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Joseph L. Mankiewicz Tribute: 'Suddenly, Last Summer'

Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Elizabeth Taylor on set of Suddenly Last SummerFour-time Academy Award winner screenwriter-director-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz will be saluted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a special 50th anniversary screening of a recently restored print of Suddenly Last Summer, starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor (above, and right, with Mankiewicz), and Montgomery Clift. The screening will take place on Thursday, May 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

The evening will also celebrate the recent gift of the Joseph L. Mankiewicz Papers to the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library. Turner Classic Movies host and The Young Turks co-creator Ben Mankiewicz, Joseph L.'s great nephew and grandson of Citizen Kane co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, will host the salute, which will include a panel discussion with Mankiewicz's family and friends prior to the screening.

I've seen the majority of the 20 or so feature films directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. There are three things nearly all of them have in common: class, intelligence, and great acting. Before directing his first feature, Mankiewicz went through a long apprenticeship, spanning nearly two decades and several dozen films at three studios.

Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 11, 1909, Mankiewicz began his film career writing intertitles at the twilight of the silent era. From there, he graduated to writing screenplays (mostly at Paramount), and by the mid-1930s was producing movies at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Among his MGM credits are classics such as Fritz Lang's anti-lynching drama Fury (1936), the Oscar-nominated comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940), and the first Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicle, Woman of the Year (1942).

Mankiewicz resumed his writing duties in the mid-1940s, when he switched over to 20th Century Fox. Shortly thereafter his directorial career kicked off. He directed Gene Tierney twice – in the Gothic Dragonwyck (1946) and in the romantic fantasy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) – eliciting one of the actress' best performances in the latter film.

Additionally, Mankiewicz guided Ronald Colman in The Late George Apley (1947), one of the veteran actor's last film appearances; provided Edward G. Robinson with one of his last great major roles in the noirish House of Strangers (1949); and won Academy Awards for both directing and writing the dramatic comedy A Letter to Three Wives (above, 1949), in which Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, and Ann Sothern wonder which of them has just lost her husband to another woman. (The best film Oscar that year went to Robert Rossen's political melodrama All the King's Men.)

Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, George Sanders in All About Eve

The following year, Mankiewicz would repeat that feat, winning Academy Wards for writing and directing All About Eve, which also won the best picture Oscar. This sparklingly witty (and every now and then somewhat melodramatic) tale of an ambitious actress wannabe who weasels her way into the den of a Broadway star, All About Eve received no less than fourteen Academy Award nominations (a record tied by Titanic nearly half a century later), five of those in the acting categories: Bette Davis (replacing Claudette Colbert) and Anne Baxter (replacing Jeanne Crain) as best actresses; Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter as best supporting actresses; and George Sanders (above, with Baxter, Davis, and Copacabana School of Acting grad Marilyn Monroe) as best supporting actor. (Only Sanders came out victorious.)

Also in 1950, Mankiewicz directed and co-wrote (with Lesser Samuels) No Way Out, a historically important (though dramatically conventional) tale in which ethnic relations play an important role, and which featured Sidney Poitier as a professional black man – a doctor to boot – something that was a rarity in those days.

Personally, I find Mankiewicz's two All About Eve follow-ups to be – along with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and The Barefoot Contessa (1954, right, with Ava Gardner) – his best efforts: the adult dramatic comedy People Will Talk (1951), with a uniformly flawless cast that includes Cary Grant, Jeanne Crain (replacing Anne Baxter), and Finlay Currie; and 5 Fingers (1952), an excellent spy thriller starring James Mason and Danielle Darrieux.

Mankiewicz's adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1953) earned Marlon Brando an Oscar nomination, while The Barefoot Contessa inexplicably didn't earn its star, Ava Gardner (in a role inspired by Rita Hayworth's life), a best actress nod. (Fellow player Edmond O'Brien, however, did go on to win a best supporting actor Oscar.) Though criticized by some for being overlong and superficial, I find The Barefoot Contessa both fascinating and quite profound in its (subtly) caustic look at the trappings of fame.

Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer

And if Guys and Dolls (1955) was a bore – just about everyone in this film musical is miscast, from Brando to Mankiewicz himself – the director recovered his touch with the adult (and bizarre) Suddenly Last Summer (1959), a psychotic psychological drama adapted by Gore Vidal and (officially) Tennessee Williams from Williamss' own play. (Williams later said he had nothing to do with the film version.)

The story follows a young woman (Elizabeth Taylor) who is sent to a psychiatric hospital after she suffers a nervous breakdown following some horrific traumatic experience. Things can get quite heady – bad pun intended – when you mix traditional Southern gentility and propriety with sexual desire, incest, homosexuality, psychoanalysis, lobotomy, cannibalism, and Mercedes McCambridge in one single film made at a time when most of those issues couldn't be discussed, let alone be shown on screen.

