The American film industry exists to make money by making movies. In the days of the Hollywood studio system, it was run along factory-like lines by men who cared only for the bottom line, and most of the artists it hired knew exactly what they’d gotten themselves into. They, too, were there to make money, and their attitude toward the industry was purely cynical—or so, at any rate, they claimed.
Herman J. Mankiewicz certainly seemed to have thought as much when, after going to work as a staff writer for Paramount in 1926, he sent this telegram to his friend Ben Hecht: “WILL YOU ACCEPT THREE HUNDRED PER WEEK TO WORK FOR PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL EXPENSES PAID. THE THREE HUNDRED IS PEANUTS. MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS. DON’T LET THIS GET AROUND.”
The moneygrabbing, it turned out, wasn’t quite that simple. A young writer of promise, Mankiewicz covered theater for the New York Times and the New Yorker and believed himself to be a serious playwright in the making. He saw the movie business as nothing more than a quick way to build up a “lump sum” (in his words) that would subsidize his more ambitious literary efforts—and encouraged other promising writers, among them Hecht and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, his younger brother, to use it in the same way. Instead, it used him. Mank (as Herman was known) spent the rest of his life in Hollywood, dying of alcoholism and festering disappointment after spending a quarter-century writing nothing but screenplays, most of which were immediately forgettable.
Joseph, by contrast, managed to get the better of his employers, as well as of the elaborate system they created to keep their writers under control. Having established himself as a producer at MGM in the 1930s and early 1940s, he then moved to 20th Century-Fox. There he wrote and directed numerous films of high artistic merit, the most notable of which, All About Eve (1950), is universally regarded as one of the most brilliant and individual screen works of the studio era.
Which Mankiewicz was more representative of those writers who submitted to Hollywood’s demands? Given the overlapping arcs of their careers, a dual biography of the two men makes perfect sense, and Sydney Ladensohn Stern, author of The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics, proves far more than equal to the formidable technical challenges of writing it.1 She succeeds in keeping the narrative strands of their lives sufficiently separate to make for easy reading while simultaneously illuminating the instructive similarities in their personalities, both of which come through with lively clarity. Above all, she tells their tightly entwined stories thoughtfully and well, with a sympathetic but honest appreciation of their talents—and limitations.
Mank was the kind of person who, when young, is invariably described by his friends as a “brilliant conversationalist” and is universally expected by them to do great things. Such people are often irresistibly drawn to failure. It is easy to see, however, why no one foresaw that failure at the outset of his career, least of all Ben Hecht, who dubbed his old friend “the Voltaire of Central Park West” and unhesitatingly followed him to Hollywood. “Never have I known a man with so quick an eye and ear—and tongue, for the strut of fools,” Hecht wrote. The potential was clearly there in abundance, and it took longer for Hecht to spot the weaknesses of character concealed by his dazzling quickness of wit.
Born in 1897, Herman was the oldest son of a family of secular German Jews. He became a journalist after serving in World War I, working for George S. Kaufman on the drama page of the New York Times and later becoming the first theater critic of the New Yorker. Stage-struck from college onward, he longed to emulate Kaufman, who successfully wrote and directed plays throughout his tenure at the Times, and he had the talent to do so. But Kaufman had the iron determination necessary to turn himself into a theater professional. Not so Herman, a hard-drinking bon vivant who, like so many newspapermen, lacked the self-discipline that would have allowed him to do more than toss off quotable wisecracks about the world and its follies.
But Hollywood was made for men like Herman, whom it hired by the carload to participate in the making of a product arising not from individual vision but from a collective process of creation. A newspaper columnist capable of salting someone else’s first draft with snappy one-liners was as valuable to that process as a seasoned playwright conversant with the finer points of theatrical construction. Moreover, both kinds of writer could function independently, with their contributions subsequently blended into a coherent whole by the studio producers under whom they worked.
Despite the rigidity of this assembly-line system, Mank put a personal stamp on some of the early sound comedies on which he worked, most notably the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) and W.C. Fields’s Million Dollar Legs (1931). Even so, he hungered for the undiluted pride of individual authorship and so continued to try to write stage plays with Kaufman and Marc Connelly, though he was unable to hold up his end of their abortive collaborations. By that point, he was both a well-paid screenwriter and a drunken degenerate gambler who lost much of his salary playing poker with his colleagues. “They can’t fire me,” he assured Sara, his long-suffering wife. “I owe them too much money.”
