“A Letter To Three Wives” won Oscars for Best Director and Best Writing Screenplay (both to Joseph L. Mankiewicz), and Nominated for Best Picture.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz had ably functioned as a writer and producer at both MGM and 20th Century Fox for almost two decades before producer Sol Siegel gave him the chance to sit in the director chair with this adaptation of a popular magazine serial.
Engaged to adapt the screenplay, author Vera Caspary ("Leave Her To Heaven") knocked down the letter's recipients from five wives to four, and as Hollywood lore tells it, studio bigwig Darryl F. Zanuck told Mankiewicz to whittle it down to three when four were giving the nascent writer/director a narrative headache.
"All About Eve," Mankiewicz' better-known film, followed in 1950, but "A Letter To Three Wives" is arguably more accessible to mainstream audiences because of a more brisk running time, and a less venal tone; the three wives know one of their husbands is, at worst, a physical & emotional cheat, but they also carry a peculiar sense of resignation; it's as though Addie Ross' meddling influence was expected to ruin at lease one marriage in spite of respective pre-existing frictions.
The script is redolent with the usual bon mots and witty banter typical of the urbane Mankiewicz, but his satirical potshots are aimed at the more familiar world of radio (still quite contemporary, because of the later influence of TV) via a terrible dinner party hosted by Ann Southern (a highly paid writer for a top radio show) and her lower-paid, pedagogical husband (Kirk Douglas, in a standout performance). Three contributors share a single commentary track, paying off with sufficiently colourful views of Mankiewicz' major career move in 1949; the qualities that rendered him among one of the first recognizable American film auteurs; and his penchant for writing independent female characters when conventions (as reflected by Darnell's rags-to-riches character) had women getting married and living happily amid kids, a clean kitchen, and lotsa cooking.
Christopher Mankiewicz offers an expected balance of personal reflections towards his famous father, and he makes a sharp point in bemoaning Dialogue's current status as third class citizen in movies (with sound effects and music being 'the language of the anesthetized masses'). Biographer Kenneth Geist reprises material and career observations as outlined in his mandatory (and very funny) biography of the director; and Cheryl Lower chimes in with more contemporary views. Lower, currently writing a new authorized biography of Mankiewicz, also describes the unusually cooperative relationship the director maintained with Hollywood censors; though he scratched words like "laxative" and "toilet" from the script, the writer/director exacted some revenge with a famous double-entendre involving "penetration" and "saturation" that's painfully funny.
As with selected entries in their superlative Studio Classics series, Fox has included an A&E "Biography" edition, this time on co-star Linda Darnell, and the doc forms a good overview of a striking star who faded from the Hollywood limelight when beauty queens in their forties were being eclipsed by more voluptuous creatures, such as Marilyn Monroe. More interesting are the candid examinations of Darnell's childhood, which include parental favoritism denied to the other siblings, Darnell's alcoholic 'studio mom,' and the actress' tragic death after a fire, when a modest comeback was underway. The portrait features interviews with Darnell's sister, daughter, and actors Richard Widmark and Roddy McDowall.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan