Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the witty writer who became a director and won Academy Awards for both disciplines in such classic films as “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve,” died Friday. He was 83.
Mankiewicz, who largely abandoned Hollywood after his final film, the hit “Sleuth” with Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in 1972, died at his home in suburban Bedford, N.Y. He died of heart failure, according to his nephew, public relations agent Frank Mankiewicz.
“Don’t make me out to be a nasty, irritable old snot who hates California and feels superior,” he told the Los Angeles Times during a 1991 interview in his Westchester County home. “I’m just a little sad about the kinds of movies they’re making now.”
Mankiewicz, who won his first Academy Award nomination for the script of “Skippy” in 1931 when he was 22, won back-to-back double Oscars as screenwriter and director of “A Letter to Three Wives” in 1949 and for “All About Eve” in 1950.
Known for writing clever and biting dialogue, he gave Margo Channing, the aging star of “Eve” played by Bette Davis, the immortal line: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
But he always believed that writing and directing were intertwined.
“I felt the urge to direct because I couldn’t stomach what was being done with what I wrote,” he once said. “Every screenwriter worthy of the name has already directed his film when he has written his script.”
“I cannot think of a top-flight director from . . . (Ernst) Lubitsch up to and including (Federico) Fellini who was not also, in a very true sense, a top-flight screenwriter,” Mankiewicz said in 1973 to Charles Champlin, who was then The Times’ entertainment editor. “Writing film and directing film are not, and should not be, separate and mutually exclusive functions.”
On May 6, 1991, Mankiewicz was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in a sold-out tribute at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. The event, co-sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art, American Cinematheque and the Directors Guild of America, attracted many of the stars Mankiewicz had directed, including Elizabeth Taylor, Caine, Roddy McDowall, Vincent Price, Burgess Meredith and Richard Widmark.
Typically, he described the tribute as his “longevity award.”
“I’ve lived without caring what anybody thought of me,” he said last year. “I followed very few of the rules. I think I’ve written some good screenplays, gotten some good performances and made some good movies.”
Mankiewicz, who coined the phrase “my little chickadee” for W.C. Fields, also introduced Spencer Tracy to Katharine Hepburn, beginning their legendary pairing on and off screen. As a producer, he helped to write the final scene of their first film, “Woman of the Year"--in which the perfect Hepburn is unable to prepare Tracy’s breakfast, endearing her character to women as well as men.
Among films produced by the maturing filmmaker were “A Christmas Carol” in 1938, “The Philadelphia Story” with Hepburn in 1940 and “The Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck in 1945, a film he also co-scripted.
His directing credits included “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” in 1947; the highly acclaimed “Julius Caesar” with Marlon Brando, which he adapted from the Shakespearean play, in 1953; “Guys and Dolls,” which he also scripted, in 1955, and Elizabeth Taylor’s classic hit “Suddenly Last Summer” in 1959 and her disastrous “Cleopatra” in 1963.
Born Feb. 11, 1909, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Mankiewicz, like his older brother, writer Herman Mankiewicz, went to Columbia University. He started out to become a psychiatrist, but after an F-minus in physics switched to a liberal arts degree. He worked briefly as a foreign correspondent in Berlin for the Chicago Tribune, but soon gravitated to Hollywood to write for films.
He first wrote the titles interspersed through silent films such as “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu” and graduated to dialogue and screenplays. He took one fling at acting, as a reporter in “Woman Trap” in 1929.
But his real metier seems to have been directing combined with writing.
“Directing, whether it be a play or a film, is the second half of a writer’s work,” he told The Times in 1991. “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.”
Mankiewicz received the D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement from the Directors Guild of America in 1986, the Golden Lion award from the Venice Film Festival in 1987, and the Akira Kurosawa award from the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1989.
Divorced once and widowed once, Mankiewicz is survived by his third wife, Rosemary Matthews, a daughter, Alexandra, and three sons, Eric, Christopher and Thomas.