The director of ''A Letter to Three Wives'' passes away at the age of 83

By Jess Cagle
February 19, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Legacy: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Few filmmakers reach the glamorous, giddy heights of Joseph L. Mankiewicz in his glory days. Picture Oscar night 1950: He carried home a statue under each arm, one for Best Screenplay, the other for Best Director, for A Letter to Three Wives. Same time, next year: two more Oscars, for writing and directing All About Eve, which also won Best Picture.

Mankiewicz, who died on Feb. 5 of heart failure at age 83, made movies that still glow with an unmistakable urbane, though commonsensical, wit. As producer, he guided Katharine Hepburn through The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Woman of the Year (1942). Later, as a writer and director, he conjured Eve‘s Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the aging fire-breathing Broadway diva choking on her own fumes.

Like the characters he created, Mankiewicz (whose brother Herman cowrote Citizen Kane) seldom wanted for words. ”One time he told me, ‘It’s easy to get people onto the screen and hard to get them off,”’ recalls Celeste Holm, who starred in Eve and provided the narration for Letter. ”He said a movie is like life. It just keeps going.”

Here are five of Mankiewicz’s most notable movies available on video:

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947) One of Hollywood’s finest romantic fantasies, with Gene Tierney as a stunning young widow and Rex Harrison as the salty sea captain with whom she falls in love. Too bad he’s dead. A-

A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949) Three suburban women, stuck at a kids’ picnic, discover that the town flirt has run off with one of their husbands. Mankiewicz’s script keeps things spinning in the air between sentiment and satire. A

ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) No other Hollywood film captures the world of the New York stage with such brittle flattery. It’s a valentine to chic neurosis. A+

GUYS AND DOLLS (1955) Mankiewicz’ only musical, and probably a good thing: His cynicism was too cutting for the genre’s innate corn. But despite one loopy mix-up — casting Marlon Brando as the cocky, singing Sky Masterson and Frank Sinatra as the browbeaten, mostly talking Nathan Detroit — this is as enjoyable as fake Broadway gets. B

CLEOPATRA (1963) Thrown onto this bloated spectacular late in the day, Mankiewicz remained a professional. He spent his days filming and his nights rewriting; he chewed his nails so badly he had to wear gloves. All for a movie that today looks like a tacky parade float. C-