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Mankiewicz's 'My Life' a treasure trove of Hollywood stories

DOUGLASS K. DANIEL The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 11:44 PM

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"My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider's Journey Through Hollywood," by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane (University Press of Kentucky)

When it comes to talking about the movie business, the names below the title — even far, far below — can offer some of the more enlightening and engaging stories about how it all comes together.

"My Life as a Mankiewicz" is a treasure trove of observations and anecdotes about Hollywood from the 1960s to the 1980s and the people who made movies back then. More impressive than Tom Mankiewicz's filmography as a writer and a director are the people he worked with, drank with and, at times, slept with.

Even a short list of those who played cameos in his professional and personal life is glittering: Sean Connery, Marlon Brando, Tom Hanks, Tuesday Weld, Bill Cosby, Natalie Wood, Michael Caine and Margot Kidder.

Humphrey Bogart gave him his first real shot of whiskey — at age 12 — while Bogart was starring in a movie for his writer-director father, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. So driven to perform, one of Tom Mankiewicz's famous friends broke into song and dance at a gas station when a motorist asked if he really was Sammy Davis Jr. In Italy, Pope John Paul II, a fan of the TV series "Hart to Hart," responded with a sly, knowing glance when Mankiewicz suggested during a papal chat that he and star Stephanie Powers were just colleagues.

In a conversational if rambling narrative, Mankiewicz insists that talent, not bloodline, kept him working. Before he turned 30, he was writing "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971), the first of three James Bond movies on which he labored. Later, he wrote an original screenplay for "Mother, Jugs & Speed" (1976), and adapted the World War II thriller "The Eagle Has Landed" for a movie in 1976. He also helped start the Christopher Reeves "Superman" series in 1978.

As Mankiewicz tells it, working in Hollywood became less pleasant in the 1980s and '90s as a corporate mentality allowed deal-making to overshadow talent and creativity. He made good money as a script doctor but didn't feel that good about the work. Directing the comedies "Dragnet" (1987) and "Delirious" (1991) was fun but ultimately disappointing because of studio indifference. He rages against "the suits" and what he sees as the public's bad taste in entertainment, but his overall tone is one of defeat.

Mankiewicz saves most of the self-reflection for the final pages, perhaps because writing the book came near the end of his life. (He died at age 68 in 2010.) There's also a lot of kiss-and-tell, and he passes along gossip and secondhand tales with ease. This is a Hollywood story, after all, and Mankiewicz and co-author Robert Crane know their audience well.

Life as a Mankiewicz wasn't always fun — suicide, depression and substance abuse took their toll on the family — but it was hardly ever dull.

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