Born in Wilkes-Barre, PA, to German-immigrant parents, Joseph Mankiewicz began his movie career translating intertitles. He would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most literary figures, writing and directing films remembered more often for their screenplays than their cinematography. Yet Mankiewicz was a master of film form with a style all his own. His movies are psychologically driven, using innovative sound and image techniques to depict self-aware and confident characters from different perspectives. His stories frequently move back and forth in time, not just to provide exposition, but to offer multiple (and equally valid) points of view, prompting philosopher Gilles Deleuze to call Mankiewicz, “undoubtedly the greatest flashback author.”
Although he worked in a variety of genres, Mankiewicz consistently created capable and witty female characters by writing scripts attending to the interior lives of women, whom he refused to condemn for their choices, even when convention would seem to demand it. That audiences sympathize with these women is in part due to the luck Mankiewicz had with casting: this summer alone we will witness his talent directing Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Ann Sothern, Jeanne Crain, and Linda Darnell.
In addition to being some of Mankiewicz’s best work, the films covered in this course—A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All About Eve (1950), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)—all explore society’s expectations for women in post-war America. They also demonstrate the scope of Mankiewicz’s ability, moving from melodrama to comedy to thriller, but always with an eye for sophistication. His attention to Hollywood elegance paid off—Mankiewicz won the Oscar for Best Director for A Letter to Three Wives and Best Screenplay the following year for All About Eve. Indeed, his luster has not faded; the director’s films bring as much pleasure and laughter today as they did in Hollywood’s Golden Age, when Mankiewicz reigned.