4.18.2015

John Gregory Dunne's autograph (Monster: Living Off the Big Screen)



I first read John Gregory Dunne's shrewd and amusing perspectives on the "Biz" in 1969s The Studio, his second book, but his first excellent exegesis of the film industry and its executors written before he became a player in the business, recounting the remarkable year he spent in 1967 as an astute, everyday observer of Twentieth Century Fox:  On their lot, their sets, in their dressing rooms, board rooms, random offices, during take-fives, lunchtimes, late night overtimes, watching Hollywood hard at work (and, occasionally, harder at play) behind the scenes, interviewing anybody and everybody who'd talk to him, from the headiest of producer honchos to the lowliest gofers on the ladder (and every union scale grip or assistant director's assistant in between), writing it all down all the while, compiling notebook stacks of it, chronicling the comings and goings of those employed by the studio, having been granted an unprecedented all-access pass to it by its usually private and overprotective gatekeepers -- an amazing feat in and of itself for which Dunne probably should have been awarded a special Oscar in 1968!

Funny and fascinating as The Studio was, I thought Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, published nearly three decades later in 1997, funnier and more fascinating, as Dunne was now a Hollywood insider himself, routinely butting heads with some of the more famous bad boys in the business. Monster also captured better how absurd the often all-consuming Business could be; how crude and condescending, as well, were some of its control freakish executive producers.  The "Bully Boys" section, for instance, which, among other things, dissected Dunne's (and his wife's, his screenwriting collaborator, Joan Didion's) surprisingly non-explosive first meeting with the notorious and "difficult to work with" moguls, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, also featured an awful cameo performance by Otto Preminger.  Otto, who might as well have sneered as breathe at the finest living essayist in the world, addressing her as "Misss-isss Dunne" -- as if being old school polite was any excuse for being a sexist dumb ass -- was later showcased in fine form admonishing Joan and John for basically having a life outside Hollywood; for having the gaul, that is, to insist on temporarily leaving their work on an unfinished script in New York in order to travel cross country and tie up some loose ends on a house they were purchasing in Malibu.

That even the most arguably narcissistic producer Hollywood has produced could still be that arrogant in talking down to one of the most revered writing partnerships of the twentieth century, both inside and outside the Biz (though, granted, inside the Biz, screenwriters' slots in the cinematic food chain ranks only slightly above pond scum's), as if they were irresponsible adolescents abandoning their commitments on a whim just to get their feet wet frolicking in the Pacific Ocean, is as flabbergasting as it is unconscionable to read about.  The nerve of these kids!

"I forbid you to go," Otto demanded, when "Didion and Dunne" (as they were known among friends) dared defy him. "If you worked for a studio, Misss-isss Dunne" (never mind her name was Didion, Stupid!), "This behavior would not be tolerated".  Otto Preminger, having his pride apparently wounded by a woman, of all things -- and a petite, fragile appearing woman at that -- sued them for two million dollars.

Whereas The Studio went for the big picture (if you'll pardon my pun); went for the widescreen vantage of an historic Hollywood corporation and its mostly benign artistic foibles day-in and day-out on the set; Monster: Living Off the Big Screen zoomed in, went "up close and personal," you could say, on Dunne's and Didion's unsatisfying and redundant eight years of coerced script revisions on a screenplay that as originally envisioned should've been great; a movie made from it that should've become a gritty biographical docudrama masterpiece about the sordid life and tragic death of TV news anchor, Jessica Savitch; and a movie, moreover, that somehow, after a protracted and vindictive labor strike in Hollywood and a multitude of firings, rehiring, and bastardized script rewrites to the absurd nth degree, metamorphosed into a didactic, artless, allegedly "feel good" flick with its contrived happy ending -- defects which were not Dunne's or Didion's original ideas or doing at all -- this piece of forgettable celluloid dreck starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. . .

John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion
At least Dunne's superb memoir Monster: Living Off the Big Screen eventually rose like a phoenix out of the charred remains of that movie's pathetic, burnt out husk the result of studio hubris and corporate banality.

For a much deeper and more personal look at the life and times of John Gregory Dunne, I recommend reading A Death in the Family -- the poignant elegy written by his brother, Dominick, shortly after John's death in 2003.






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