Mank’s growing indebtedness kept him from breaking free of the cycle of dependency familiar to other writers who had come to California to make their “lump sums” but found those sums squandered on swimming pools rather than a return ticket to Manhattan. He had no choice but to stay in Hollywood, eventually acquiring a reputation for irresponsibility that made studio heads reluctant to hire him, not least because he also liked to insult them to their faces. In the most celebrated of his ripostes, he went after Columbia’s Harry Cohn, who informed his colleagues one day that he had an infallible way to spot a bad film during a screening: “When I sit still, it’s a hit. When I’m antsy…it’s a sure flop.” To which Mank replied, in the version of the oft-quoted anecdote cited in The Brothers Mankiewicz: “In other words, you have a monitor ass wired to a hundred million other asses.” Mank’s willingness to say such things was part of why he was loved by his fellow writers—and hated by their bosses.
Joseph, who saw the effects of his brother’s self-destructive behavior up close and loyally bailed him out of innumerable financial crises, came to feel that Mank was trying to escape the sting of failure by “rendering himself unable to prove he could achieve—and in the end, destroying himself without guilt.” Only once did he succeed in bucking the system.
In 1939, RKO, which was in dire financial straits and so was willing to take big chances, signed the tyro Orson Welles to a two-picture contract that gave him the unprecedented right of final cut on his own films. In return, Welles would write, direct, and star in those films. What his new employers did not know was that Welles was incapable of writing a script on his own. So he turned to Herman, who had just been fired by MGM, and hired him to collaborate on a screenplay inspired by the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
The result was Citizen Kane, the story of a wealthy, monstrously vain publisher who dreamed in vain of winning high political office, posthumously told not from a single point of view but from that of five different people who knew Kane as an adult but were not privy to the childhood disappointment that set him on the path to final failure. Long fascinated by Hearst’s career, Mank was chiefly responsible for the film’s initiating concept, as well as for much of Kane’s sardonic dialogue and innovative structure. The 24-year-old Welles imposed his prodigious directorial vision on the first draft of their jointly written screenplay and turned it into a fully realized piece of high cinematic art.
Fine as it was, no other studio would have dared to go near Citizen Kane, whose jarringly disjunctive narrative approach was so far removed from accepted styles of filmmaking that it flopped at the box office (albeit in part because Hearst’s henchmen went to great lengths to suppress it). And despite the lavish praise of critics and the fact that its two authors shared an Oscar for its screenplay, Welles was never again allowed to make a studio-backed movie over which he had anything like full creative control.
As for Mank, who was forced to do battle with Welles, a notorious credit hog, to receive on-screen billing for his work on Kane, he never wrote another film of any consequence. Demoralized by its commercial failure and his own persistent inability to finish anything other than a screenplay, he worked instead on potboilers, drinking to fatal excess and dying at the age of 55 in 1953, disappointed to the bitter end. “I seem to become more and more of a rat in a trap of my own construction, a trap that I regularly repair whenever there seems to be danger of some opening that will enable me to escape,” he had told a friend nine years earlier.
Joseph Mankiewicz, by contrast, had no trouble satisfying his money-minded employers, for he was prepared to work within the production system perfected by MGM, well described by Stern in The Brothers Mankiewicz:
MGM’s writers toiled in golden handcuffs. They enjoyed comfortable, spacious offices, first-rate secretaries, reasonable hours, and the prestige of knowing they were at the top studio….In exchange, the writers functioned as cogs in [production chief Irving] Thalberg’s dehumanizing machine: He routinely shifted them from project to project and assigned more than one writer to the same picture at the same time, often without their knowledge.
Irresistibly attractive to women (his romantic conquests included Joan Crawford and Loretta Young) and increasingly powerful as a filmmaker, Joseph had no obvious reason for personal dissatisfaction. Yet he could not live with the fact that the studio system prevented him from having the final say over his own creative work.1 His initial response to this frustrating reality was to try his hand at producing. Shifting to MGM’s production side in 1936, he worked on such top-tier films as Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940). But their success did not satisfy him: Joseph still longed to write, and he concluded, as did Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder before him, that to satisfy his own creative urge he would have to direct his own scripts. As he explained in a 1947 essay, “the direction of a screenplay is the second half of the writer’s work,” revealingly citing Kane as a case in point.
This was why he moved to Fox in 1944, exacting from his new bosses a contract that allowed him to make his own films without front-office interference. Following a series of apprentice efforts, he scored with A Letter to Three Wives (1949), a witty study of suburban marriage and its discontents. It won him best-director and best-screenplay Oscars and established its creator in a single stroke as a creative talent capable of making intelligent films that nonetheless had mass-market box-office appeal. Bolstered by its success, he promptly wrote and directed two more films for Fox, No Way Out (1950), a socially conscious crime drama that gave Sidney Poitier his first leading role, and All About Eve, the first film in which Joseph employed all his talents to maximum effect.
