Monday, March 7, 2011

Hoisted from comments: "Well, they needed someone to listen."

Brian of Ultrasonic Remote writes in to provide some historical context to our previous posts (here and here) about Orson Welles, Herman Mankiewicz and the Vidal/Bogdanovich(/Kael**) cage match:

Bogdanovich is, of course, an unabashed fan of Orson Welles, which is no sin in my book. His fandom has sadly blinded him. How is this for a statistic?

No. of Oscar nominations for Welles - 2
Oscar wins - 1

No. of Oscar nominations for Mankiewicz - 2
Oscar wins - 1

The "talented hack" remark rings hollower when you take into account that the second nomination for Mankiewicz was for "Pride of the Yankees", one of the listed films!

By the way, lest you think that I am swayed solely by numbers of awards (Welles has more), here is a funny sidelight. To perhaps emphasize the perfidy of either organization, it should be noted that two of Orson Welles later nominations were for his work in the movie "Butterfly". It was nominated for a Golden Globe for BEST Supporting Performance by an Actor and for a Razzie for WORST Supporting Performance by an Actor.

The other hole in this theory is numbers. Some sexist might say something along the lines of "Men are better musicians than women". Let's look at that statement on the basis of recorded work. While it is certainly true that there are more male names than female ones on lists made by critics and musicians, it is an unfair argument, because, quite simply, many more men have recorded. The more at-bats one has, the greater possibility of hitting a home run.

If one looks at the sheer amount of material Mankiewicz wrote, he wins handily over Welles. It is the select few that can turn out a prodigious amount of material AND have an overwhelming percentage of it adjudged genius level or thereabouts.

Mankiewicz was hired at a time that movies were the ONLY visual medium around. People loved the new medium, therefore many, many people needed to write and write a lot. In Vaudeville, if you had a successful act, you could tour for years and never change it, because it was live, could not be preserved by the amateurs and due to a circuit of theaters, it could not be centralized. Radio and movies didn't slow Vaudeville, it killed it. Radio killed the visual acts and the verbal ones could do their act a few times at best as guests, but if one of these performers got a series, you HAD to have new material. There were hours in every day and every day needed programming to fill some or all of those hours. One man was hired on radio, because someone missed a gig and a panicky station owner literally stopped him on the street and asked him, "Can you do anything!?", and fortunately, he was a pianist; he was hired permanently not long afterwards. Radio also brought about convenience. The entertainment came to you, right into your home.

Movies added the bonus of seeing as well as hearing celebrities and celebrities-to-be. it too needed to be fed a lot of material. They needed people that could write and write quickly and Mankiewicz fit the bill. Did some who found work skate by with a minimum of talent? Yes. Was some of Mankiewicz's work less than memorable? Yes. However, Mankiewicz's career did something that Welles' could not have done, which is to say that it spanned the era of movies from silents to sound. Any number of people lost their jobs because they might have been able to write title cards, but could not write screenplays. Mankiewicz was a journalist, theater critic, playwright AND a screenwriter and a member of the "Algonquin Round Table".*

Is this the resume' of a talented hack?

*One of the members of the ART was Harpo Marx, one of the few members that not only didn't write, but left school early. When asked why he, a member of a comedy team that many of the members might have considered lowbrow, was a member, he replied, "Well, they needed someone to listen."

** Pauline Kael did start this though she had the good sense to walk away when the conversation got silly.

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