Reel Ink March 2013

The first part of my first ‘Reel Ink’ of 2013 is a bit of a catch up, as this instalment of the column features books which were all published in 2012.

Reel Ink #2 Part 1 includes the autobiography of a member of a Hollywood dynasty, a look at the city of Los Angeles within the context of the film industry’s role in its history and the evolution of the city’s image, and an examination of how politics and social and cultural agendas impacted and shaped ‘70s American cinema.


My life as a mankiewicz

Tom Mankiewicz was a true scion of whatever it is that passes for Hollywood royalty; his father was Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter To Three Wives, All About Eve, Cleopatra) and his uncle Herman Mankiewicz was the co-writer of Citizen Kane. While nowhere near as well-known as his illustrious relatives, Mankiewicz’s posthumously published autobiography My Life As A Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey Through Hollywood (University Press of Kentucky) is chock full of fascinating stories from his more than four decades in the Hollywood trenches, from dining with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton while spending his summer vacation hanging around the set of Cleopatra, to losing his virginity during the making of The Commancheros, writing several Bond movies, and much more.

Mankiewicz died in 2010 before the book was published and it was completed by his co-author Paul Crane, who explains in his introduction that the book was largely compiled from conversations between the two in one of Mank’s (as he was of course known by many) favourite LA restaurants. The relaxed organisation of the book into decades, covering his formative years growing up in LA and New York and his career and friendships in the industry (which, in typical Hollywood fashion, were very closely entwined), serves the loose, anecdotal nature of the book well; it feels as if one is sitting across from Mankiewicz at one of the restaurant tables over which he regaled Crane with an endless supply of amusing and touching stories.

In addition to writing for Bond (Diamonds Are Forever, Live And Let Die (for which he had the sole writing credit), and The Man With The Golden Gun), he worked on the scripts for Superman and Superman II, for which he received a then unique ‘Creative Consultant’ credit in acknowledgement of his close collaboration with director Richard Donner. These five films were clearly the high point of his career creatively and commercially, although he did some interesting television variety show work in the ‘60s and some not so interesting but no doubt lucrative work on the television series Hart to Hart, which was a hit in the late ’70 and early ‘80s but has not stood the test of time.

For those who enjoy gossipy Hollywood tomes written by intelligent, wryly cynical insiders, Being Mankiewicz is an entertaining and engrossing read.


Hollywood Cinema and the Real LA

In Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles (Reaktion Books) Mark Sheil explores the relationship between the city and its image as portrayed and indeed created by Hollywood cinema. Focusing on  slapstick silent comedies that were often filmed on location, early fictional and documentary portrayals of movie making and the lure of Hollywood, and film noir’s move out of the studio and into the streets of LA, Sheil builds an interesting case study of the role the film industry played in the shaping of the city’s urban geography and the cultural and political lives of the city.

LA is the most photographed city on earth by virtue of being home to the largest film production centre on earth (or at least it was for decades), but hasn’t always been portrayed faithfully (although  it is undeniable that civic boosters everywhere work on polishing their city’s image). Many of the studios, until the end of their virtually total control of film production and distribution, chose to present an image of the city that denied the existence of ethnic minorities and the city’s social and economic inequality. They also carefully crafted an illusion of the film industry’s role in the life of the city as being firmly at the centre of everything. Hollywood thus came to be perceived by outsiders as being synonymous with Los Angeles, which ignored the crucial (and the at least as large, and larger at times) role that other industries, including aviation, played in the growth and prosperity of the LA basin.

Hollywood Cinema and The Real Los Angeles is a thoughtful, integrated portrait of the cultural history of one of the most mythologised cities on earth and the industry that has been synonymous with it for over 100 years, and those who are interested in further exploration of the reel versus the real LA should seek out Thom Anderson’s wonderful but difficult to see documentary (as it uses dozens of film clips that would cost a fortune to clear for a commercial release) Los Angeles Plays Itself.


Hollywood's Last Golden AgeJonathan Kirshner’s Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, And the Seventies Film in America (Cornell University Press) is an absorbing, well-structured look at the decade of American films that many consider the last great era of thoughtful, politically motivated filmmaking before the rise of the blockbuster (for an alternative take on the widely held orthodoxy that Jaws and Star Wars ‘ruined’ American cinema, check out Tom Shone’s excellent Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Summer (Scribner)).

Practically no devoted cinephile over 30 wouldn’t list at least one American film from the ‘70s in his pantheon of all-time favourites, whether it be Chinatown, The Godfather (1 and 2), Taxi Driver (all three of which are in my Top Ten) or one of the many other exemplary films produced in that decade. Kirshner defines the ‘70s film as having begun in 1967 and ending in 1976, when the mavericks who had made such an impact beginning in the mid ‘60s had largely been subsumed by the revived corporate power of the studios. He examines all of the key films of those ten years and some lesser known but important titles, and the book is erudite and accessible to those with little knowledge of the era’s films and politics. For those who are already well versed in the period it functions as a great refresher which will likely fill in gaps in one’s knowledge, and make one reach towards the DVD shelf for a viewing of one of the many remarkable and still resonant films of the ‘70s.