Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Bruce Hodsdon on Authorship and Hollywood - : Joseph L Mankiewicz: A writer-director in 'Old' Hollywood

Editor’s Note: This is the latest part of Bruce Hodsdon’s erudite series devoted to Hollywood film-makers and film-making methods.The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.

This is Part 17 of a series about authorship in old and new Hollywood. Paul Schrader, writer-director in new Hollywood, will be the subject of part 18.

Joseph L Mankiewicz
Mankiewicz and Schrader are not being singled out here as filmmakers for comparison and contrast because they are necessarily representative, but more for their uniqueness as the special products of their times.  Both can be counted as two of a relatively rare breed - intellectuals in Hollywood- each coming to the fore as writer-directors in quite different contexts and following divergent paths in the process of contributing to the redefinition of the relationship between writing and directing.

When finally in command of both the screenplay and its direction, initially drawing upon recurring themes inflected by personal experience, Mankiewicz positioned himself in a patrician-like mode in the studio system by, at his best, successfully renovating the way a story can be told while remaining within the parameters of classical storytelling.

Schrader came to filmmaking as an erudite critic and scholar. He has subsequently reflected in interviews on the art and craft from the position of an independent writer-director and as a driven auteur (“it's much easier, when you're writing, to stay psychologically alive”) while coming to terms with the fluctuating options that have been on offer during different phases of a cinema in transition. First as a writer and then writer-director, he was early viewed as perverse and individualistic being described by Richard Combs as “one of the wild men of the New Hollywood” (Sight & Sound Summer 1989).

Joseph L Mankiewicz was born in Pennsylvania in 1909. His father was a professor of literature. Joseph, and his older brother, Herman, inherited their domineering father's interest in language and “the life of the mind.”  JL entered Columbia University aged 14 and graduated as an English major at 20. Rather than going into university teaching as was expected of him - he never lost his love of fiction and drama- JL worked as a journalist for The Chicago Tribunein Berlin in 1928 where he began writing titles for silent films, returning to the US in 1929 to join Herman, by then a leading scriptwriter in Hollywood later best known as author of the original screenplay for Citizen Kane.

JL wrote 22 screenplays from 1929-35 mainly at Paramount. He moved to MGM in 1934 acting as a reluctant producer on 20 films from 1936-44 including Fury (Fritz Lang), Three Comrades (Borzage), Philadelphia Story (Cukor) and Woman of the Year (Stevens) without being permitted to direct, Louis B Mayer intoning that “you must crawl before walking” which Mankiewicz thought was “the best definition of a producer's function that I know.” He finally graduated to directing(“which I wanted when only a scenarist”) and scripting Dragonwyck (46) at 20th Century-Fox, then on 19 more features (credited writer on 9) from 1947-72 including his two writer-director breakthroughs - Letter to Three Wives (49) and All About Eve (50) – and including House of Strangers(49), No Way Out (50), People Will Talk (51), 5 Fingers (52), Julius Caesar (53), The Barefoot Contessa (54), Guys and Dolls (55), The Quiet American (58), the overstretch of Suddenly Last Summer (60) followed by the overreach of Cleopatra (63), The Honey Pot (67) and a successful winding down with the admirably stylish and intelligent adaptation of a play, Sleuth (72).

Eric Smoodin has noted the recurrence in Mankiewicz's films of the thematic motif of “the impact of the dead upon the living ...frequently a dead character being more important than any living one.”

Mank said that he saw himself as essentially a writer who directs “admitting that his yearning to direct stemmed largely from his desire to protect his screenplay from the butchery by others.” When not directing his own scripts, as a dependable studio director he saw his role as that of “an executive employee on a smoothly running production line who knew how to turn an assigned script and assigned actors into a film in a given time.” (Frieda Grafe 10)

The Late George Apley
On his second and third films as director (but not writer), The Late George Apley and The Ghost and Mrs Muir (47), he said that he concentrated on learning the craft and technique of directing dissociating himself as far as possible from the writer Philip Dunne's approach. In George Apley the director “obtained subtle performances and a genuine sense of ensemble from his cast of character actors” although reviews did make reference to its closed and static quality “to the point of inciting claustrophobia” in the words of one critic.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir
Mank asserted “that a script if written by a scenarist worthy of his name has in fact already been directed.” Until he encountered Darryl Zanuck as producer on All About Eve,Geist comments that Mankiewicz “indulged his writer's gifts to the fullest in longer and talkier scripts.” Zanuck allowed Mank to shoot the full screenplay of Eve running three hours but then Zanuck deployed his considerable re-editing skills to lose 40 minutes to the point where the director considered his film ruined, only to go on to receive writing and directing Oscars for Evesix months later.

