On the heels of the much-lauded biopic Mank comes Competing with Idiots, a “dual portrait” by the documentary filmmaker Nick Davis of his grandfather, Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz, and his great-uncle, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Unlike the well-intentioned but leadenly executed movie, the book is a fascinating family saga, played out against Hollywood’s Golden Age and driven by a sibling rivalry that puts Cain and Abel to shame.
In 1925, Herman cabled his friend Ben Hecht, then a Chicago newspaperman: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” Hence the book’s title. But Davis may be freighting it with a double meaning. Herman often referred to Joe, 12 years his junior, as “my idiot brother.” No competition was more intense than the one between these two.
Such was the patrimony of their father, Franz Mankiewicz, a Berlin-born scholar and ferocious taskmaster who had immigrated to New York at the end of the 19th century and raised three children in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He taught school and constantly berated his firstborn if his grades were anything less than perfect. If young Herman got a 97 in a class, Franz glowered: “Where are the other three points?” Davis says this brilliant boy was “a magnet for his father’s displeasure.” Their mother, Johanna (namesake of Davis’s mother), was equally under Franz’s thumb and, because she never came to her sons’ defense, was written off by them as a hausfrau “uneducated in four languages.” In retrospect, Davis speculates, she may have been the secret source of the cleverness for which the Mankiewicz brothers—the elder the co-author of Marx Brothers movies and Citizen Kane, the younger the writer-director of All About Eve—were legendary.
How sharp was the Mank wit? Within the family Herman was considered “the funniest man who ever lived.” Examples: A studio head fires Herman, making the usual threats that he’ll never work at this or any other studio again. Herman’s deadpan reply: “Promises, promises.” Or watching Orson Welles walk by on the lot: “There but for the grace of God, goes God.” In one of his lesser movies, someone says it never rains in Los Angeles, to which the riposte is: “Only money.” Anything anyone ever said to Herman was a setup for a spontaneous punch line. In their New York days, Hecht dubbed him ‘the Voltaire of Central Park West.”
He passed Columbia’s entrance exam at 13, but not until 15 would he be old enough to attend, whereupon he discovered three passions that consumed the rest of his life: writing, drinking, and gambling. Not necessarily in that order. He wrote for the student newspaper and humor magazine, but his first love was the theater. The play he wrote for Columbia’s big-deal Varsity Show was favorably reviewed in the New York Times. It didn’t take Herman long to find his way to a seat at the Algonquin Round Table after a stint as a foreign correspondent and press agent to Isadora Duncan in Weimar Berlin, but when Harold Ross fired him as theater critic at the New Yorker, there was nowhere for this young man to go but West.
MOVIES were still silent when Herman showed up, but his theater chops gave him a solid grounding in storytelling, and he elevated title-card writing from the woodenly melodramatic to the bright and clever. Once sound came in, Mank was golden, even in an era when studio bosses regarded writers as “schmucks with Underwoods.” In addition to Hecht and the Algonquin cronies he lured to the Coast with his “Fresh Air Fund for writers” was another hungry scribe in a hurry to make his mark and fortune—his younger brother.
Joe had always followed in Herman’s footsteps—first at Columbia, now Hollywood—and was always found by those who had experienced the Mank genius to be a tad wanting. The film critic Andrew Sarris titled a piece about Joe’s oeuvre “Less Than Meets the Eye.” But the two Mankiewiczes were very different men. Herman was a compulsive rule-breaker. He questioned authority, refused to play the Hollywood game, ignored deadlines, offended power brokers. But Joe, Davis writes, “wanted to find out what the game was and win.” At all cost—not just professionally but in his relationship with his brother, his marriages, his children.
Davis gives credence to the theory that Joe was the model for Sammy Glick in Budd Schulberg’s searing novel about Hollywood ambition, What Makes Sammy Run? He describes a scene backstage at the 1951 Oscars. Joe, nominated for writing and directing All About Eve, is telling Billy Wilder (nominated for Sunset Boulevard) how honored he is to be considered in the same category as Wilder when, suddenly, he hears his name announced as the winner for Best Director and pushes Wilder out of the way “as if I were a stagehand.” Joe was off to collect his prize. It was, Wilder said, “pure ambition.” In that moment, Wilder was Bette Davis’s Margo Channing, and Joe was Eve. But Joe’s real Margo was his big brother. He had what he called his “Herman complex.”
Herman’s labors, unlike Joe’s, were often invisible. He helped make box-office stars out the Marx Bros. and inserted the notion in a script draft that when Dorothy gets to Oz, the movie should become color. All the while, he was drinking and gambling his life away. Davis cites his grandfather’s biographer, Richard Meryman, who wrote that “one million dollars passed through Herman’s hands and left no residue.” So long-suffering was his wife, Sara, that her nickname around town became “Poor Sara.”
