For Turner Classic Movies primetime host, Ben Mankiewicz, his appearance at the Boca Raton Museum of Art on December 10 was a full circle moment.
Mankiewicz was invited to the museum and a fundraiser at the Boca Raton Resort to talk about the museum’s exhibit, The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy, which is finishing up its nine-month run on Jan. 22.
“I am honored to have been invited by the Boca Raton Museum of Art to be part of the ‘Art of the Hollywood Backdrop,'” says Mankiewicz. “I had the chance to meet so many avid film lovers and TCM fans who came out to see this exhibit, a testament to the power of classic Hollywood films.”
Along with co-curator Thomas A. Walsh, past-president of the Art Directors Guild of America, the two talked about the artistry of old Hollywood filmmaking.
After languishing in the basement of MGM studios for decades, the hand-painted movie backdrops on display at the museum were brought back to life by a recovery project initiated by Walsh and Karen L. Maness of the University of Texas, who wrote a book about the artists who created these backdrops.
“We were fortunate to tap into this wonderful gold vein of history with these original, large-scale and hand-painted backdrops that we salvaged and that are now on display at the Boca Museum of Art,” says Walsh.
“Through our ‘Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy’ exhibition, art lovers and film fans are embracing this collection of Hollywood backdrops that were almost lost forever,” said Irvin Lippman, the Museum’s executive director.
“Both Thomas Walsh and Karen Maness have played a significant role in preserving this inventory from Hollywood’s golden age,” he says. “Their vision and partnership with the Boca Raton Museum of Art made this exhibition possible.”
“We all came away with an even greater appreciation for this art form and the masters of illusion who were instrumental in creating the magic of Hollywood,” Lippman says.
On display are 22 backdrops, including Gene Kelly’s Paris street dance scene from An American in Paris, Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singing in the Rain, a view of Westminster Abbey from the 1953 film Young Bess, about Queen Elizabeth I, and the backdrop from North By Northwest.
Seeing the large iconic image of Mount Rushmore from the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant was the full-circle moment for Mankiewicz that brought back memories of watching that film as a teenager with his mom.
“She tried to interest me in the film by telling me it was a spy thriller with a chase scene, but I was taken by Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant’s charm,” Mankiewicz remembers.
Even though he is from a storied Hollywood lineage, he had no inkling that he would follow his family’s legacy into the film world.
A film, titled Mank, about his grandfather, Herman J. Mankiewicz, is now screening on Netflix.
Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane with Orson Welles (the two won the Academy Award in 1941 for best screenplay) and his great uncle Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote the 1950 film, All About Eve, and won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. He also won an Academy Award in 1949 for directing A Letter to Three Wives.
His father, Frank F. Mankiewicz, also left a large legacy. Originally an entertainment lawyer, he became a journalist, political adviser, PR executive and president of National Public Radio.
But, even with that pedigree, Mankiewicz’s route to Hollywood was circuitous, although he does admit to having some latent urges to write a screenplay. His older brother, Josh Mankiewicz, a reporter on NBC’s Dateline, helped open some doors for him in TV.
After the late Robert Osborne, the original host of TCM, Mankiewicz became only the second host in the network’s history. He’s interviewed some of the most well-known figures in the film industry, including Mel Brooks, Jodie Foster, Faye Dunaway, Lou Gossett Jr. and Michael Douglas, among others.
His recently created “The Plot Thickens,” a documentary podcast about the movies and the people who make them, is now in its fourth season.
Getting to know these actors through the podcast has been a career highlight for him, he says. He’s appreciative of Walsh and Maness’s efforts to recover and restore these movie treasures.
“Visiting the Boca Raton Museum of Art, seeing the original movie backdrops and learning about the artists who created them, enhances my appreciation for these films,” Mankiewicz says. “This all goes to the skill and magic of the artists who created these artifacts of Hollywood magic.”
He compares the sleight of hand that goes into creating movie magic to master illusionists such as David Blaine.
“There is no greater magic trick than Hollywood,” he says. “And, I love magic.”
He extends the metaphor even further.
“If you knew how David Blaine did his trick, how your card ended up in his back pocket, it might ruin the trick,” he says. “If he showed you how it was done, you might not be as impressed.”
“But, with movies,” he says, “when we learn these backdrops are not real, they are still impressive, if not more so. It doesn’t change a thing in the viewer’s experience — we will still be transported to a world created by these Hollywood magicians.”
The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy runs through Jan 22. Visit bocamuseum.org for details.