If there’s one family that deserves to be called Hollywood royalty, it’s the Mankiewicz clan. The iconoclastic brood has produced two Oscar-winners: Highly prolific writer-producer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls) and his older brother Herman, the screenwriter behind Citizen Kane and The Pride of the Yankees. My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey through Hollywood (University Press of Kentucky, 400 pages, $39.95), co-written by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane, provides an intimate perspective of what it was like to be a part of such a legendary family. Tom is the son of Joseph and grew up on his father’s movie sets. The memoir is being published posthumously; Tom died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at the age of 68.
My Life as a Mankewicz is a whirlwind tour through Hollywood history with Tom as the affable guide. A man about town and longtime playboy, it seems as if Tom has met (or dated) nearly every major movie star from the ’60s and ’70s, and he has a juicy story to tell about each one. Every chapter revolves around a specific decade (ranging from the ’40s to the ’90s) and is organized into sub-headings devoted to individual people (everyone from Cary Grant to Sean Connery to John Candy) or events in Tom’s life.
The book is most compelling in the early chapters, when Tom describes his eventful childhood. Due to his father’s directing career, Tom was constantly traveling and frequently interacted with Hollywood legends. Who else could claim to have had their first alcoholic drink (scotch) served to them by none other than Humphrey Bogart? (This happened to a 12-year-old Tom in Rome during the shooting of The Barefoot Contessa.) The book also delves into the tragic life of Tom’s mother, Austrian actress Rosa Stradner, who had a history of mental illness and committed suicide when Tom was in high school. According to Tom, after his mother’s death and throughout his life he had a habit of being “hopelessly attracted to troubled women.” He says, “They could recognize in me the perfect foil, the perfect person to get involved with, because it made me even more solicitous, more eager to help. You feed off each other that way.”
Over the years Tom developed a love of screenwriting, and before long became a highly sought-after scribe, writing three successful James Bond films of the 1970s (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun). He also became known as a prolific, in-demand “script doctor,” drafting uncredited re-writes of such hit films as Gremlins and The Goonies. On being a script doctor, Tom says: “If you wanted action-adventure with humor, you’d go right to Dr. Mankiewicz. It gets exhausting because there’s a lack of satisfaction. Most of the time, you don’t get credit, and that’s a condition of your employment. That’s why they pay you more. So inside the industry they know, but nobody else does.”
One of Tom’s biggest jobs was the 1978 blockbuster Superman, which he worked on for a year and a half. Tom devotes a lot attention to the film (claiming he wrote about 65% of the final draft), though on-screen he’s credited not as a screenwriter but as a “creative consultant.” The Writer’s Guild objected to the credit, and the dispute led to a legal hearing, with Tom ultimately winning the case. In the late ’80s/early ’90s, Tom’s career took another unlikely turn as he became the director of several star-powered comedies, including a light-hearted spin on the classic ’50s cop show “Dragnet” and the soap opera satire Delirious (starring John Candy).
If there’s a major quibble with the book, it’s that with all the attention Tom devotes to the larger-than-life personalities he encountered over his lifetime, one never has a clear picture of Mankiewicz as a person. Self-reflection is not his strong suit. Only at the end of the book does he delve into more personal issues, discussing his loneliness (he never married or had children) and his life-long abandonment issues (which, again, he says stem from the death of his mother). He seems more interested in telling showbiz anecdotes than he is with taking a look at himself. This could be because the book seems to have been dictated, rather than written firsthand. There are parts that are a bit choppy: Situations that could be better clarified or anecdotes that could have been more insightful. That said, for those looking to take a wild ride through Hollywood history, complete with fascinating stories about iconic industry legends, this entertaining memoir will definitely do the trick.