Being born into a famous family has never guaranteed success in the movie business. In Hollywood, a famous surname is usually more curse than blessing.
But on the very rare occasion the offspring of the rich and famous will actually know their place (we’re looking at you, Donald Trump Jr.) and sometimes even find a way to have fun with it (hello, Paris Hilton).
To that end, there’s barely a bad day in this posthumous memoir by Tom Mankiewicz, who passed away in 2010 at 68. Known as “Mank” to his friends, he realized his good fortune at being born into a famous family and, while it lasted, life was a blast.
Mank was born into Hollywood royalty. His father was Joseph Mankiewicz, the director-screenwriter best known for fifties-era films such as All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, whose career wound down to nothingness following the debacle that was the 1963 movie epic Cleopatra (which nearly bankrupted the 20th Century Fox film studio). Mank’s uncle was the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, equally famous for co-writing Citizen Kane with Orson Welles as for his alcoholism and rapier wit.
Raised in Beverly Hills and New York, Mank was born to the Austrian actress Rose Stradner, the second of his father’s three wives, who committed suicide while Mank was in his early teens. Following graduation from Yale, he stumbled into the theatre world before realizing his name held clout in the film business, so why fight the inevitable?
After obligingly recapping his fractious family history in the opening pages, Mank dives headlong into the book’s true purpose: serving up delicious Hollywood dish. He grew up on the sets of his father’s films, and there is no reason to doubt his recollection of events. This time the tawdry Tinseltown stories feel true.
Mank joyously recounts the tale of receiving his first drink – at 12 – from Humphrey Bogart on the set of Barefoot Contessa. Mankiewicz the elder was livid. “Christ, Joe, the kid was cold,” Bogie said. “I was just trying to help out.”
We hear about him losing his virginity to an obliging actress on the set of a John Wayne western. And about Elizabeth Taylor using him as a beard on the Rome set of Cleopatra to cover up her burgeoning affair with Richard Burton.
In the same insouciant manner, Mank documents his eventual transformation into Hollywood screenwriter, which saw him working on the scripts for the James Bond films Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun.
Like his father and uncle, Mank dearly loved movies, but gradually began to hate the wheeling and dealing and backstabbing that seemed inherent to the business by the mid-seventies. But by that time, it was the only life he knew. In later years, he wrote or co-wrote the scripts for Mother, Jugs and Speed and Superman and Superman II.
The only sour note comes in the book’s late pages, when Mank vents a few too many personal peeves – reality TV, in particular – and regrets. But he was still a Mankiewicz, pragmatic and cynical to the end. There’s no apology in his admission that his happiest days were those spent on film sets. “You’ve got problems there but they’re wonderful problems,” he writes. “You’re all rowing in the same direction. For me, working was easier than living a lot of the time.”
Andrew Ryan writes about television for The Globe and Mail.