Recently, confronted with the prospect of a day trip to a remote hamlet to file some official papers, I decided that the journey would pass more painlessly if I had something light to read. I’d just run across a reference to a 1997 book by the late John Gregory Dunne entitled Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, and, thinking it might fit the bill, I downloaded the Kindle.
As you may know, Dunne (1932–2003), was married to Joan Didion (b. 1934). Each of them wrote several books, mostly works of reportage or collections of essays. Both also wrote novels. His were conventional middlebrow fictions that aimed for the bestseller list; hers were slight and precious and literary.
She, of course, was the more celebrated of the two — celebrated not so much for her books’ contents as for her style. Her voice. Her books, whatever their putative topics, are studies in intense self-fascination, neurosis, ennui, and showing off. They’re also master classes in writing. Each book is a riot of insistent first-person singular pronouns. They’re examples of self-display; they’re performances.
In addition to their essays and books, Dunne and Didion collaborated on Hollywood screenplays. Monster recounts the seven-year period during which the couple wrote, rewrote, and again and again rewrote — for a grand total of 26 drafts — a movie that ended up being called Up Close and Personal and that finally came out in 1996, starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.
The book wasn’t entirely about writing that movie. For example, Dunne wrote about a research trip he took for another movie project. He was following a heavy-metal band that was on tour, and he had a chauffeur who, at the sight of the band’s groupies, “seemed to fall into a state of transfixed bliss.” He picked up “a teeny-bopper no older than fifteen” who joined him and Dunne in the limo. Dunne sums up the episode as follows: “We had a lot of fun.” In short, a pre-#MeToo glimpse into the lives of the elites who presume to lecture America on moral virtue.
For a Didion-centered pendant to that anecdote, look no further than the recent Netflix documentary about her by nephew Griffin Dunne. When he asks her about the time that she encountered a five-year-old girl on LSD while researching her famous Haight-Ashbury piece “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” her face lights up and she reacts not like a mother but like the lowest of tabloid scribblers: “Let me tell you — it was gold!”
I also learned from Monster that Didion, at the time when they were writing Up Close and Personal, was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Not that I harbor any great respect for that body, but why on Earth would anyone have nominated that famously self-absorbed, neurotic mess, who had no expertise in anything other than the fashioning of sentences, to be a member of it?
Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. The point is the endless hours that went into the script — not just the writing time but the countless coast-to-coast phone calls with directors, studio execs, agents, actors, etc.; the innumerable faxes back and forth; the hundreds of pages of notes with rewrite suggestions, which were often rushed to them overnight by air; and the epic meetings, including one at which their then producer, Scott Rudin, going over their latest draft line by line, ordered a blizzard of changes:
We have a POV deficit, we want another beat here, deliver the moment, stretch it out, this is clunky, Houston is too one-note, up it, cut all the Washington chat in the S&L scene … it’s OTN (for “on the nose”) or OTT (for “over the top”), split the first newsroom sequence, do it over two days, deliver the moment, goose the scene.
When they weren’t busy with any of this, the Dunnes were at home in Manhattan or on vacation in Tuscany or Santa Monica or Hawaii, feverishly passing pages back and forth or discussing their script with their many friends in the business. They seem to have been the kind of famous people whose friends are also all famous: Vanessa Redgrave, Elaine May, Michael Crichton. Also, though Dunne seems to enjoy painting his West Coast collaborators as semi-literate vulgarians, and thus on a lower step of the cultural ladder than he and Didion are, it’s clear that both of them found these relationships glamorous.
So I finished Monster, exhausted myself by Dunne’s account of all the tireless work that had gone into Up Close and Personal. Then I watched the movie. It was crap. Plastic. Riotously inauthentic, with zero resemblance to real human life. It felt as if it had been written by people who had never experienced human life but had only viewed a few hundred of the most contrived movies ever made. Watching it, I felt as if I’d seen every bit of it before and always knew exactly what was going to happen next.
