Two brothers, two stories. Both men were initially reluctant Hollywood players whose first love was the legit theater, but each found lasting fame as a writer and producer, working on of some of the most iconic films of all time, including “Citizen Kane,” “All About Eve,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and several of the early Marx Brothers films.
San Antonio-born, New York-based writer Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s new book, “The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics” is the first ever duo biography of brothers Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz, both of whom had separate biographies written about them in the late 1970s. Surprisingly, although Stern grew up loving movies like most Americans, she came to the men’s stories not through their films, but as a biographer interested in the story of “these very complicated, somewhat tortured men,” as she explained to me by phone from her home in New York.
Right off the bat, Stern’s expectations about the two men’s lives were upended.
“I actually thought as a good feminist, I was going to uncover the importance of (their) mother. I felt all these people have written about (them) and they’re not paying any attention to the mother, and I’m going to make this great discovery,” she said with a laugh. “Guess what? It’s the father. The father is really key to understanding them.”
Herman Mankiewicz was born in 1897 to German Jewish parents Franz Mankiewicz and wife Johanna, and according to Stern, Franz was “very cruel” to Herman, and aspired for his son to become a teacher. His brother, Joseph, was born eleven and a half years later, in 1909, and had a different dynamic with his father. Nevertheless, both would disappoint Franz by going into journalism and criticism in New York before being drawn into the higher-paying world of Hollywood screenwriting, despite a desire to stay in the live theater scene, which was still considered high art compared to the perceived gaudiness of picture shows.
Later, the brothers’ relationship with each other was “complicated,” Stern said.
“For many years, (Joe) idolized Herman,” Stern explained.
Herman brought Joe out to Hollywood in 1929, but while the older brother expected to go back to New York any minute, Joe “was working himself into a frenzy,” and eventually surpassed Herman.
“Joe was competitive with Herman, even though he admired him. (But) I don’t think Herman was particularly competing with Joe. When Joe surpassed him he certainly had mixed feelings, but he was always, also proud of him.”
Herman was also getting deeper into gambling and drinking debts.
“The more successful Joe became, the more Herman relied on him to bail him out,” said Stern. Still, Herman was a beloved figure in Hollywood, so much so that according to Stern, Joe Mankiewicz used to joke that his tombstone would say “Here lies Herm—I mean, Joe.”
Stern’s book brilliantly sets up Herman Mankiewicz’s important contribution to Orson Welles’ landmark film “Citizen Kane” with stories from Herman’s own life, including the time he was asked to write a favorable review of a not-so-great stage performance. Scenes like that would find their way into the “Kane” screenplay, for which Herman shared the film’s only Oscar with Welles.
“Herman wrote a good part of the original script… and a lot of the best dialogue is Herman’s,” Stern said, explaining her research. “That said, (the movie) is iconic the way it is, because of Orson Welles.”
Herman Mankiewicz would go on to write nearly a dozen more films before dying in 1953, aged 55.
Meanwhile, just three years prior, Joseph Mankiewicz had written and directed “All About Eve,” one of the most lauded films ever made. The picture received 14 Academy Award nominations and won six, including Mankiewicz’s second wins for Best Director and Screenplay. But his success in the 1950s was leveled after “Cleopatra” in 1963, an expensive epic for 20th Century Fox that went into production without a finished script. Mankiewicz said he wanted to make two separate two-and-a-half-hour movies; the studio insisted on keeping the whole project intact as one film.
“He was very, very damaged from his experience with ‘Cleopatra,’” Stern said. “I think he made four more movies after that, and ‘Sleuth’ was the last one, and it was a triumph.”
With ‘Sleuth’ Joe Mankiewicz was once again nominated for a Best Director Oscar. After that, he made no more movies.
“I don’t think he thought he was hanging it up when he was hanging it up,” Stern explained. “Scripts and ideas and suggestions continued to accompany him over the years. But he was paralyzed and depressed.”
The man who had been lauded for his sharp writing throughout his career couldn’t find the words. Noted Stern, “Alex Mankiewicz, his daughter, says he couldn’t even write a Christmas card. It was sad.”
The 1980s brought plaudits and honorary awards to Joseph Mankiewicz, but no solid jobs as a screenwriter, nor as chronicler of theatrical history, as he had hoped to do in his later career. Still, “at the very, very end he did have an epiphany” that he had entertained countless audience members through his films, said Stern. He died at peace in 1993.
For Sydney Stern, the investigation into the Mankewicz brothers’ career led her back to some of the great films of the past she had missed. Growing up in San Antonio, she enjoyed going to the movies and remembered seeing “Cleopatra,” but the themes of some of the other 1950s movies went over her head as a child. “’No Way Out’ is about race. Almost no movies in the early 50s were about race. ‘A Letter to Three Wives’ portrays a working woman in a positive way, a woman who’s trying to have a career and a home life. I was not necessarily getting those messages (back then). But now, I can appreciate them.”
Sydney Ladensohn Stern was originally to have appeared at the San Antonio Book Festival in April. The coronavirus pandemic may have halted her travel plans, but she says she otherwise enjoys visiting her hometown, where family still lives. Her book is called “The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak and Hollywood Classics.”