Wank with Mank

I read and enjoyed Walter Wanger’s My Life with Cleopatra, having previously enjoyed The Cleopatra Papers. That movie is so much more fun to read about than to watch. I watched it once and have forgotten almost everything.

The Wanger book — sloppily put together (he keeps changing from present to past tense) but fun, if you enjoy dismay as much as I do — led me to finally pick up my long-ago-purchased copy of Pictures Will Talk, Kenneth L. Geist’s Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which I knew was going to be enjoyable from its Acknowledgements page. Geist writes there, “My qualified gratitude to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who granted me eleven interviews […] My unqualified gratitude to Christopher Mankiewicz, who, unlike his father, has made the many hours in his company constantly pleasurable.”

Geist’s irritation at his subject, no doubt partially justified, is amusing, because we can’t really sympathise — Geist is the one thrusting himself into JLM’s company, not the other way around.

Joe and Mank

As a sample of how much value the book has for the lover of gossip and smut and trash, here’s a story told by JLM about his brother, Herman J., which unaccountably didn’t make it into Fincher’s MANK. It’s more disturbing than funny, possibly.

Herman was a heavy gambler — several entries in his filmography were written purely to pay off his gambling debts to the studio bosses. One home he played at belonged to such a mogul, and came with the disadvantage of the titan of industry’s small son, who would wander into the room where poker was being played, picking up chips, asking questions, generally being a distracting nuisance.

Nobody felt they could tell off the boss’s kid.

Fed up with this, Herman took the kid by the arm and led him away. Came back alone. The other players asked him how he’s managed it — violence, hypnotism, bribery?

“Easy,” said Herman. “I just found a private spot on a back stairway and taught the kid to masturbate. He took to it like a duck to water.”

10 Responses to “Wank with Mank”

  1. “The Cleopatra Papers” by Jack Brodsy and Nathan Weiss is The Best Book on the film and one of the best on Hollywood

  2. It’s terrific. And mysterious to read how everyone was so enthused about the footage. Maybe the movie really would have been great if it had been seven hours long…

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I mean I actually do think CLEOPATRA is a great movie, and a great epic. It’s actually quite accurate in many respects to the known history of Cleopatra and Antony. And the performances by Taylor and Burton especially on the death scenes is quite great.

  4. Several people who saw the long version stated that Burton’s performance was gutted, as well as those of most of the supporting cast, particularly Roddy McDowall and Hume Cronyn (who threw himself joyously off the dock at “Alexandria” when his role was completed). So if you like the current version, you’d probably love the seven and a half hour cut.

    If Fox had had the nerve to release the movie in two parts, they could have made their money back MUCH faster…

  5. True, but Fox had no money to do so. “Cleopatra” cost so much it destroyed the studio — much as “Heaven’s Gate” destroyed UA years later. I much prefer the film Mankiewicz called “The toughest movies I ever made”

  6. “Three of the toughest movies,” yes. But they had the long version — they spent money reducing it. They could have had the first half ready SOONER, and started making their money back sooner. But nobody had any confidence at that time that an audience would pay to see half a movie. Especially, I guess, as the Dick & Liz affair, which had become the big selling point, doesn’t get going until the second half.

  7. Mrs. Mankiewicz told me that she and JLM felt that Geist turned on JLM after having been given great access. She said that the never understood it. As for Christopher Mankiewicz, he never liked Rosemary, and it caused a rift with his brother Tom.

    I met Geist one year at the New York Film Festival–he was sitting just to my right at a screening. We spoke briefly, and he reiterated that he preferred 9as so many do) Mankiewicz’s Fox films, and felt that there was a steep decline in his work once he left.

    As for CLEOPATRA: the second half suffered the majority of the gutting. I still love the film–one of the few epics to center on a woman. Like Lora Mae, Lucy Muir, Eve Harrington, Nurse Watkins, and Maria Vargas, Cleopatra writes her own script–for better and worse. Octavian’s grand speech on Antony’s death in an empty palace to an empty house is one of the great political comments in film. For me, CLEOPATRA falls into the category of mutilated masterpiece.

  8. I feel JLM achieved plenty of interesting work after Fox: I’m very fond of The Honeypot. And yes, it’s clear Geist got an enviable amount of access. He seems to have just found he didn’t like his subject on a personal level.

  9. You have always appreciated JLM, David. You have always avoided being a Never Manker.

    I think what is interesting is that among prominent Hollywood directors of his time, JLM’s career is one that clearly divides in half–11 Fox films, followed by 9 post-studio films (I just coined this, and know it needs work). Preminger would be another, I think.

    Most everyone else seems to have mixed studio work with independent productions, and, importantly, stayed in Hollywood. Mankiewicz seriously disconnected. He moved to the East Coast, and of his final nine movies–two were shot in Hollywood; three in Italy; two in England; one in Vietnam and Italy; and one in Arizona and California.

    It is clear Geist did not like Mankiewicz. Even when I met him, he seemed less than enamored of him. But I am not sure how likeable John Ford was either, but I think most of his biographers wrote after his death. You know the old axiom: try not to meet your heroes.

    Hope you are well, and nice to be speaking to you again.

  10. Thanks, BD, nice to be in touch with you too!

    I guess Welles has a kind of Hollywood/Europe split in his career, though it’s not neat. A lot of directors, as the New Hollywood came into style, had similar post-Hollywood voyages, but usually of shorter duration.

    Which all reminds me, I MUST watch Julius Caesar!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: