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Joseph L. Mankiewicz dead at 83

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the urbane Academy Award-winning writer and director of “All About Eve” and “A Letter to Three Wives,” died Friday at Northern Westchester Hospital near his home of Bedford, N.Y. He was 83 years old and succumbed to heart failure, said his nephew, publicist Frank Mankiewicz.

Though he had been largely inactive for the past 20 years, Mankiewicz’s career spanned four decades, from the waning days of the silent era and the dawn of sound to the eclipse of the studio system.

In addition to his back-to-back Oscars in 1949 and 1950, as scripter and helmer on “Three Wives” and “Eve” (the latter also won best picture), Mankiewicz also did double duty on “The Barefoot Contessa,””Five Fingers,””Guys and Dolls” and “Julius Caesar.”

“During his peak years at mid-century …” writes critic Richard Corliss, “Mankiewicz wrote genuine ‘screen plays,’ full of resounding fury that always took care to Signify Something ….”

His sophisticated, incisive dialogue and stories, which developed through the use of voiceover narration and complex time frame structures, freeze frames and flashbacks, are cited by critics as his most enduring contributions.

At the same time, he has been criticized for being too verbose at the expense of visual flow.

Born Joseph Leo Mankiewicz on Feb. 11, 1909, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the son of German immigrants, Mankiewicz grew up in New York,where he graduated from Columbia U. at the age of 19. After working briefly as a reporter and translator of silent film titles in Germany, he was lured to Hollywood in 1928 by his brother Herman (the Academy Award-winning co-writer of “Citizen Kane”), who had secured a $ 60-a-week writing contract for him at Paramount Pictures.

After a brief period writing inter-titles for silents, his acute ear for dialogue landed him plenty of assignments as Hollywood segued into talkies. He received his first Oscar nomination as co-writer on Norman Taurog’s “Skippy” in 1931.

In 1933 he moved to MGM, graduating to studio producer in 1935. “I went in to see Louis Mayer, who told me he wanted me to be a producer. I said I wanted to write and direct. He said, ‘No, you have to produce first, you have to crawl before you can walk.’ Which is as good a definition of producing as I ever heard.”

After several critically acclaimed assignments including “Three Comrades” (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sole screen credit), Mankiewicz produced two major box office hits, “The Philadelphia Story” and the first Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film, “Woman of the Year.”

Mayer, however, would not reward him with the directing break he so desperately wanted. “I felt the urge to direct because I couldn’t stomach what was being done with what I wrote,” he once said.

So in 1943 he jumped to Fox, where he made his directorial debut three years later with the Gothic thriller “Dragonwyk.” Over the next 15 years, he developed a well-deserved reputation as a user-friendly actors’ director.

In addition to steering Davis to what some consider her finest performance in “Eve,” he directed Marlon Brando as Antony in “Julius Caesar” and as a singing Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls,” Humphrey Bogart in “The Barefoot Contessa” and Hepburn in “Suddenly Last Summer.”

But after three prolific decades, Mankiewicz’s career never recovered from the scandal-plagued “Cleopatra” in 1962.

Mankiewicz was brought in to replace Rouben Mamoulian on the Elizabeth Taylor costume spectacular. The film had already gone $ 1 million over its original $ 6 million budget, complicated by the star’s near-fatal illness and her adulterous off-set romance with co-star Richard Burton.

“Cleopatra” ended up costing an estimated $ 40 million, endangering an already fragile 20th Century Fox. Though critically excoriated, the film eventually broke even and was nominated for best picture of 1963.

After that Mankiewicz directed only three more films, his last effort being an adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth” in 1972, which earned its co-stars Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier best-actor nominations and Mankiewicz his final best-director nomination.

He moved to New York in 1951, remaining there for the rest of his life, appearing only infrequently to scoop up career commendations including the D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement from the Director’s Guild of America in 1986. In 1991, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences paid tribute to him, in what Mankiewicz described as a “longevity award.”

Off-screen Mankiewicz dazzled as a raconteur and bon vivant, his charms not lost on the opposite sex. He married three times, first to Elizabeth Young, by whom he had a son Eric Reynal, who currently lives in London. He and Young were divorced in 1937. From his second marriage to Rosa Stradner (who died in 1958), he has two sons, Christopher and Thomas, the latter an active writer/producer/director like his father. For the past 30 years he was married to the former Rosemary Matthews, by whom he has a daughter, Alexandra.

Funeral services will be private.

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