adaptations, both classic and contemporary; even a musical. Add to the list literary adaptations (“The Late George Apley,’’ 1947, and “The Quiet American,’’ 1957), a social-issue drama (“No Way Out,’’ with Sidney Poitier making his screen debut, 1950), and a western (“There Was a Crooked Man,’’ 1970, with a script by Robert Benton and David Newman, who wrote “Bonnie and Clyde’’). Range like that has never been easy to find in Hollywood.
Except is it range or lack of artistic personality? Mankiewicz had a sensibility, no question. John Houseman, who produced “Caesar’’ and whose idea it was to cast Brando, credited Mankiewicz’s “unusual skill in translating subtleties of character and dramatic dialogue to film.’’ Just think of “Fasten your seat belts.’’
In this context, though, “translating’’ has its limits. Motion pictures for Mankiewicz weren’t so much about motion or pictures as words. “I think it can be said fairly,’’ he remarked, “that I’ve been in on the beginning, rise, peak, collapse, and end of the talking picture.’’ The most important word in that sentence is “talking.’’
The movies were a means to an end for Mankiewicz, that end being the emulation of other, more ostensibly serious, realms: politics, literature, the the-ay-tuh. If there’s a single character in the Mankiewicz canon one can feel him identifying with, it’s George Sanders’s theater critic, Addison DeWitt, in “Eve.’’ Always the smartest guy in the room, with the most polished lines, Addison’s also the smuggest. Truth be told, he’s a bit inert, too.
There’s a stranger-than-fiction news photo taken at the Academy Awards in 1951. Mankiewicz stands on one side. Darryl F. Zanuck, producer of “Eve,’’ stands on the other. Between them is Ralph J. Bunche, the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat, who had presented the best picture award that year. Yes, it was a very different Oscar ceremony back then, in a very different Hollywood. Mankiewicz, that difference made flesh, appears even happier about Bunche’s smiling approval than he is about the pair of statuettes in his mitts.
Respectability was the highest value for Mankiewicz, higher even than literacy. Vulgarity, the banana peel beneath the ballerina, is respectability’s mortal enemy. The problem is that energy (second only to light as a movie’s best friend) can seem interchangeable with vulgarity.
The failure of “Guys and Dolls’’ is usually attributed to casting Brando as Sky Masterson. Even miscast, he’s the best thing in the picture. He gives a fascinating, pushing-against-his-limits performance. What makes this rendering of the most joyous of Broadway musicals so leaden is Mankiewicz’s eagerness to sit down and steady the boat. The same instincts that led Mankiewicz to take something like “Suddenly, Last Summer’’ or “Sleuth’’ so seriously led him to take “Guys and Dolls’’ not seriously - not energetically - enough.
Mankiewicz’s distrust of movies as medium could also be a strength. It encouraged the glittering dialogue of “Eve’’ and the very literary puzzle-box construction of “Letter.’’ It led him to cast Audie Murphy, America’s most-decorated soldier in World War II, as Alden Pyle in “The Quiet American.’’ Murphy’s all wrong for the part - even more than Brendan Fraser is in the 2002 remake - but that wrongness makes the movie all the more subversive.
Mankiewicz came to Hollywood as a young writer. He was only 21 when he started supplying titles for silent movies, in 1929. Seven years later, he began producing. His credits include at least three classics: “Fury,’’ Fritz Lang’s Hollywood directorial debut (1936); “The Philadelphia Story’’ (1941); and “Woman of the Year,’’ which first paired Katharine Hepburn with Spencer Tracy (1942).
Mankiewicz directed his first feature, “Backfire,’’ in 1946. Some directors always remain hyphenates: Quentin Tarantino, writer-director; David Lean, editor-director; Orson Welles, illusionist-director. Is it too much to see Mankiewicz always as producer-director? After MGM hired him as a writer, in the mid-’30s, Mankiewicz asked to direct. Louis B. Mayer, the studio chief, told him, “No, you have to produce first. You have to crawl before you can walk.’’
In his movies, one finds an interlocking of aspiration and limitation, a pursuit of prestige and demonstration of proficiency, that owe more to the values of producer than director. Crawling is far too harsh a word - craven Mankiewicz never was. But one simply doesn’t see in his work the soaring, or plummeting, that can come from a born director.
“I am never quite sure whether I am one of the cinema’s elder statesmen or just the oldest whore on the beat,’’ he once said. It’s a good line. It’s also self-incriminating. Truly, there is no naivete like that of the sophisticated. “Unfasten your seat belt,’’ you can almost hear Bette Davis say. “Since when does there have to be a difference?’’
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.