Some movies come into being because somebody had a feeling or an experience or a germ of an idea that they felt compelled from somewhere deep within to transform into art. Not here. This was a movie that had no reason to exist. As it happens, it was originally supposed to be about Jessica Savitch, a glamorous network TV anchorwoman who had drug issues and met a sordid end. Disney bought the rights to her biography only to decide almost immediately afterwards that everything about her life story was a downer and thus utterly inconsistent with their squeaky-clean image.
You might have expected the studio to drop the picture. Instead it ordered a fictitious feel-good story about the rise of a network TV anchorwoman. The result was a project without a heart or a purpose or a point. At one juncture, Dunne asked Rudin, “Scott, what do you think this picture is really about?” Rudin replied, “It’s about two movie stars.” In other words, the story, the setting, and the characters themselves were just there so that the filmmakers would have an excuse to give the audience close-ups of Redford and Pfeiffer.
Yet the Dunnes kept on churning out drafts of this dog — and kept on cashing the checks.
This was interesting, given the glowing reputation these two had, and still have, among the literati. For decades, the cultural establishment’s rap on Didion has been that she can do no wrong. That magic rubbed off on Dunne, too. While he was alive, they were the book world’s closest thing to Brangelina. Both wrote regularly for the Bible of the lit set, the New York Review of Books. That they had one foot in Hollywood, writing schlock, somehow didn’t detract from their image in New York; on the contrary, I think it added allure and mystery, notwithstanding the lameness of the pictures themselves.
After discovering Up Close and Personal to be horrible, I checked out their other films. The first, Panic in Needle Park (1971), was one of the many movies of the early 1970s to glamorize the seedy drug scene of the day (which, in 1967, Didion had depicted in “Slouching toward Bethlehem”). The movie is all atmosphere — episodic, its characters a bunch of bums whose activities we’re apparently supposed to find fascinating, even shocking, because they’re druggies. Maybe it seemed shocking to some in 1971, but today it’s all just a bore.
Their second picture was Play It As It Lays (1972), an adaptation of Didion’s slim 1970 novel. It’s about another gang of dull, drug-addled zeroes (the protagonist, a neurasthenic ex-model, comes off as a Didion self-portrait), who this time are supposed to be fascinating just because they’re Hollywood big shots. The movie made Roger Ebert “care about characters who have given up caring for themselves.” Well, I don’t care about them. But it’s true that both films are about people who’ve thrown in the towel.
I’d already seen Dunne and Didion’s third film, the Barbra Streisand remake of A Star Is Born (1976). It was the third version of that story — the fourth if you count the 1932 picture What Price Hollywood? The Gaynor and Garland versions were classics; the story seemed solid, un-screw-up-able. Then Dunne and Didion came along and managed to turn this writer-proof warhorse into another soporific mess. (Even Lady Gaga’s 2018 A Star is Born towers over theirs.)
In 1981 came the L.A. crime drama True Confessions, adapted from Dunne’s 1977 novel and starring Robert Duvall as a police detective and Robert De Niro as his brother, a Catholic monsignor working for a corrupt archbishop. Alas, it’s yet another snooze-fest. I haven’t read the book, but Richard Corliss did, and in his review of the movie for Time, he wrote that while the novel “moved with reckless energy,” the film adaptation “proceed[s] at the sluggish pace of a Sodality novena.”
Indeed, you’ve rarely seen a movie lumber along like this one. The viewer, picking up on stray echoes of Chandler, Hammett, The Godfather, and Chinatown, keeps expecting a plot twist, a hike in tension, a dramatic climax — something. But the movie never delivers. It feels as if it’s in slow motion — every line reading, every movement, every scene could’ve taken a fourth or a fifth of the screen time that it’s given.
All these duds were listless, lethargic. Up Close and Personal’s director, Jon Avnet, seemed determined for it to be the opposite. The pace is fast, with plenty of fast cuts and bits of background business and costly camera shots and even, toward the end, a prison riot. Yet despite all this, the picture never attains escape velocity. All the frenetic movement adds up to nothing. And the thing seems to go on forever.
