Movietome- John Gregory Dunne’s Monster
Movietome is an ongoing series that looks at the way film—and the film business—is portrayed via everyone’s second favorite artistic medium: the written word.
Sure, reading may be yesterday’s news, but not all books are for fatties and gaylords. And yes, it does seem that these days there are entire libraries dedicated to warehousing tales of the cryptozoologically blue-balled, and yes, there’s also a lot of other crap that’s not worth reading at all, but that’s what happens when an art form like novel-writing becomes trapped inside a technologically outdated delivery system: the crap that sustains most publishing houses swells to become the whole. And one-time bookworms like myself aren’t helping. There are too many blogs to read, too many TV shows to watch, and too many kittens to dangle shoelaces above.
To the extent I’m still able to sound out words, I sneak in maybe one or two novels a year. But for better or worse, the vast majority of my reading time these days is spent devouring books about my all-time favorite subject: the soul-crushing inanity of Hollywood. I typically read these books strictly for the information contained between their covers, not for the quality of the writer’s prose. Though this can lead to some pretty asinine reading experiences, you do sometimes hit the jackpot. Some of these books are so sublime in their utter lack of self-awareness as to trigger the release of huge gobs of dopamine directly into the brain. Case in point, Robert Evans’ infamous The Kid Stays in the Picture, which I hope to cover in this series just as soon as I work up the stones to do it justice. But first is John Gregory Dunne’s Monster, about the writing of 1996’s TV news melodrama Up Close & Personal.
Though himself an accomplished writer, the late John Gregory Dunne is perhaps best known—if at all—as the brother of (also dead) Vanity Fair raconteur Dominick Dunne, and the longtime spouse of Joan Didion. His death of a heart attack in 2003 at age 71 was the subject of Didion’s bestselling grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Over their life together, John and Joan, known informally as “the Dunnes,” collaborated on four produced screenplays: 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park, 1976’s A Star is Born remake, 1981’s True Confessions, and 1996’s Up Close & Personal. None are classics, but Panic comes close, and forever has a place in cinema history as the big screen debut of Al Pacino. Though their cinematic output was middling at best, the Dunnes’ didn’t waste a lot of time worrying about their work for the screen. To them, Hollywood was strictly a way to make a quick buck in-between novels and magazine reporting. And it’s just this sense of professionally dispassionate nonchalance that Monster such a unique, enjoyable film book.
I hope to explore a variety of different kinds of film books in this series, from histories and how-to’s, to hagiographies and hatchet jobs. There will be delusions of grandeur, finger-pointing, and prurient leering. But what will unite them all is the sense that their authors, whether embattled industry insiders or journalists peering in from the outside, are all in awe of Hollywood—of its intricate social infrastructure and boundless capacity to engender hubris and ruin lives. Except for Dunne. For him, Hollywood was a lark: something he didn’t take all that seriously or spend too much time worrying about. Throughout Monster, Dunne maintains the kind of professional, easy-going attitude usually absent from the Hollywood memoir genre. But despite his “this amuses me”-style tone, Dunne is never dismissive of the film industry, or of film as a valid and important art form. The same can’t always be said of other books that cover the same ground. There are a lot of terrible books out there by self-styled Hollywood rebels whose “fuck you” attitudes don’t subvert the Hollywood paradigm so much as play an essential part in it. You have to be a pretty huge prick to want to work in Hollywood in the first place, let alone succeed, let alone decide that your experiences deserve to be preserved for all posterity in book form. I read a lot of these things, and believe me. Most of these people are huge goddamned babies. But not the Dunnes, who go about the business of screenwriting much the way I imagine my parents might: by being reasonable, pragmatic adults with realistic expectations and a healthy sense of perspective.
