Portia, a pint-sized Norwich terrier, is racing around Joseph Mankiewicz’s den in frantic circles, uncontrollably delighted.
“She’s really very intelligent,” Mankiewicz says. “And a whore.”
Didn’t he once have a dog named Cassius? The question brings a small and rather melancholy smile to Mankiewicz’s face. “Ah, you shouldn’t have mentioned that name,” he says. “Cassius is dead. So is Brutus, who was his father. They were black Labradors; we had the two of them for almost 30 years.”
His dogs have gotten smaller, movies have gotten bigger and Mankiewicz doesn’t think either is an improvement. Many of his more memorable films--"All About Eve,” “A Letter to Three Wives,” “Woman of the Year,” “Sleuth"--seem small alongside today’s super-megabusters, it’s true. But they delivered large doses of humanity, romance, comedy--what Mankiewicz calls the “non-visible aspects of existence.” They’re the kind of films that aren’t often made anymore--although Mankiewicz mentions “Driving Miss Daisy” as a recent work he admires--but they remain the kind that people watch over and over again, the kind they tape, the kind they put on their personal Top 10 lists. The kind that validate one’s belief in the emotional power of film.
Tonight, Mankiewicz and those pictures he made will be honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy Foundation at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. The sold-out tribute, presented in cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art, American Cinematheque and the Directors Guild of America, will be attended by a host of stars with whom Mankiewicz was associated during his more than 40 years in film--including Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine, Roddy McDowall, Vincent Price, Burgess Meredith and Richard Widmark. (In addition, the American Cinematheque will present a three-day festival of 10 Mankiewicz films this weekend at the Directors Guild Theater in Hollywood. For information, call (213) 466-FILM.)
“I call it the longevity award,” Mankiewicz says; the face around his bright blue eyes crinkles as he laughs. “I like the idea of getting it from the academy now; it was 61 years ago I got my first nomination.”
It was a writing nomination for the movie “Skippy,” and he was 22.
“They didn’t have that silly thing with Price Waterhouse (the company that counts the ballots) in those days,” he says. “The dinner was held in the Biltmore Hotel, downtown Los Angeles, with 250 people. The votes were being counted in a bedroom upstairs. It was like a crap game going on, guys were down on their knees counting. And David Selznick walks in with his back pocket full of votes for ‘Cimarron.’ ”
Mankiewicz lost that first time around--he would later win back-to-back writing and directing Oscars for “Letter to Three Wives” (1949) and “All About Eve” (1950)--but he hardly feels slighted. “ ‘Skippy’ wasn’t deserving of any kind of film award,” he says. “In ‘Cimarron,’ at least, there were a lot of horses, and Richard Dix and Irene Dunne. ‘Skippy’ was just Jackie Cooper falling asleep in Marie Dressler’s lap.”
Anyone with complaints about recent Oscar shows should have been around in ’31. “The president of the academy, whose name was Levy--Mike Levy--was also an officer at Paramount,” Mankiewicz says. “He was the one who gave me a raise after my nomination, from $65 to $80 a week. He stood up to begin the meeting and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, will you all please rise.’ We all got up and he raised his glass and said, ‘I’d like to propose a toast to my wife, because this is our 25th wedding anniversary!’ And everybody went ‘Yaaay!’ ”
Anyone with a complaint about long Oscar speeches also should have been around in ’31.
“One of the speakers,” he says, “was the U.S. vice president, Charles Curtis, and he spoke for just about two hours. And you could hang me by my thumbs but I cannot tell you what he spoke about.”
Mankiewicz chuckles at his reminiscences, which recall a simpler time, a time when a 1928 graduate of Columbia--"the university, not the studio"--forsook a promising academic career to begin another in the still-fledgling film industry. By the mid-'50s, when Mankiewicz moved back east from Los Angeles, his accomplishments were legion, and his instincts for what would make good pictures had become screen legend: He’d seen Elizabeth Taylor’s potential for “Suddenly Last Summer,” which many consider her best performance; he cast Marlon Brando as Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar,” for which the actor earned an Oscar nomination; he had introduced Katharine Hepburn to Spencer Tracy.