Not to mention the fact that it was a difficult shoot because Montgomery Clift, who plays a doctor trying to help the troubled woman, had become a serious drug and alcohol addict. Clift, who two years earlier had been in a near-fatal car crash that disfigured his face, would apparently find different ways to get his stuff. “Though I could never fathom the source,” editor William Hornbeck says in Kenneth L. Geist's Mankiewicz bio People Will Talk, “Joe thought he was either smoking or taking dope or drinking by putting booze into his orange juice.”

Katharine Hepburn, Joseph L. Mankiewicz on set of Suddenly Last Summer

According to Geist, reports that Katharine Hepburn clashed with Mankiewicz because he mistreated Clift seem to be untrue. The actress did, however, clash with her director for other reasons. “Kate wanted very much to direct herself in Suddenly Last Summer,” Mankiewicz says in People Will Talk. “This is a battle I don't think a director can ever afford to lose, because the first time I lose that battle, then I must give up directing. I refused to lose that battle, and I insisted on the performance being played my way.” (According to screenwriter-director – and Hepburn friend – Garson Kanin, who wrote a piece on the actress for McCall's, Hepburn refused to believe in the existence of homosexuality. I believe it's clear by now that Kanin made that one up.)

As per The Saturday Review critic Arthur Knight, Mankiewicz's apparently not only won the battle, but also the war.

“Elizabeth Taylor, as the beleaguered heroine of a New Orleans nightmare, works with an intensity beyond belief; hers is unquestionably one of the finest performances of this or any year. Katharine Hepburn uses every ounce of the Hepburn charm (and every one of the Hepburn mannerisms) to make her portrait of an egocentric matron and too-doting mother ring true. … [Suddenly Last Summer] is, in short, a wholly admirable rending into film of a work that is at once fascinating and nauseating, brilliant and immoral. Its reception at the box office unquestionably will have an important bearing on the future of 'adult' film in this country.”

There are some, however, who hate Suddenly Last Summer – though the film was a big hit when it came out, earning both Hepburn and Taylor Academy Award nominations. Mankiewicz himself later referred to Williams' original as “a badly constructed play based on the most elementary Freudian psychology and one anecdote.”

Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn in Suddenly Last Summer

In my view, the film is totally, unbelievably crazy – and I mean crazy – mess. It's also gripping, strangely eerie, and beautifully acted. Hepburn (above, with Clift), for one, is superb as the matriarch, while Mercedes McCambridge is a hoot as the potential lobotomee's greedy relative. In other words, Suddenly Last Summer is not to be missed.

Mankiewicz's career wound down in the 1960s. Perhaps the Cleopatra (1963) debacle left him out of breath for years. He would direct only three more narrative features: The Honey Pot (1967), There Was a Crooked Man (1970), and Sleuth (1972). Of these, I've only seen Sleuth, which happens to be your typical classy, witty, and well-acted – Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine trying to outdo one another – Mankiewicz fare.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz died in 1993.

Tickets for “A Centennial Salute to Joseph L. Mankiewicz” are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID, and may be purchased online at www.oscars.org, in person at the Academy box office or by mail. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. All seating is unreserved. The Samuel Goldwyn Theater is located at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 247-3600.

Photos: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library


         
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3 Comments to Joseph L. Mankiewicz Tribute: 'Suddenly, Last Summer'

  1. alan brickman

    Hopefully “Suddenly Last Summer” will get a special 2 disc reissue soon…

  2. Andre

    I have to watch “Julius Caesar” again. I remember your remark about Brando's performance a while back.
    And I'll look for “The Honey Pot.”
    Thanks for writing, Joao.
    Andre'

  3. Joao Soares

    Hi André,

    Joseph L. Mankiewicz is probably my favorite director, and I believe yours to be a very good capture of his art. I agree that “Guys and Dolls” seems to belong to another (poorer) reality altogether, but the class, wit and superb acting Mr. Mankiewicz presented audiences with.

    “Sleuth” was the first of his movies I remember watching, being hooked by the clever plot and the flawless performances; “The Ghost and Mrs Muir”, “Julius Caesar”, “A Letter to Three Wives”, “All About Eve” and “Suddenly, Last Summer” would rise to my personal pantheon.

    I'm glad you highlight his screenwriter and producer credits, with “The Philadelphia Story”, being a complete triumph, “Fury” one of my favorite Fritz Lang pictures, “Mannequin”, “Double Wedding” and “Manhattan Melodrama” being stellar achievements.

    I'd suggest “The Honey Pot” as yet another of his brilliantly scripted pics (it's out on DVD). And I'm sorry I'll miss the “A Centennial Salute to Joseph L. Mankiewicz”.

    Thanks for posting.