Grafe refers to an article Mankiewicz wrote in the Screen Writers' Guild Bulletin in which he explained that the root of all evil lies in the fact that the screenplay is written by one person and the film is shot by another. While he accepted division of labour in which the cameraman paid attention to the visuals while he, as director, paid most attention to the actors, JL nevertheless strongly believed that a single person should be responsible for both the screenplay and direction. In directing, he always insisted that, above all, it was his role to call the shots.

Mankiewicz wanted to direct, not just to keep control of the filming of his own screenplays, but to realise the possibility of the medium in what he called film-writing. “The film-conscious screenwriter writes his script in such a way that it contains within itself the principles of its realisation, and the filming is only the secondary part of the process.” He saw film-writing and directing as “two components of the unit guaranteed by the screenwriter.”

JL's oeuvre has been the subject of auteurist resistance to his proclivity for theatrical dialogue and characterisation, the full realisation of the script as a 'screen play', enhanced by his direction of his lead actresses, as well as the likes of Cary Grant, James Mason and Humphrey Bogart, encumbered by what many critics opined is a “pedestrian” mise en scène, a refined literate sensibility being no substitute for breaking out of the confines of the proscenium arch. This view is given full expression by Tag Gallagher who terms a Mankiewicz film as “less a movie than a filmed play, less a story world with characters than a document of actors acting self conscious dialogue and mime.” David Thomson observes that “tidiness, his greatest asset in the eyes of Hollywood, was his gravest handicap artistically.” Also lacking a personal signature, Mank as writer-director would seem to be a case of aspiration exceeding inspiration; the work of George Cukor might be seen as the obverse of Mankiewicz's.

Freida Grafe has commented that “in contrast to the usual practices of the film industry, Mankiewicz deepens the rift between word and image, allowing language to predominate at the expense of visual mise en scène.” He saw himself as a conscious heretic -”anathema to those that find it easier to point a camera than direct an actor...(I'm) known to prefer actors trained in speaking to those who just grunt through hair.”

The Quiet American
According to Grafe, Mankiewicz won praise from Eric Rohmer writing about The Quiet American (which is dominated by an unreliably omniscient narrator) for his unconcern with spatial construction and physical expression, “taking not the slightest interest in mise en scene advocated by Cahiers, nor in écriture!” Rohmer welcomed this “impure cinema” as eminently filmic, a necessary extension of mise en scène, a cinema-specific integration of language as a central part of the image rather than being merely used to heighten the verisimilitude of the images, something Rohmer himself later took up in his own films. Rohmer called for a new découpage, a different continuity from that of silent cinema still then seen by him as predominating in talkies. Mankiewicz summed this up by reaffirming that “the adaptation is the first part of the realisation.”

All About Eve
Mankiewicz had to wait to direct his screenplays within a few years after moving to Fox. He liked multiple characters and intricate plots. Thomson describes him as creating “the atmosphere of the proscenium arch” which seems appropriate. Accused of lacking visual imagination, his static camera style is that of a consummate classicist, the visuals seamlessly at the service of the dialogue and the actors delivering it. In his signature acerbic comedy, All About Eve, according to Barry Salt's analysis his classically conservative mise en scèneis fully in evidence with a twice than average shot length of around 13 secs. combined with a very high 65 % of shots functionally given over to dialogue through reverse angle edits.

All About Eve
Mankiewicz regarded the best directed film as seeming “not to be directed at all.” He contested the view that film is above all something visual. He contended that one should expect of the audience that it listen as to a play...requiring of them “a higher attention.” He had a central concern with atmosphere - the environment surrounding the characters. He was a hands-off director putting great onus on the casting. He had the status, as a successful leading director, to seek priority in casting those he termed “intelligent actors” who understood the role they are to play and capable of emotional participation with other actors so that the audience feels the integrity of the character as in a play. He said that he preferred to take individual actors aside and speak quietly with them about any changes. Mank had a fundamental rule “never to be seen by an actor during a take.”