“Spence used to stay with me, we were great pals,” he said.
Mankiewicz had already produced Hepburn’s hit, “The Philadelphia Story,” and he could tell the Hepburn-Tracy matchup would be dynamite. But when he and director George Stevens began screening the couple’s first feature, “Woman of the Year,” Mankiewicz said, “I knew we were in trouble.
“The audience came out hating Katharine Hepburn cause she was so perfect,” he said. “Here was this wonderful woman with all these skills; she gets Batista on the phone . . . and the prime minister of England. These poor women were sitting next to their husbands thinking, ‘What do I do? How do I compete?’ ”
So Mankiewicz helped devise and write a new final scene in which Hepburn tries, and fails miserably, to fix Tracy’s breakfast. “Suddenly, the wives started nudging the husbands in the audience,” Mankiewicz say. “Women were screaming with delight.”
It had been the same kind of thing in “The Philadelphia Story,” he said: “Hepburn needed her comeuppance.”
Another pairing that proved successful was that of Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in “Sleuth,” Mankiewicz’s last film. He stayed back east after that, in the red brick home where he lives with wife, Rosemary; it’s modest in size by the standards of affluent Westchester County, a suburban area north of New York City, but it’s comfortable and, like his films, tasteful. In the den are the four Oscars, the VCR, tapes of current movies; a hallway contains framed Academy Award nominations, and pictures of Mankiewicz with various luminaries, including heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. Bookshelves lining the elegant living room contain Gibbon, Seutonius’ lives of the Caesars, the English classics. The rooms reflect the man. Outside, the man reflects on why he left the movies after 1972.
“I couldn’t do films today,” he says. “In fact I sensed that--I must have sensed that even more than I thought I did, like a hurricane way off on the horizon.” He gestures in the direction of his cherished 400-year-old oak; the sky behind it is growing dark. “You know it’s gonna hit you.”
Mankiewicz makes two requests of his interviewer: Don’t misquote him and “don’t make me out to be a nasty, irritable old snot who hates California and feels superior. I’m just a little sad about the kinds of movies they’re making now.
“I miss it, in a very odd way,” he says. “I miss it, like you miss part of a pursuit, something you just want to do, to write, to direct and work with actors and, in turn, audiences. Sure, I miss that aspect. On the other hand, the reality of my situation, being 82 . . . but if I were 32, I don’t think I could possibly work today.”
The writing and directing of films, he says, are equal and interdependent aspects of the process. And that’s all changed.
“Directing, whether it be a play or a film, is the second half of a writer’s work,” he says. “And I’m talking now about my type of film, I’m not talking about a primer on how to kill people, a primer on how to terrorize schools, a primer on intergalactic warfare. The films I’m talking about are films about the conflicts and arrangements and relationships and situations between human beings, and their effect upon each other in varying aspects of life: falling in love, out of love, the non-visible aspects of existence. I don’t think that’s a major film concern today.”
Mindless violence and mindless sex both bother him. “Today’s films don’t seem to exist without the destruction of property, the destruction of human beings, the actual stripping of any kind of mystery or individuality, really, from sex, by putting as much as possible on the screen,” he says. “Sex . . . hell, we used to fight for the right to have lips touch.
“Sex for the most part on the screen is physically engendered. Rarely do you see two people come together lovingly and tenderly. Or tentatively. It’s like two cars hitting each other.” He laughs. “It’s not an auto crash. It’s a love crash.”
Mankiewicz is growing hoarse; he admits he’s about out of gas. “That’s the terrible thing about being 82 years old,” he says. “The regulator on the tongue, I think it wears out and there’s no way of stopping the son of a bitch. It’s hard to stop talking.”