SOMETIMES someone gives you a book that just blows your mind, and you know you’d have missed something great without reading it.
A longtime friend of mine, the attractive Suzanne Goodson from Tennessee, is now a serious sports fan, so we have partially parted interests. But she and I are book exchangers.
The other day she gave me My Life As a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey Through Hollywood, by Tom Mankiewicz. Well, of course I knew there was a great screenwriter named Joe Mankiewicz, Tom’s father. He wrote my just about all-time favorite “All About Eve” — as well as the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton “Cleopatra.” And there was Tom’s noted witty drinker uncle Herman who created “Citizen Kane.” (And made the classic comment as he threw up at a dinner party that it was all right “because the white wine came up with the fish.”)
But somehow I missed connecting with the career of screenwriter/director Tom. I knew some of his movies well and relished them. I just wasn’t paying enough attention.
The University of Kentucky has now published Tom, with the help of Robert Crane. (Tom died in 2010.) It is repetitious and reads as if they hadn’t time to edit it, but it is an astonishing history. And right on time for the James Bond era to peak. As “Skyfall,” the latest 007 comes out, we are reminded that Tom wrote and contributed to many of the Bond movies – “Diamonds Are Forever” … “Live and Let Die” … “The Man with the Golden Gun” … “Moonraker.”
Tom also brought the first “Superman” and “Superman II” to the screen. His very first job in movies had been on the 1961 John Wayne film, “The Comancheros.”
He details in this book his many love affairs with leading ladies and his good feelings for most of them. He was responsible for the TV hit, “Hart to Hart.”
In this life story with many hits and errors, we get Tom’s unvarnished opinions of just about every big star he met and knew. There are heroes and villains and lots of fabulous women from Natalie Wood to Candice Bergen to Jill St. John to Margot Kidder whom he admired extravagantly.
TOM ON the stars! He asked Cary Grant if it disturbed him that everywhere he went, people kept watching him. “Doesn’t this bother you … all of these people staring?” And Cary said, “A little, but if they ever stopped, I’d be absolutely panic stricken.” Tom noted that as people whispered as Grant entered the Universal commissary, Cary would say under his breath: “Yes, it’s me, it’s me, it’s me, it’s me …”
Tom raves about Sean Connery as “an unselfish actor.” It seems Connery gave away more than half the $1.2 million he first earned to a Scottish educational trust for painters, poets, actors. And if you think that when the Queen appeared with the new Bond at the opening of the Olympics, it was a “first,” you’re wrong. Sean and the Queen walked down a street in Edinburgh, after he was knighted. He was wearing his kilt.
Tom goes on to write “Daniel Craig is just terrific. He was a shot in the arm when Bond needed it, because it’s an amazing series. It’s been going fifty years. ‘Dr. No’ was 1962. I saw ‘From Russia with Love’ when I was in college and ‘Goldfinger’ the year after I got out. There have been 22 of these. Nothing like that’s ever happened in the history of film …”
Tom had fun working with producer Cubby Broccoli and describes it all. When they were making “The Man With the Golden Gun,” Broccoli was upset because the elephants couldn’t be herded. He ordered 50 sets of shoes for them and promptly forgot about it. 200 useless elephant shoes were later delivered.
My favorite story in the book is about Marlene Dietrich. Tom asked, “Who was the best actor you ever played with?”
Without batting an eye, Dietrich said, “I never performed with a good actor.”
“Really, how about Emil Jannings in ‘The Blue Angel’?”
“He was terrible, he was dreadful. All of the actors I played with were dreadful, so I don’t know how to answer your question.”
Natalie Wood then asked, ‘You and Garbo were the two great stars of the Thirties. What would you say was the difference between the two of you?’
“Dietrich said, ‘Garbo was cold. I was warm. Garbo had no friends. I had many friends. Garbo could not act. I was a wonderful actress. Garbo couldn’t sing. I could sing. I had a better body than Garbo.’ She went on and on. And finally, her gaze bore in on Natalie as she said, ‘But even with all that, they don’t make stars like they used to.’
“The room was deadly silent as it came time for the next question, to be asked by Don Rickles. He leaned in, stared hard at Marlene Dietrich, and said, ‘Who are YOU?’”
WELL, that’s just a small sample. This is a really readable book for movie fans who like history up to the present. Tom Mankiewicz died in 2010 , but he left a big legacy — wonderful anecdotes about real stars … how deals are made … how the industry is shaped by relationships … the high living enjoyed by certain producers as well as movies on shoestrings … what Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne were really like.
Every aspiring film writer, producer, director and movie fanatic should lay hands on this book.
This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 10/26/12