UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Generations

Exploring the legends of film history inspires many screenwriters. In Understanding Screenwriting, Tom Stempel talks about, well, generations, reviewing books on the Mankiewicz brothers, as well as recent television shows.
Author:
Publish date:

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Generations

The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics (2019. Book written by Sydney Ladensohn Stern. 468 pages)

mank brothers understand screenwriting

In 1978, Richard Meryman published Mank: The Wit, World, and Life of Herman Mankewicz, a biography of the eldest of the two Mankiewicz brothers. You might be able to tell just from the subtitle the problem I had with the book. Yes, Herman was a world class wit. I once entertained a technician on the phone from my cable system with several minutes of Mank stories while we waited for the cable box to reboot. She said she could hardly wait to go home that night and tell her dad some of the stories.

And Mank lived in the world. He grew up in New York, lived in Germany, and eventually moved to Hollywood. Meryman does tell his life reasonably well. And he also actually mentions that Mank was a screenwriter and producer, and, oh, yes, he wrote the first drafts of Citizen Kane (1941). In other words it was one of those New York books that thought Hollywood was only good for laughs.

The same year Mank came out, Kenneth Geist published Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a better book about Herman’s younger brother. Geist gets into Joe’s personal life, which was rather colorful, but he does spend most of his time on Joe’s films as writer and director. The fact that Joe was a two-time Academy Award-winning director was probably enough to get a New York publisher to bring out the book. After all, Andrew Sarris had been promoting directors for a while. The publisher did the book, even though Sarris had listed Joe in his Less Than Meets the Eye category of directors along with other second-raters like John Huston and Billy Wilder.

So here we are 42 years later and Sydney Ladensohn Stern brings out a dual biography of the two brothers. Do we need it?

Yes, definitely. This is one of the best of the recent biographies of screenwriters, easily comparable to Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1997) and Ian Scott’s In Capra’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Robert Riskin (2006). And recent is the key word and yes, I do take perhaps a longer view of “recent” than you might. We are now a generation away from the Meryman and Geist books, and the attitudes toward screenwriters have changed. I found Frances Marion’s memoirs Off With Their Heads! A Serio-comic Tale of Hollywood (1972) disappointing because she wrote so little about her screenwriting career. Beauchamp made up for that.

Frances Marion (1888-1973) was one of the most in-demand screenwriters of her time, winning two screenwriting Oscars in the 1930s.

Frances Marion (1888-1973) was one of the most in-demand screenwriters of her time, winning two screenwriting Oscars in the 1930s.

Stern takes both Herman and Joe seriously, in some ways more seriously than they took themselves. Not that she ignores the wit. One thing I love about her book are the footnotes that trace the lineage of some of the great Mank stories (“The white wine came up with the fish” and “Imagine that, the world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass”) back to how they may have come to be.

As the “heartbreak” in the subtitle suggests, both brothers had their own disappointments. Partly those came from the generation they grew up in. They lived in New York City at the time when it was the cultural capitol of the country. They were journalists in the twenties, and they both adored the Broadway theatre and wanted to write for it. They did, but without much success in their early days. They both ended up in Hollywood, when Hollywood was looked down upon by the East Coast Intellectual establishment. Their longing for the approval of their New York friends made them miserable in Hollywood, and they could not enjoy the success they had.

[Script Extra: International Women's Day: Frances Marion—The Original Power-Woman of Hollywood]

When I met and interviewed Nunnally Johnson in the late sixties, I could detect some of the same attitude in him. He had been born the same year as Herman and was good friends with Herman and Joe. Nunnally had had an astonishing career in film (check my biography of him if you don’t believe me), but he always longed for success on the New York stage. He had written for the stage, but never had the kind of hits he had in the movies. I think one of the reasons we got along so well was that he was delighted to have a guy like me who thought so highly of his screenwriting. I was part of the crowd of a younger generation that appreciated screenwriters for being screenwriters. (Not to continue tooting my own horn too much, Stern makes references to four works of mine, as well as the work of many of my friends and colleagues.)

