The Mankiewicz Family (Tom Mankiewicz): Part 2

“I grew up in a family where to be ‘a Mankiewicz‘ really meant you had to be somebody.” – Tom Mankiewicz

The Mankiewicz Family is an interesting tale of the American Dream. This is obviously my second blog on the family (part 2, get it?).

Tom Mankiewicz was part of the third generation of the Mankiewicz family in America. His father, Joseph, was the younger son of Franz, and brother of Herman. Franz was the straw that stirred the Mankiewicz family psyche.

Herman, Franz and Joe

From my previous Mankiewicz Family blog, you might remember Joseph or Joe, who received four Academy Awards for writing and directing the films All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives. He was also largely responsible for Cleopatra. Joe was a big deal during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Tom’s uncle Herman, preceded Joe in Hollywood and was the first to receive an Academy Award. He was arguably the main screenwriter of Citizen Kane, often referred to the greatest American film. Kane was by far Herman’s greatest success.

Besides Herman and Joe, their children and grandchildren have found careers in news, entertainment and public service. If there is one theme running in through the Mankiewicz bloodline it is a drive for success.

Tom penned an autobiography that was released after his passing, My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey Through Hollywood. I will be focusing information from this book; it is an interesting companion to Part 1 of my blog, which was based on the book by Nick Davis, grandson of Herman.

I found much commonality between the two books, including stories from Tom that were include in the Davis book.

Grandson Tom Mankiewicz described Franz as obsessed with perfection, something that haunt the children and grandchildren with crippling insecurities.

Tom was convinced that his uncle Herman’s demise was a result of the impossible drive for perfection and success. Herman died in his fifties, an alcoholic, gambler and heavily in debt, and no longer employable in Hollywood and New York’s magazine world. A talent and life wrecked.

After the funeral of Tom’s dad, the family convened at Joe’s house, where his widow offered a portrait of Franz to the family. No one present wanted it, so the portrait was given to a family member not present, who regifted it to another family member, who put it in storage. The fate of Franz.

“There was something terribly frightening about writing a screenplay when you have the last name of Mankiewicz,” Tom said. “You say to yourself, ‘Oh, sh*t, no matter what I write, it sure ain’t any All About Eve, is it?’ It takes a long time to get over that.”

Tom said the Mankiewiczes have “a proclivity for writing”, good at dialogue, but not at structure. He said you can learn structure, but you either have the talent for dialogue or you don’t. I would agree. Structure is organizing, making logical, a process that can be taught. Structure is certainly creative, but there is almost a formula, like fitting together a puzzle. Some are obviously better than others, the point is, it’s teachable.

Dialogue is artistic, like decorating a cake. Structure is baking the cake. Dialogue is in the frosting, the taste and the presentation. There is a huge difference between a cake that tastes like every other cake, and one that takes your breath away with dazzling appeal and taste that almost brings you orgasm. That was Tom’s point. The dialogue in Citizen Kane and All About Eve is whipsmart and hip, but not pretentious or out of place. Dialogue come from knowing what makes people tick and human vulnerability – a Mankiewicz affliction.

Other than the usual Mankiewicz foibles, Tom was aware that he was cursed. He had a homing system for recognizing broken women, and he was often drawn to them. Like guided missiles. He did not sleep with or become involved with all of them, just most of them. His friends often remarked about this curse or talent. Thankfully, Hollywood was a treasure trove of broken people.

Tom Mankiewicz in the director’s chair.

Tom began in the movie business while he was in college, working summers as a production flunky. The name Mankiewicz got him through the door, but his career was his own.

Tom was a writer-producer-director, in a career spanning four decades. He co-wrote and directed the Hart to Hart television series, wrote or co-wrote half a dozen James Bond films, was a script doctor on a dozen big films, and directed two of my favorite films, Dragnet and Delirious. Tom was involved in lighter fare than his father Joe or uncle Herman, but he made a shit ton more money than both combined.

Top: Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd in Dragnet. Above: John Candy in Delirious.

Tom never married or had children, so his branch of the Mankiewicz family stopped. He freely mentions the tons of actresses he dated, many famous names. Although he went through a lot of relationships, he says he maintained close friendships with all but one. He admitted that he was the one who ended the romantic side of these relationships rather than the woman. Why is this important? Tom never had a long-term committed relationship, other than a cat for a number of years. One day, a raccoon killed the cat, instantly sending Tom back in time to when his long-suffering mother committed suicide. He knew that he had major separation anxiety, perhaps the reason for the many relationships that continued after he left them.

A rarity: a solo screenwriting credit.

In Tom’s book, you get the Mankiewicz story, but you also get Tom’s story, and an insider’s look at the Dream Factory. Dreams or sausage, it’s a tasty journey.


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