Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book review - "My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider's Journey Through Hollywood" by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane (2010)

This is one of my favourite screenwriter memoirs ever - I'd rank it up with William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and Joe Esterhaus' Hollywood Animal. I never knew that much about Tom Mankiewicz before reading this - I'd seen his name pop up of course, was a big fan of his father, and he always seemed to be available for a retrospective making of doco, especially about the Bonds. His credits are of variable quality - but his memoir is a definite classic.

The irony is Mankiewicz didn't even write this by himself - it was actually written by Robert Crane, who completed it after Mankiewicz's death at a relatively young age (68, due to pancreatic cancer - he liked to drink and smoke so maybe 68 wasn't too bad). Crane has done an excellent job knocking it all into shape; it's full of short, sharp chapters which get right to the point of the story and ensure you never get bored. I've read a lot about the period in time covered by the book but most of the stories were fresh and new to me. They were often very funny and moving. The ending does feel like it could have done a polish - it's a lot of rambling by Mankiewicz about Hollywood today and repeating things he's already said in the book.

Mankiewicz has a big advantage over most screenwriters in that he was Hollywood royalty - son of Joe, nephew of Herman. It was a privileged upbringing in many ways - Beverly Hills childhood, then to New York; visits to film schools; an expensive east coast education; contacts that got him involved in the film industry. However it came with a price: dad was emotionally distant, mum was schizophrenic and abusive and wound up a suicide. Mankiewicz found himself attracted to emotionally unstable actresses for the rest of his life - so, despite not exactly looking like an oil painting, had a highly successful strike rate with women in Hollywood, the Mecca for emotionally unstable actresses; his exes include Dorothy Provine, Tuesday Weld, Carol Lynley, Margot Kidder, Stefanie Powers and  Elizabeth Ashley (he's not very discrete), and he was good friends with Natalie Wood.

Mankiewicz must have been great company to have around - he talks about all these friends he had (Jerry Moss, Jack Haley) and he seems to have been a social animal. Maybe it was that combination of wit, some talent, famous father, social connections and just the right amount of tragedy in the background. Or maybe he was just a great guy.

How good a screenwriter was Mankiewicz? He brags every now and then about its quality and how "hot" he was once upon a time but it's hard to gauge He wrote some of the worst James Bond films of all time - Diamonds Are Forever, The Man with the Golden Gun - and rewrote a bunch of movies were the screenplay doesn't exactly sing - The Cassandra Crossing, The Deep. But he wrote a decent enough Bond on his own - Live and Let Die - some okay entertainments - The Eagle Has Landed, Hart to Hart - and "script doctored" and bunch of classics: Superman, The Spy Who Loved Me. My guess is he wasn't a particularly strong on structure or original material, but he could do a decent rewrite and had a gift for dialogue, and he was clearly a great collaborator.

What makes this really special are not just the funny stories but the more heartfelt stuff... his suicidal mother, his loneliness, his tendency to be attracted to crazy women but his inability to sustain a long term relationship. I've read this three times already - it's wonderful.

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