Jul 29, 2015

Book Review--My Life As a Mankiewicz: An Insider's Journey Through Hollywood

My Life As a Mankiewicz: An Insider's Journey Through Hollywood
Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane
University Press of Kentucky, 2012 (paperback version 2015)

Though I knew little of writer/director/producer Tom Mankiewicz' career before I learned his story, the surname was all I needed to draw me to his autobiography. 

It's a familiar name for film fans, who love his Oscar-winning father and uncle, Joseph and Herman respectively--and of course the popular TCM host his cousin Ben. As Mankiewicz notes in an extensive opening section about his family, the pursuit of excellence was a family quest, inspired by his grandfather's obsession that his brood be the best-of-the-best. Now his 2012 memoir is available in paperback from University of Kentucky Press and the complexities of his life as a member of Hollywood royalty can be savored anew.

While Tom Mankiewicz did not attain the fame and status of his older relatives in the movie industry, he did make a name for himself in a variety of roles and became a sort of behind-the-scenes legend as a much sought-after script doctor. 

His was a success story in many ways, but the true glamour was in the people he knew. Mank, as he was called, seems to know this and thus focuses most of his story on the many stars in his life and their times together.

Straddling both his father's generation and his own, Mank knew a lot of famous people, and he witnessed some of their most memorable moments. Invited by Frank Sinatra's daughter Nancy, he was present when the singer recorded My Way. When Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their infamous affair on the set of Cleopatra (1968), he was their wingman for an evening get together so as to distract the press. As yet more paparazzi invaded Robert Wagner's home while he hid away after Natalie Wood's death, it was Mank who ran interference.

Mankiewicz tells his stories in a series of brief, entertaining vignettes. While the book is laid out chronologically, it's easy, and fun to skip around sections without losing too much comprehension. The overall effect is of sitting in a bar, listening to an old timer talk about the good old days. I often found myself realizing I was starting to read another section again, and continuing because I liked it so much the first time around.

There is a chapter for each decade of Mank's professional life, followed by a series of mini profiles for that period called galleries. These are stories of the dozens of accomplished people he knew from Tuesday Weld and Liza Minnelli to Brando and close friend Natalie Wood. The never-married writer appears to have been quite the ladies man, and while you sense his fear of commitment, he remembers his former loves with affection, never seeming to exploit them for their fame or treat them like notches on his bedpost.

Overall, I loved the feeling of affection in the book. Though he has his complaints, for the most part Mankiewicz appreciates the people he has known and he sometimes even actively strives to explain the idiosyncrasies of the rich and famous. His sensitivity, and the sense of humor that surely led to his success as a script fixer, had me alternating between tears and laughter.

While I'm sure the entertainment industry has changed a lot since Mank was in his prime, his insider experience will likely still hold some value for aspiring filmmakers. He goes into great detail as to how he accomplished what he did in such a fickle industry, and where he went wrong as well.

Because he has devoted most of his memoirs to others, a lot about the real Tom Mankiewicz is and will remain a mystery (he died in 2010, before the book's publication), but the history he shares is rich and fascinating and demonstrates love for an industry better known for its nightmares. It's a shame this fascinating man is no longer with us, as he would have been an amazing guest at TCM Classic Film Festival. Fortunately, he has shared his story here, and I'll be revisiting it many more times.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

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