Meanwhile, Joe relentlessly climbed the ladder. He produced The Philadelphia Story, paired Tracy and Hepburn for the first time, and won back-to-back double Oscars (writing and directing) for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve—a feat yet to be replicated. Joe’s inexorable rise intersected with Herman’s “one-way ticket to the bottom,” to the point where Joe could afford to start feeling sorry for his perennially broke and broken-down big brother. All Herman still had on him was the Oscar for Citizen Kane—a victory that ignited Joe’s envy rather than any kind of familial pride.
For all his flaws, Herman remained a warm, feeling man who never fell out of love with his wife and was a doting father to his three children. His youngest, Davis’s mother, Johanna, was 15 when Herman died (in 1953, age 55) and her Uncle Joe took over as surrogate father. He paid for her education and funded charge accounts at the best department stores, but his generosity did not extend to the memory of her late father. He produced a fistful of IOUs as evidence of what a profligate mess Herman had been.
While Joe was beloved by actors, especially the female ones with whom he had countless affairs, in his personal life he was described by his own sister, Erna, as a “monster.” While Joe was a “man of principles, a fighter for causes,” she said, “you could sit for an entire evening and be practically in tears, and he wouldn’t notice. If there was something bothering you and you walked into a room where Herman was sitting reading, after three or four minutes he would look up and say, ‘What’s the matter, kid?’” As Davis writes, “the characters had solidified in nearly everyone’s mind: Joe was cold and isolated, Herman a big-hearted mess.”
Herman summarized his brother more succinctly, and witheringly. “Just once,” he said, “I’d like to meet somebody at Joe’s birthday party I’d seen the year before.”
Joe married three times, most significantly to a very likely bipolar Austrian actress-diva named Rosa, a woman whose fragile ego could not withstand life as Mrs. Joe Mankiewicz. When she finally killed herself, Joe recruited his niece Johanna, still in college, to come with him to their house in Mount Kisco, New York, almost certainly so that she would be the first to find the body. After her death, Joe removed all photos of Rosa from his sight and never spoke of her. Years later, he told his son Tom (then a writer of James Bond films) that he wanted to talk about Rosa. Finally, Tom thought, his father was going to open up about his mother. Instead, he wanted to ask whether Tom would mind picking up the $2,500 a year for upkeep on her grave. Not a surprising request perhaps, given Joe’s behavior at her funeral. After shoveling dirt onto his late wife’s coffin, he clapped his hands and announced, “Enough. Let’s go.”
After Herman’s death, Joe stayed at the top of his game—adapting Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer, an enormous hit. But that game, Davis writes, was “solitaire.” He was paid a vast sum to take over the doomed Cleopatra, where the “double-headed hydra of Liz and Dick” (Taylor and Burton) gave him psoriasis so painful, he had to wear white film-cutter’s gloves and needed daily B12 shots to keep him standing on three hours’ sleep a night. After that epic bomb, released in 1963, he eventually redeemed his reputation, nine years later, with Sleuth, an anti-Cleopatra two-hander starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. And that was it, the wrap on Joe’s career, for the next 20 years until his death in 1993. He tried to write but couldn’t. His sharpness deserted him. He sat for interviews, in which he was increasingly described as “cranky” and “irascible.” Davis met him near the end of his life and recalls that a “sour and dyspeptic odor was emanating from him that had the feel of something rotten, something deep within the man consuming itself.”
That deep, consumptive ambition was the legacy both brothers passed down to their descendants—what Davis calls a “horrible, nonstop competitiveness” among a family of ridiculous overachievers. Herman’s son Frank was a decorated World War II vet who became RFK’s press secretary and ran George McGovern’s presidential campaign and ran National Public Radio. His children, Josh and Ben, became successful journalists and television personalities, Josh a reporter for Dateline, Ben a presenter on Turner Classic Movies. But none of it was ever good enough. When Johanna married Peter Davis, who would subsequently win both an Emmy and an Oscar for his left-leaning documentaries, Joe complained that her choice of husband was a little “thin.” Herman’s oldest son, Don, once gave his own son, John, a birthday present of three picture frames. The first featured Herman’s Best Screenplay nomination for The Pride of the Yankees, the second showed Don’s own Best Screenplay nomination for the 1958 Susan Hayward movie I Want to Live. The third frame, “of course, was blank.” Johanna could never figure out why her Uncle Joe cut her off in her adulthood, until her cousin Tom explained it: “He always thought you’d be a star.”
Even knowing this, Johanna couldn’t help but pass the pressure down to her own son. When he was eight, a year before her tragic death after having been struck by a taxicab on a Greenwich Village street, she gave her little boy a copy of her novel, inscribed, “To Nicky, from one writer to another. All my love, Mommy.” Davis found this surprising and horrifying. “Her labeling me a ‘writer’ served, when combined with her untimely death a year later, as an unintentional recipe for decades of anxiety and self-doubt (and may well be part of the reason for this book’s nearly two-decade gestation”).
Well, if it’s any consolation, the book is a wonderful achievement worthy of its subjects. They should make a movie out of it. It’d be better than Mank.
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