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6 Great Films by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Classic Movies from Hollywood's Most Literate Director

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The brother of noted screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz followed his older sibling's footsteps into show business to become one of classic Hollywood's most literate directors.

Mankiewicz had his start as a writer for Paramount Pictures and later served as a producer for MGM. In the mid-1940s he moved over to 20th Century Fox, which gave him his first shot to direct. Mankiewicz made a number of classic movies and covered most genres, but nowhere was he better than when he skewered show business itself.

Though he was responsible for one of the greatest commercial failures of all time, Mankiewicz left his mark as an Academy Award-winning director of many classic movies. Here are six of his best films.

1. ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’ – 1947

20th Century Fox
After years of writing and producing, Mankiewicz began directing for 20th Century Fox. He helmed a couple of pictures before hitting his stride with this romantic fantasy starring Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison and Natalie Wood. Tierney played a young widow who moves into a seaside cottage with her daughter (Wood), where she encounters the ghostly presence of a ribald sea captain (Harrison). She’s determined not to be scared of him and he soon takes a liking to her, and even helps her become a bestselling author by dictating colorful stories. Eventually they fall in love, only to realize the divide between them is too great. The film – itself an adaptation of a 1945 novel – was turned into a 1960s TV series of the same name.
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2. ‘A Letter to Three Wives’ – 1949

20th Century Fox
Mankiewicz wrote and directed this sharp comedy of errors about three wives and friends (Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern) who are about to embark on a riverboat trip when they receive a letter from a woman (voiced by Celeste Holm) informing them that she’s about to run off with one of their husbands. Of course, the woman conspicuously denies telling them which husband she’s about to steal, forcing each wife to re-examine their respective marriages in order to find out who it is and what went wrong. Co-starring Kirk Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn and Paul Douglas as the three husbands, A Letter to Three Wives earned Mankiewicz Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay, while earning a third nomination for Best Picture.
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3. ‘All About Eve’ – 1950

20th Century Fox
Without a doubt Mankiewicz’s greatest film, All About Eve starred Bette Davis in a career-reviving performance and earned a whopping 14 Academy Awards nominations – a record that stood until Titanic matched the total in 1997. Davis played Margo Channing, an aging Broadway star who takes on Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a young and seemingly naïve fan, as her personal assistant. But all along, Eve schemes to become Margo’s understudy and eventually uses everyone and anyone to rise to stardom. Mankiewicz’s skillful direction and sharply barbed script allowed the actors to deliver their best, as All About Eve went on to become one of the best showbiz satires ever made.
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4. ‘Julius Caesar’ – 1953

MGM Home Entertainment
Tackling Shakespeare for the first time, Mankiewicz directed a surprisingly visual adaptation of the Bard’s classic play that even featured some film noir flourishes during the conspiracy to kill Caesar (Louis Calhern). But at its heart was Shakespeare’s language, which was delivered with vigor by John Gielgud as Cassius, James Mason as Brutus and Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, whose stirring speech following Caesar's murder was one many highlights of the film. Though no nominations were forthcoming for the director, Mankiewicz still managed to helm one of the all-time classic adaptations of Shakespeare’s work.
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5. ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ – 1959

Sony Pictures
The cracks began to show in Mankiewicz’s career with this adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ lurid one-act play. Katharine Hepburn played a controlling southern woman who pressures a bright young surgeon (Montgomery Clift) to lobotomize her severely disturbed niece (Elizabeth Taylor), who has been traumatized ever since the sudden death of her cousin the previous summer. Mankiewicz reportedly despised working with Clift, who was unable to remember his lines or even work full days due to increasing drug and alcohol abuse stemming from his near-death accident in 1956. That led to conflict with Hepburn, who expressed her outrage at the director’s treatment of Clift after her last day of filming. Still, the film was a hit and earned Oscar nominations for the two actresses, but it presaged greater problems to come.
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6. 'Cleopatra' - 1963

20th Century Fox
If there was ever an object lesson in the destructive power of excess, look no further than Mankiewicz’s historical epic Cleopatra, a film so expensive that it nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox despite being the highest grossing film of 1963. Elizabeth Taylor starred as the titular Egyptian queen and Richard Burton was her Marc Antony. Burton and Taylor famously began an extramarital affair that generated worldwide headlines further damaging an already troubled production. Too many events converged to make this film a financial disaster to list here, but suffice it to say that the budget swelled from a modest $2 million to over $44 million. The damage caused was absolute and just about ended Mankiewicz’s career. He would make several more films until retiring after 1972’s Sleuth, but he never regained the trust from the studios he once served so well.
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