Competing with Idiots: Herman and Joe Mankiewicz, a Dual Portrait

Knopf. Sept. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9781400041831. $30. FILM
Director and producer Davis recounts the story of brothers Herman and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose names loom large in the annals of Hollywood history and in the author’s own family. (Herman was his maternal grandfather, and Joe was his great-uncle.) The book’s title comes from a telegram Herman sent to playwright Ben Hecht in 1926, urging him to come to Hollywood: “Millions are to be grabbed out here…and your only competition is idiots.” As a screenwriter, Herman is best known for his collaboration with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane, and some maintain that he, not Welles, wrote most of it. Davis covers many other films that Herman wrote or rewrote, including Dinner at Eight; Pride of the Yankees; W. C. Fields’s Million Dollar Legs; and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, and Monkey Business. Joseph, his younger brother by 11 years, was a writer, producer, and director whose credits include The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve, the nearly career-ending Cleopatra, and Sleuth. The brothers had a complex relationship, fraught with jealousy and competition but also love, and Davis recounts it with feeling, drawing on fastidious research.
VERDICT Movie fans and viewers of the recent Netflix film Mank will give two thumbs up to this carefully crafted, fascinating account of two legendary Hollywood figures.
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