Tom Mankiewicz, who died in 2010, was a Hollywood hack of limited abilities. He found his greatest success as a screenwriter of several second-rate James Bond pictures and as a director of the very weird big-screen comedy version of Dragnet. So it comes as a stunning surprise to discover that Mankiewicz’s memoir—which was largely dictated to Robert Crane and has been published two years after his death by (of all places) the University Press of Kentucky—turns out to be one of the best personal accounts of show business ever published.
My Life as a Mankiewicz has none of the Dickensian grandeur of Moss Hart’s Act One, nor the narrative scope and scorching honesty of Elia Kazan’s A Life. But it is, in its way, a more revelatory book than either of those American masterpieces. Mankiewicz knew in his marrow how the system worked, how corrupt it was, how casually it could destroy people—yet he could not help being as starstruck by its personalities and as dazzled by its glamour as any teenage girl poring over People magazine.
Like the peerless memoirist the Duc de Saint-Simon, who was born and spent much of his life at Versailles before writing the ultimate insider account of life at court, Mankiewicz was an insider, a scion of Hollywood’s elite who became a member of that elite in his own right as an adult. His father, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was one of the most celebrated writer-directors in Hollywood history—his All About Eve, the ultimate showbiz movie, won him two Oscars alone.
As a 11-year-old, Tom got drunk with Humphrey Bogart. Ava Gardner was going to take him to the movies in Rome before his father, knowing Gardner’s reputation as a nymphomaniac, intervened. Later, in his early 20s, Tom found himself being propositioned by the actress Jean Simmons—who had had an affair with his father during the filming of Guys and Dolls some time earlier. He was ready to take her up on the offer when Gene Kelly, his “self-appointed godfather,” warned him off. “Cut it out before you get in over your head, if you’re not there already,” Kelly said, and he did.
Joseph Mankiewicz’s career took a catastrophic turn when he helmed Cleopatra, the Elizabeth Taylor vehicle that took three years to film and was (until the last decade) the most expensive picture ever made. Taylor was in the middle of her notorious affair with costar Richard Burton, and one night she invited Tom to join her for dinner at the villa she shared with her then-husband, Eddie Fisher.
They ate, and then Burton entered. “I realized,” Mankiewicz writes, “that in some strange way I was meant to be a ‘beard’ for them so that Richard wouldn’t be alone with her in Eddie’s house.” The three were drinking “fast and furious” when “there was a noise from the staircase.” It was Fisher, who calmly told Burton to go home. Drunk, Burton cheerfully told the man that he had turned into the 20th century’s most famous cuckold, “I just came by to see my girl.”
Tom’s mother, a beautiful Austrian actress, was a schizophrenic who committed suicide while Tom was away at boarding school. As a result, Tom often found himself in the thrall of crazy women he would try to save, as he had not been able to save her. Such women included several famous and several not-so-famous actresses, and, in pursuing them and every other woman he could, Mankiewicz ensured that he would end his life alone, childless, and largely forgotten.
Why? Why wouldn’t someone as savvy as this man, whose own father had managed (after his mother’s death and the disaster of Cleopatra) to straighten out, marry well, and retire happily after a final success with the 1972 film version of Sleuth, know that when the makeup comes off, an actress is just a woman and Hollywood is just another industry?
There’s a clue in his account, midway through the book, of meeting Burt Lancaster for the first time. Tom was 30 years old, and had probably already encountered every other big name in Hollywood. No matter. He was agog. “I don’t care whether my father was in the movies or not,” he writes, “when you run into one of your heroes, it elicits the same reaction every time, like when I was seventeen and turned around and there was John Wayne. You’re a movie fan.”
A movie fan Tom Mankiewicz was, more than he was anything else. Though he made a fortune doing mediocre work, none of it will be remembered. And that makes My Life as a Mankiewicz all the more touching. He did well in Hollywood in part because people liked him, enjoyed his company, and loved to listen to his stories. So he ended his career producing not a lousy TV show or an indifferent comedy but a genuinely fascinating memoir that reveals the machinations inside America’s pop-culture version of a royal court and its undying seductions—even for those who have every reason to resist them.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary,is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.