Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book: My Life as a Mankiewicz, by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane

A rave review from Leonard Maltin – we’re close personal friends, as you may know – convinced me to pick up this memoir. Reading it made me realize exactly how much Tom Mankiewicz shaped my adolescence.

Sure, it’d make me look better to say I was influenced by others in the clan Mankiewicz. Like Tom’s father Joseph L., who won consecutive writing and directing Academy Awards for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. Or his uncle Herman, who co-wrote Citizen Kane.

Nope. I’m a Tom Mankiewicz man. He wrote a trio of James Bond movies including Diamonds Are Forever, which served as a young boy’s introduction to kink. I watched Superman and Superman II (on which Mankiewicz is credited, for reasons detailed in the book, as “creative consultant” even though he’s responsible for damn near every line of dialogue) more times than I could count. He did a page-one rewrite on War Games. His first directing gig was Dragnet with Dan Aykroyd, a movie I committed to memory before ever seeing a single episode of the Jack Webb series. (“They ought to transfer you to Missing Persons, Streebek. You know everybody.”) Even his TV work made an impact; Mankiewicz essentially created Hart to Hart, which he cheerfully describes as a Nick and Nora knockoff.

Given his impressive Hollywood pedigree, it’s no surprise that Tom Mankiewicz led a charmed life. Humphrey Bogart gave him his first drink, and he grew up on the set of his father’s film Cleopatra. (In an odd quirk of timing, I read this book right after Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins.) His ultimate insider status provided Mankiewicz with a unique perspective on show business. Every luminary he meets is a wonderful, decent person – well, except for Robert Redford – and the perpetual bachelor had “a nice little thing” with seemingly every actress he encountered. But Mankiewicz also had a hometown boy’s sharp eye for industry absurdity, put to particularly good use during his stint with Superman. Producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind were funding the first two movies as they went, meaning they “couldn’t show (the director) a budget because they couldn’t tell him how much money they actually didn’t have.”

The book, assembled by longtime friend Robert Crane after Mankiewicz’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2010, is ragged and grows progressively sour as the business Mankiewicz was born into becomes more corporate. But it’s filled with stories you haven’t heard before and wisdom worth remembering. Think of it as a long, boozy afternoon at Musso & Frank with a peerless raconteur.