To screen Didion and Dunne’s entire cinematic oeuvre in one go is to ponder one question: why on Earth did these two keep getting such high-paying Hollywood gigs? I can understand that they perhaps got their first assignment or two because their published work had won them reputations as serious literary artists. But after turning out one dead fish after another? What gives?
Before writing about the couple’s movies, I poked around the internet to see if anyone else had trodden this path. I found a 2007 Slate piece in which David Haglund’s focus was on the two writers’ cynicism about Tinseltown. Noting that their first two pictures were “small” films — the kind that in later decades would be made by indie producers and shown at film festivals — Haglund pointed out that thereafter the Dunnes went strictly commercial.
He quoted a line by Didion: “To ‘understand whose picture it is,’ she writes, ‘one needs to look not particularly at the script but at the deal memo.’ ” Haglund notes that the Dunnes agreed to write Up Close and Personal at least partly to maintain their Writers Guild health insurance. “They had long since decided to treat screenwriting not as an artistic endeavor but as a means of funding their novels and nonfiction — not to mention the house in Malibu, the apartment in New York, the trips to Hawaii.”
True enough. But there’s a further point to be made. It’s one thing to “sell out your art” and write contrived crowd-pleasers like Pretty Woman and Top Gun. Didion and Dunne’s later movies, alas, aren’t crowd-pleasers. They’re a series of embarrassingly amateurish misfires.
But what else could one have expected? Neither one of them wrote the kind of books that would remotely suggest a flair for screenwriting. In film, their signal virtues — Dunne’s reportorial skill, Didion’s arresting prose style — are all but irrelevant. Film requires other talents — an ability to imagine your way into a range of characters who talk and think differently, to shape a plot and engineer plot twists, to build tension relentlessly, to pull off a dramatic climax.
As evidenced by his novel True Confessions, Dunne had at least some aptitude along some of these lines. Didion? Not so much. And a salient fact here is that, according to some close observers, Didion — the more richly garlanded of the two — had the upper hand in their collaborations.
Yes, as demonstrated in books like Salvador, based on a brief trip to Central America, Didion had a gift for observation, which can be somewhat useful in writing a script. But she never displayed much interest in, or knack for, plotting. She’s a master not of direct conflict but of vague tensions and ambiguities and irresolution.
And when it comes to characters, the only one she’s ever really been interested in is herself. Even the Guardian, the kind of place that has always given her glowing notices, had to admit that Blue Nights, her 2011 memoir of her daughter, Quintana Roo, is marred by a “parental attention-seeking that again and again drives Didion’s sentences away from their subject and back to herself.”
To herself — and also to the tokens of fame and privilege and importance to which Didion, always given to braggadocio, clung all the more fiercely in the face of mortality. Where other grieving mothers might recite a Hail Mary, Didion, in Blue Nights, rattles off — as if they, with all their worldly splendor, held the key to salvation itself — the names of the hotels in which Quintana Roo “stayed before she was five or six or seven”:
The Lancaster and the Ritz and the Plaza Athénée in Paris.
The Dorchester in London.
The St. Regis and the Regency in New York, and also the Chelsea….
The Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco.
The Kahala and the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu.…
The Ambassador and the Drake in Chicago.
This kind of litany is classic Didion. You might be able to picture her alter ego in the movie Play It As It Lays reeling it off — at poolside, wearing big Didion sunglasses poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, holding a cigarette. But it’s not a passage you’d ever put in a commercial movie. For whatever else it may be, and however urgent or tenuous or puzzling its connection to the matter at hand, nothing — nothing! — could be less cinematic.
One other thing about this brief excerpt is manifest, too: it does a splendid job of illuminating the essentially superficial outlook that Didion inevitably brought to all her work, including her collaborations with her husband. The sad truth is that you can read all the way to the end of Blue Nights, and you still won’t have a very good sense of what Quintana Roo Dunne was like as a person.
At this point in her life, it’s impossible not to feel great sympathy for Didion. At the same time, it’s easy to see why a woman whose ultimate focus has always been habitually, reflexively on herself is not a person you should expect to co-write a top-notch script for a Hollywood blockbuster.