In his recent book on storytelling in forties Hollywood, David Bordwell has provided something of a revisionist perspective to the above quoted auteurist views of Mankiewicz's work as writer-director. Bordwell points out that, like his contemporary Preston Sturges, Mankiewicz professed a love for the theatre favouring plots with a satiric sting and enjoyed screenplays that “stuffed their films with dialogue.” The extent to which Mankiewicz was experimenting with narrative structure in his best work has not been not so widely recognised. (1)

Bordwell writes that Mankiewicz's “love for long dialogue scenes was balanced by his concern for a large scale (film) architecture akin to the three parallel fantasies in Sturges's Unfaithfully Yours (48).” In his breakthrough film as a director, A  Letter to Three WivesMank embraces a multiple-protagonist structure. In both Wives and All About Eve, rather than a single flashback, JL opts for multiple flashbacks and a linking commentary in what Bordwell refers to as “a polyphonic structure” which he revisited in another major work, The Barefoot Contessa, his most radically structured screenplay.In a cinematic coup de theatre Mankiewicz uses stop motion at the beginning and end of Eve to suspend the moment of Eve's “accidental triumph,” immediately following her surrender to the theatre critic Addison (played by George Sanders) in the preceding scene, as the final flashback 'catches up' with the present, irony heightened by the camera tracking in and out on the main protagonists at Eve's acceptance of the award.

Bordwell in his emphasis on the exploratory use of the film's architecture, is more at one with Deleuze's description of Mankiewicz as “the greatest flashback auteur” in his departure from the conventional use of flashbacks with “memory images given their own necessity” in his work forming a temporal labyrinth in both Eve and Wives, for example, in which characters' paths co-exist, each path forking into divergent paths. Brian Dauth puts the case for Mank's creation of his own genre théatre du filmé that “pays equal attention to the verbal, the visual and the human carefully crafted and interwoven to achieve maximum effect.”

As a writer with strong literary and theatrical proclivities, direction for Mank would seem to have been more of a necessity than an aspiration. His ambitions lay in experiment with narrative structure in the screenplay rather than in visual style as a director, and in the actor 'becoming' rather than 'being'. This is not to say that his films were invariably dialogue heavy and lacking in atmosphere, at least when genre demanded otherwise: as in the dream-like expression of desire in a film of directorial 'apprenticeship', The Ghost and Mrs Muir (47), in the filmnoirinflected House of Strangers,and in Guys and Dolls - a high point amongst Hollywood Broadway musical adaptations, Runyonesque dialogue skilfully integrated, Michael Kidd choreography, and two memorably staged songs of soaring romanticism performed by actors not normally associated with the musical - singing in their own voices - Brando and Jean Simmons.

Dauth notes that in his final film Sleuth (72) Mank found much scope in Shaffer's play to explore many of his lifelong concerns: the nature of men, class relations, life and film in terms of theatrical spectacle, and the role of pivotal moments in people's lives. All that was missing in Shaffer's two hander are women for whom, in Hollywood terms, Mankiewicz wrote and directed such strong non-stereotypical roles in several of his key films.

1.  The British auteurist Movie magazine in its inaugural issue in 1962 ranked Mankiewicz as “very talented” while Godard in 1950 described him as “one of the most brilliant American directors.” Andrew Sarris, on the other hand, in 1968 described Mankiewicz's cinema as marked by “intelligence without inspiration.”


Main Sources   
Frieda GrafeThe Ghost and Mrs MuirBFI Film Classics 1995; Kenneth Geist Pictures Will Talk: the life and films of J L Mankiewicz 1978;  Interview with JLM translated and published in Cahiers du Cinema in English no.8, Feb. 1967; David Bordwell  Reinventing Hollywood. 2017;  Eric Smoodin, entry on Mankiewicz in The International Dictionary of Filmmakers, ed, Christopher Lyon, vol.2 Directors 1984. Brian Dauth, essay on Mankiewicz in 'Great Directors'  Senses of Cinema April 2005 Tag Gallagher, “Joseph L Mankiewicz as Producer” Senses of Cinema in 2003 

Reviews by Adrian Martin of Guys and DollsThe Barefoot Contessa and 5 Fingers,can be found  if you click here

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