Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Tom Mankiewicz, RIP

Screenwriter/producer/director Tom Mankiewicz, passed away yesterday at age 68 after a battle with cancer.  The son of All About Eve writer/director Joseph and nephew of Citizen Kane co-writer Herman, Mankiewicz was a scion of screenwriting royalty, and his long and varied Hollywood career bespoke that fact.  For readers of this site, Mankiewicz is probably best known for his contributions to two immortal film franchises.  Joining director Guy Hamilton in 1970 on Diamonds Are Forever, the seventh James Bond feature, Mankiewicz' re-energized that brand for the duration of the decade with his affinity for high-octane spectacle and self-reflexive dialogue (penning the famous "I'm Plenty O'Toole," "Named after your father, no doubt," exchange between Sean Connery and Lana Wood in Diamonds)

During that same period, director Richard Donner was signed by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to helm their big budget Superman movie (after, coincidentally, Guy Hamilton was forced to drop out), and it was to Mankiewicz that Donner turned to bring the myth to the screen in a manner that was modernized for the times but still duly respectful of its long history and tradition.  From a mammoth 400 page script by Mario Puzo and David & Leslie Newman, Mankiewicz shaped the first Superman into a three-act play with each setting (Krypton, Smallville, Metropolis) evoking a specific style and tone.  So important was his contribution to both the first and second films (including selecting Christopher Reeve to star) that Donner awarded him a special "Creative Consultant" credit (that led to some issues with the Writer's Guild, but was ultimately resolved in Mankiewicz' favor).  

Though his (and Donner's) involvement with the Superman movie series abruptly ended after an unfortunate parting-of-ways on the second film, that didn't stop the franchise's minders from trying repeatedly to get both of them back onboard for future entries.  This included a personal overture from  Reeve himself, who had come up with the nuke-buster plotline for The Quest for Peace, the fourth (and last) film in that cycle.  Mankiewicz' conversation with Reeve to dissuade him from that story track reflected the writer's instinctive understanding of what made the character work (and not work).  Said Mankiewicz to Reeve:
Chris you’re forgetting the rules of Superman. World disarmament is a wonderful thing but Superman can’t get involved in things like that because everybody knows he could disarm the whole world in 20 minutes if he wanted to do. You can’t bring up famine in a Superman movie because Superman could feed the world if he wanted to. So don’t get into those areas because it’s not going to work.
And he was right, as borne out by the film's failure and the franchise's subsequent two-decade deep freeze.  His Superman work also led -- very briefly -- to involvement in a late-'70s attempt to reboot Batman for the big screen in the same vein.  This eventually became the Tim Burton Batman in '89, and while none of Mankiewicz made it into that film, the argument can certainly be made that his take on Superman was a direct progenitor of the current Christopher Nolan Batman.  Of course, Mankiewicz' contributions to Hollywood history go far deeper and wider than just those examples cited above (including as a director in his own right), but my longtime readers know how influential both the Superman and James Bond franchises have been in my lifelong fandom for filmdom, and Tom Mankiewicz was a key factor in both.  He will be missed.

1 comment:

Ronny said...

I am really sad to hear about this. Ever since watching the extras on the ~2000 release of Superman: The Movie I've long regarded him in my mind as the Superman writer. I thought it was cool at first as a child to know that The Godfather author author also wrote Superman, but an understanding later in life as to how attribution is credited in Hollywood really put things into perspective.

Gene Hackman really enjoyed his role as Luthor as written by Mankiewicz, even running into him, and walking up from behind and saying "It's amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving." I'll always remember that story.

RIP, Mr. Mankiewicz!