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Nick Davis on “Competing with Idiots,” the Mankiewiz brothers

Nick Davis on “Competing with Idiots,” the Mankiewiz brothers

On the shelf

Competing with idiots: Herman and Joe Mankiewicz, a double portrait

By Nick Davis
Button: 384 pages, $ 30

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The legend of the Mankiewicz brothers has always been with Nick Davis. Growing up, he was told that his grandfather, “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, was an iconoclastic hero with no need for a Hollywood stance. He was also taught to regard his great-uncle, Joseph, as a fraudulent, female sample.

The brothers had both come from New York to Hollywood, one after the other, to make money and flex their writing muscles, but they parted quickly, creating highly divergent careers. The good guy artist and the bad guy sold out. Herman, full of bonhomie; Joseph, stiff and superficial.

Only later did Davis, now also a filmmaker, realize that the truth was more complicated. This separation between family studies and Hollywood reality forced him to write his new book “Competing With Idiots”, a subjective double portrait of the Mankiewicz brothers.

A tasty combination of film history, family album and psychological study, “Idiots” is a fine companion to 2020’s “Mank”, the double Oscar winner from David Fincher, while going far beyond the film’s focus on “Kane”, Herman’s 1941 masterpiece .

“Herman was annoyed [Joe] to play the game and to take the game seriously, to succeed in the game, “says Davis – who directed the new ESPN documentary” Once Upon a Time in Queens “- by phone from New York. “Herman and his comrades, also those who succeeded, I think they wanted to, ‘Yes, let’s make money and have fun’. And then the next generation that came treated it like an art form. ”

Herman’s initial response: “‘Yes, OK, no matter what,'” Davis says. “But the next thing he knows, Joe has passed him on the ladder. And Herman says, ‘Oh, my God. Can you believe my idiot brother is directing another picture for Fox? ‘”

The boys’ father, Franz, had a gift to undermine their confidence. Herman first fled to Hollywood; wonderfully talented, he approached his job as a lark, drank and played at least as much as he wrote. (The book takes its title from Herman’s 1926 telegram to New York playwright Ben Hecht: “MILLIONS SHOULD BE PRINTED HERE, AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS. DON’T LET THIS COME ON”). Joseph, 11 years younger, arrived in the shadow of his racing brother; unlike Herman, he laid his head down – eventually winning four Oscars for writing and directing “All About Eve” (1950) and “A Letter to Three Wives” (1949).

It’s a colorful story, but a sad one. Herman, deeply admired as a rag and a senses (in the 1930s he produced “Monkey Business”, “Horse Feathers” and “Duck Soup” for the Marx Brothers), seemed to be programmed for self-destruction right up until the day of his alcohol-related death in 1953 at the age of 55. Joseph, respected if not loved, had great difficulty in achieving personal happiness on an equal footing with his professional success. His second wife, Rosa, committed suicide; his son Chris despised him.

Davis was also taught to despise Joseph. “It was simply part of the air I breathed that Joe Mankiewicz was a man who had misplaced his decency at birth and never even bothered to look for it,” Davis writes. There was Joseph’s unanimous career, Rosa’s suicide after a stormy marriage, and the way Joseph apparently created his niece — Davis’ mother — to find the body (a macabre anecdote that opens the book). The built-in enmity made it easy to ridicule Joseph for directing the symbol of Hollywood profits and floppage, “Cleopatra” (1963).

“Your grandfather wrote the greatest movie ever,” Davis was told as a boy, “and your uncle is responsible for the greatest disaster ever.”

Joe Mankiewicz (right) and Rosemary, his third wife (left) in Rome during the filming of 'Cleopatra'.

Joe Mankiewicz (right) and Rosemary, his third wife (left), in Rome during the filming of ‘Cleopatra’, flanking his sister Erna and production manager Johnny Johnston.


Still, Davis — whose father, Peter Davis, made the Oscar-winning Vietnam War documentary “Hearts and Minds” (1974) — came to see the complexity and even kindness of his great-grandfather’s uncle. He realized that both brothers grew up in the same toxic household, though each reacted differently. Joseph, who continued to make films in the 70s (and received his last Oscar nod for directing 1972’s “Sleuth”), lived long enough to change his mind. He died in 1993 at the age of 83 years.

Davis even learned to respect “Cleopatra.”

“I remember seeing it and I was like, ‘Not so bad, I’ve seen worse.’ It’s a little long, it’s a little proper, and it may need a little editing. But I did not think it was the worst movie I have ever seen. ”

It’s Herman who is now stuck in the pop culture consciousness because of “Mank.” As played in black and white by Gary Oldman (who received one of the film’s 10 Oscar nominations), the older brother is a thoughtful train wreck who actually has an ability to self-sabotage, including drunken tirades at San Simeon Castle William Randolph Hearst.

Davis liked the movie. “It’s great to have your grandfather out there in the world, played by one of the world’s greatest actors in a movie by one of the world’s greatest directors,” he says. “The film is made so lovingly and with such care and warmth.”

As a writer, he also liked the timing.

“I couldn’t be happier with the fact that the film allowed Herman to get into the national imagination and the national conversation in a way that he has always been in my imagination and my conversation,” Davis says. “Now everyone can join.”

Nick Davis' "Competing with idiots" tells about the complicated life of Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz.

Nick Davis’ “Competing with Idiots” describes the complicated life of his grandfather and great-grandfather, Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz.

(Mark Rosenberg)

Although Davis is only briefly a character in his book, it is still a personal account, certainly more than 2019 “The Brothers Mankiewicz” by Sydney Ladensohn Stern. Realizing how personal it was early in the letter, Davis had what he felt was a breakthrough; it was a memory.

So he wrote his own story into a draft and showed it to Victoria Wilson, his editor at Knopf. “‘OK, great,’ she said. ‘So that was what you had to do to write it. Now take yourself out of it.'”

His answer? “I kicked the screen for a good while.” Then he did as instructed. And he realized that Wilson was right. “I’m not into it now,” he says, “but it comes from my perspective.” The finished work has one intimate point of view, but it is not a navel-gazing. Davis brings a lived knowledge, practical and emotional, without forcing himself into the picture.

That’s the perspective of a loving grandson and a forgiving big nephew, but one who avoids superficial flattery because he, to quote Susan Alexander in “Kane,” knows where the bodies are buried. It is a tragic story told with disarming brio, a fitting tribute to brothers who excelled at telling such stories, but not enough to avoid their own fatal mistakes.

Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.

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