Herman died in 1953 before Meryman even started on his book, but there were enough of his friends around to tell stories about him. Joe was still around and, somewhat reluctantly, gave interviews to Geist. Both Meryman and Geist discussed their work with Stern, so she had the benefit of their research. But there was also more material available. Joe’s widow, Rosemary, had donated his papers to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Motion Picture Academy. The donation included Joe’s copies of the Meryman and Geist books, with Joe’s handwritten notes in the margins. Joe did not like some of what the authors had written, to put it politely. Stern includes those notes in her book.

[Script Extra: Masters of Screenwriting Interview: Tom Mankiewicz]

A particular strength of the book is that it is exactly a dual biography, which means Stern can and does bounce the two brothers off each other. Their relationship was complex, to say the least, something that Stern gets better than the earlier writers.

I have seen reviews of the book that say it gets less interesting after Herman dies in 1953. He was such a lively character I can see why they say that, but I found the rest of the book just as interesting. Joe had had a great career at 20 Century-Fox in the forties and early fifties (he is still the only person to win back-to-back Academy Awards for both writing and directing for 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives and 1950’s All About Eve), but then wanted to go independent since he got tired of Darryl Zanuck recutting his pictures. That turned out not to be a smart move, and there are horrible stories about dealing with stars like Ava Gardner on The Barefoot Contessa (1954) and of course Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison on Cleopatra (1963). If you ever had thoughts about directing, read the section on Cleopatra and it will cure you of the itch forever.

1963 - Cleopatra - Elizabeth Taylor, Joseph L. Mankiewicz

1963 - Cleopatra - Elizabeth Taylor, Joseph L. Mankiewicz

More Generations.

In my last column I wrote about the movies that I was watching on television during these coronavirus days and nights. Now here are some television programs I have been watching as well, both recurring and new.

Modern Family finished its 11-year series run in April. Because everyone’s focused on the coronavirus pandemic, there was not a lot written about the end of the series. Even without the pandemic, there might not have been much written about its ending.

Modern Family was one of those few television shows that never jumped the shark. It won piles of Emmys and Golden Globe awards in its first five years or so, but not as many in its last four or five years, even though it did not decline in quality. Shows like that, such as M*A*S*H, Cheers, and ER, get taken for granted and critics (me included) move on to other shows.

Modern Family

Modern Family

When the show began in 2009, I was particularly impressed by the degree of difficulty the show set for itself. It was about three very different but related families. O.K., but in virtually each episode there were storylines about all three families, rather than one storyline primarily about one family in each episode, and then in the next episode a storyline about one of the other families. You think that’s easy to do for 11 seasons?

The show was only nominated for two Emmys for writing, one for the pilot, and one for the “Caught in the Act” in the second season. The pilot was written by the show’s creators, Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, and “Caught in the Act” was written by Steven Levitan and Jeffrey Richman. Both shows won, but I am surprised no other episodes were even nominated. If you want to see my take on “Caught in the Act,” you can do so here.

The writers of the last season (many of whom have been with the show since the beginning; there has not been a lot of turnover on the writing staff) have taken the time and the patience to set up the endings over the course of the season, which made it fun to watch the elements fall into place. Earlier in the season, Cam was up for a football coaching job in the Midwest. It would mean he and Mitchell (and Lily, one of the show’s many secret weapons) moving away. At the end of the episode we learn Cam does not get the job. We are sad for him, but glad they are staying in town. In the first part of the two-part series finale Cam learns he can have the job after all and now they have to decide whether to go. Now that the show is ending, we will accept that they can.

The Unicorn, as I wrote here, was one of my favorite new shows this season. It has held up well, although the writers spend more time than they should on the two sets of neighbors who are trying to get the widower Wade back into the dating world. One problem the writers had was that they came up with a great woman for Wade to date. She was Anna, a doctor, attractive and smart. What’s not to like? Nothing. Except that if she is the one for Wade, then it changes the nature of the show. So, like the male doctor in Brief Encounter (1945), she leaves her lover and goes off to work in Africa.