Monster is perhaps the greatest book ever written about the destructive phenomena of studio interference and how original ideas are slowly grinded down by the Hollywood executive class into bland, uninteresting pap. And the key takeaway in Monster’s case is that this almost never happens for overtly nefarious reasons. Rather, it’s usually an innocuous series of minor, seemingly reasonable compromises that eventually culminates in artistic ruin. With Up Close & Personal, the Dunnes were blithely complicit in the transformation of what was supposed to be a gritty Jessica Savitch biopic into a glossy, star-driven melodrama.
Savitch was one of the first women to break into the high-stakes world of TV news, steadily climbing the network ladder despite epic drug and relationship problems, and the kind of workplace sexism that would eventually inspire Anchorman. She had an extremely successful career by anyone’s standard, but her mental state quickly collapsed, leading to a series of on-camera tirades and breakdowns, several of which are on Youtube. Savitch eventually died when her car slid off a road in heavy rain, crashing upside-down into a mud-filled canal. Still conscious, she struggled to free herself but was drowned alive when her vehicle filled with water. Not exactly the stuff of blockbuster crowd-pleasers.
Dunne is the first to admit that Up Close isn’t that great of a movie. The couple worked hard and did their best, but was perhaps too eager to play ball with the studio, and too willing to make compromises. Without much fuss, they carried out the studio’s requests to soften some of the rough edges of the Savitch story. The character that eventually made it to screen to be played by Michelle Pfeiffer was renamed “Tally Atwater,” and bore so little resemblance to the actual Savitch that Dunne and Didion had to write an explanation for Pfeiffer to use in interviews to explain why the character was so different. Instead, Up Close & Personal became the inspirational tale of a plucky young newsgirl making her way in the cutthroat world of TV news. It also didn’t help that Up Close took 8+ years to write and saw the involvement of multiple directors, actors, and screenwriters, all of whom took a crack at the script. And most of these interlopers seemed much more interested in imposing signs of their own auteurship onto the project than in doing what was best for the story.
Up Close & Personal would almost certainly be better as a gritty indie character study. But that’s not the movie that got made. The decision to turn Up Close into, basically, Pretty Woman is what killed the project, at least artistically speaking. True, Up Close wasn’t a misguided debacle like Heaven’s Gate, or an overly ambitious misfire like Bonfire of the Vanities. Those movies were at least interesting. Up Close is merely a mediocre movie that, at one point, had the potential to be really good—perhaps the most common story in Hollywood. It wasn’t even a flop. It merely came and went, made a small profit, and is today best known if at all as the movie who’s soundtrack gave us Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me.”
“Because You Loved Me” went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, won a Grammy, and was, in the spring of 1996, an awesome song to slow dance to at the Treasure Mountain Middle School spring formal, provided you weren’t too chickenshit to ask Kim Cook to dance with you, which you were, so instead you stand off to the side of the dance floor, back pressed against the folded-up bleachers, head hung low. It wasn’t the first time your cowardice sold out your ambition, and it sure as shit wouldn’t be the last, floating through your own life like a ghost, invisible to all, desperately pouring the salve of other people’s art and opinions into a bucket with no bottom. I may or may not have some highly specific personal memories attached to this song.
The worst you could say for Dunne’s incredibly mature attitude is that it sometimes makes for low dramatic stakes. But Dunne is so articulate and his prose is so crisp that Monster is nonetheless a pleasure to read. And as an aspiring writer interested in both screenwriting and cultural commentary, I found Monster to be surprisingly effective aspirational lifestyle porn. It’s all very jealous-making. I wanna take a few weeks in St. Bart’s to relax and think over my 3rd Act problems. I wanna get flown in a helicopter to Connecticut to meet with Robert Redford. I wanna take time off to write and produce a documentary about Los Angeles for PBS. Want, want, want! I want so fucking much so fucking much. Forget rock n’ roll, there should John Gregory Dunne fantasy camp.
It’s a miracle any film gets made, even mediocre ones. And if only for that, Dunne is content to count his meager blessings.
Up Next: The movie brats snort coke, fuck each other’s wives, and act like total fucking dickheads in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.