Based on a short story by Mary Orr, All About Eve centers on a conniving young actress who steals a prize role from an aging stage star. Like Kane before it, All About Eve is a fictional “biography” of a celebrity whose tale is told from multiple points of view and whose subject matter is not so much the theater as celebrity itself. And while the plot is soap opera–ish, its treatment is anything but that. As Joseph explained to Darryl F. Zanuck, the producer of All About Eve, his intention was to make “a very funny and penetrating high comedy about the theater” that would “show up some of the weaknesses of our longhaired brethren of the theater which they fondly keep describing as ‘Hollywood.’”
This description suggests that Joseph had a nagging inferiority complex when it came to theater. Yet he was somehow able to portray the foibles of its practitioners with amused, even affectionate, detachment, much of it voiced by the film’s most sharply drawn character, Addison DeWitt, a viperine drama critic:
There are in general two types of theatrical producers. One has a great many wealthier friends who will risk a tax-deductible loss. This type is interested in art. The other is one to whom each production means potential ruin or fortune. This type is out to make a buck.
As the film’s director, Joseph was in a position to ensure that his screenplay would be shot as written. Presumably, then, it was his intention for All About Eve to come across as a kind of filmed play, one whose dramatic effect has little to do with its visual elements. The success of All About Eve derives instead from the solidity of its dramatic carpentry and the crisp brilliance of its dialogue, spoken with consummate flair by the perfectly balanced cast.
It may be for this reason that Joseph, even though he won another pair of Oscars for All About Eve, still felt that he had something to prove. Whatever the reason, he moved back to New York in 1951, seeking to reinvent himself in middle age as a highbrow artist by staging La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera and directing a screen version of Julius Caesar in between more conventional projects. Alas, he was no more capable than his brother of functioning either as a stage artist or a writer of original plays for stage or screen. He was a filmmaker pur sang, and though he stayed at the top of the Hollywood heap throughout the waning years of the studio system, nothing that he did after All About Eve was as memorable.
Sixteen years before his death in 1993, Joseph made a startling confession to his first biographer:
I’ve done so little original work in my life….I’ve pissed away what I had.…I don’t know whether I’ll go down as a leading film director of my time. I don’t know if I’ll even go down as a leading film writer of my time.
He had been, it appears, no more capable at bottom than Herman of coming to terms with the essentially commercial nature of the industry to which both men devoted their lives. To be sure, he changed his tune a few years later, telling his daughter, “I’ve touched more people with my movies…than if I’d written one or two lousy novels. Or plays.” But while that was nothing more than the truth, it was a truth Joseph found hard to accept, just as Herman Mankiewicz was even more painfully aware that he had failed to live up to the great expectations of his colleagues—and his brother.
Nowadays, of course, commercial filmmakers are unapologetic about the artistic validity of their chosen medium. Quentin Tarantino, for example, told an interviewer in 2009 that Joseph “could have held the script for All About Eve up against every play ever written for the American stage and said, ‘Suck my d–k!’ It’s that good.” Nor is Tarantino’s proposition self-evidently absurd: To the contrary, All About Eve is at least as effective as any American stage comedy of its time. But the noisy belligerence with which Tarantino asserts its absolute claim to primacy suggests that he, too, may suspect deep down inside that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Pulp Fiction, or even Jackie Brown.
At the same time, though, one need not believe that All About Eve is a better work of art than, say, Lost in Yonkers or The House of Blue Leaves—or, for that matter, Citizen Kane—to appreciate its artistic excellence. And no matter how complex a problem of critical judgment is posed by a collectively created work of art like All About Eve, surely the point is to relish the finished product for what it is rather than deprecate it for what it is not. But neither of the Mankiewicz brothers was capable in the end of defending the artistic validity of the medium to which they devoted their lives. Such was their shared tragedy, one no less sad for the fact that it was so well-compensated. If they had only had the self-assurance to know as much, their lives—especially Herman’s—might have turned out very differently.
1 University Press of Mississippi, 480 pages. An excerpt of the book, “The Anti-Nazi Movie That Didn’t Get Made,” appeared in the December issue of Commentary.
2 Hence the oft-quoted Hollywood joke, “Did you hear the one about the Polish starlet? She f–ked the writer.”