So Wade is back to playing the field, which is sort of frustrating for him. In the final episode of the season, he goes to the cemetery to talk to his dead wife. We will learn more about that later.

The Univorn

The Univorn

The Bold Type is back for its fourth season and the girls are still working at Scarlett, the woman’s magazine. The first part of the season was even raunchier than previous seasons, which is not necessarily as good as it sounds. There was also a lot more cross promotion between the show and its sponsors. The one thing that bothered me the most about this season is that the writers decided that the editor, Jacqueline Carlyle, was having marriage troubles. What I like about Jacqueline is that she is the grown-up in the room, so I would expect better from her than her having a quickie affair with an old boy friend. Fortunately it was only a quickie.

One Day at a Time is back, and back. This is a reboot of the classic 1975-84 sitcom. That was created for producer Norman Lear by Allan Manings and his wife, actress Whitney Blake. It was based on Blake’s experience as a single mother with children. She and Manings had been trying to get the show on for years, but networks at the time hated the idea of a single mom with kids. Because Lear had been so successful for CBS, he was able to get it on.

The new version is a Latinx version of the show. It was on Netflix for 3 seasons, but they dropped it and it was been picked up by POP TV. I don’t have Netflix streaming, so I missed it there, and have only now seen it.

The setup is not quite the same as the original. There, it was a divorced woman and two daughters. Here, it is a woman with a daughter, who is gay (the networks would never have allowed a gay teenager in the 70s), and a son. And living with them is the woman’s mother. The writers and set decorators have given the mother a marvelous toy to play with. The mother’s “room” is off the living room, separated only by a set of curtains. What’s so marvelous about that? The mother is played by living legend Rita Moreno. With her seventy years of experience as an actor, there is nothing she cannot do with a set of curtains. The show is worth watching just for Moreno and the curtains.

One Day at a Time

One Day at a Time

One of the breakout characters in the original show was Schneider, the superintendent of the apartment building, who was constantly coming into the family’s apartment. Whitney Blake objected, “That man should not be allowed to walk into that apartment. A mother would not allow this. Don’t these people every lock their door?” Manings explained the facts of television life to her, “No one in television locks their doors, because you always have that funny neighbor next door who’s got to walk in with the joke.” Unfortunately the new Schneider does not bring any jokes with him. (The quote from Manings is from the interview I did with him for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.)

One of the best of the newer shows is Tommy. It is about a woman who becomes the first chief of police of Los Angeles. It is created by Paul Attanasio, whom you may know from Donny Brasco (1997), and as the creator of Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993-99). So it is a politically sharp look at crime and politics in a big city. Best of all, Abigail “Tommy” Thomas is played by Edie Falco. If you want somebody to play the first female chief of police in LA, of course you hire Nurse Jackie and Carmela Soprano.

9-1-1: Lone Star is a cousin to the original 9-1-1, co-created, as was the original by Ryan Murphy. That means that it has one of the most diverse casts on television. That diversity works better on the mother ship, where the characterization is much stronger than here. Here it is a little difficult to separate one hunk from another. The boss of the fire house is played by Rob Lowe, who is sneaking into his maturity, but he does not quite come up to Peter Krause in the original in leadership. The woman cop here is Liv Tyler, who is not maturing well and she suffers badly in comparison with Angela Bassett in the original. Tyler also suffers in comparison with her generational equal, Jennifer Love Hewitt, in 9-1-1.

Fortunately, late in the season, the writers got Lowe’s character involved with Zoe, a psychologist, played by Natalie Zea, whom you will remember as Winona in Justified. I look forward to seeing her next season.

Oh, yes, something else about The Unicorn. We left Wade in the cemetery. Suddenly he was helping a woman capture a skunk. She and the skunk, in a box, drove off. Wade told his neighbors he had just met a wonderful woman, but did not get her name or address.

The woman was played by Natalie Zea, who will be rather busy next season. You may remember she had great chemistry with Walton Goggins (Wade) on Justified. Consider that a ray of hope for the future.

More articles by Tom Stempel

Screenwriters University's online course Beginning Feature Film Writing

REGISTER NOW!

beginning feature film writing