Oscar Directors: Mankiewicz, Joseph Leo (1909-1993)

Joseph Mankiewicz was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to Franz Mankiewicz and Johanna Blumenau, Jewish immigrants from Germany. He had a sister, Erna Mankiewicz, and a brother, Herman J. Mankiewicz (1897–1953), who became a writer, winning an Oscar for co-writing (with Orson Welles, who directed) Citizen Kane (1941).

At age four, Mankiewicz moved with his family to New York City where he graduated in 1924 from Stuyvesant High School. In 1928, he obtained a B.A. from Columbia University. He worked in Berlin, as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune before entering the movie business.

Directing competently in a variety of genres, he coaxed great performances from both actors and actresses alike: Bette Davis gave the greatest performance of her career in All About Eve. Mankiewicz combined ironic, sophisticated scripts with a precise mise en scène.

Mankiewicz worked for 17 years as a screenwriter at Paramount and as a producer for MGM, before directing at Twentieth Century-Fox.

Over six years he made 11 films for Fox, reaching a peak in 1949-1950, when he won consecutive Oscar Awards for Screenplay and Direction for both A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve, which was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won six (holding a record for the most nominated picture until Titanic, in 1997).

During his long career in Hollywood, Mankiewicz wrote 48 screenplays, and produced more than 20 films, including George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1940, and garnered Jimmy Stewart his first and only Oscar.

However, he is best known for the films he directed, twice winning the Best Director Oscar. In 1944, he produced The Keys of the Kingdom, which starred Gregory Peck. In 1951 Mankiewicz left Fox and moved to New York, intending to write for Broadway. His dream never materialized and he continued to make films that explored his favorite themes—social class disparity, life as performance, and the tension between people’s urge to control their fate and real life contingencies.

In 1953, he directed Julius Caesar for MGM, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, which received favorable reviews. The film serves as the only record of Marlon Brando in a Shakespearean role; he played Mark Antony, and received an Oscar nomination for his performance.

In 1958, Mankiewicz directed The Quiet American, an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel about the American military involvement in what would become the Vietnam War. Mankiewicz, under pressure from the climate of anti-Communism and the Hollywood blacklist, changed the message of Greene’s book, altering various aspects of the story. A cautionary tale about America’s blind support for “anti-Communists” was turned, according to Greene, into a “propaganda film for America.”

Cleopatra, starring Liz Taylor, took two years of Mankiewicz’s life, derailing his career and causing near bankruptcy for Fox; he replaced the original helmer, Rouben Mamoulian. The studio recovered two years later, with the release of the immensely popular Oscar-winner “The Sound of Music.”

Mankiewicz garnered a fourth Best Director Oscar nomination in 1972 for Sleuth, his final directing effort, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.

Mankiewicz died of a heart attack on February 5, 1993, six days before his 84th birthday.