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Tucson Weekly No Hoorays For Hollywood

In Hollywood, No One Can Hear Your Scream--Especially If You're A Writer.

By Gregory McNAmee

IF YOU'VE EVER wondered why most major Hollywood films these days are irretrievably mediocre, you might profit from reading John Gregory Dunne's little book Monster, which will confirm all your worst suspicions. Hollywood, Dunne tells us, is indeed a place where the artless rule and the dollar--or yen--governs every aspect of how a movie is conceived and realized. (Big-studio money is the monster of the title.)

Dunne and wife and collaborator Joan Didion are true insiders, having palled around with producers and directors since the early '70s. They've even written a few screenplays, some of which, for better or worse, made the big screen: the Al Pacino-led drama The Panic in Needle Park (1971), the Barbra Striesand-Kris Kristofferson vehicle A Star Is Born (1976), the Robert De Niro-Robert Duvall noirish mystery True Confessions (1981), and the torpid Up Close and Personal (1995). It is the last movie, a critical failure, that Monster most closely analyzes.

Dunne and Didion conceived of it as a thinly disguised biography of network TV newswoman Jessica Savitch, who rose too far too fast and died a drug addict in 1983. They turned in a first-draft screenplay to Disney--which Dunne has elsewhere called "Mauschwitz"--in September 1989. Disney was not impressed, and issued instructions: "Deliver the moment. Cut. Change. Heat up. New line. Better line. Bio should be postcoital. Punch up. Bring down. Rework. Identify. Be hard. Stay funny." Six years and multiple rewrites by various hands later, the script had moved from a hard-edged morality play about fame and its price to a treacly little love story starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, mismatched lovers in a misbegotten, forgettable story. Unlike Savitch's life, the movie had a happy ending, Disney's stock in trade.

The fate of Up Close and Personal, Dunne suggests, is the fate of any movie with an idea today: Anything unpleasant has to be sugarcoated, and the good guys always have to win.

It's hard to feel too sorry for Dunne and Didion, who jet off to Paris or Hawaii whenever things get too stressful, and who earn heaps of money for doing their work, produced or not. All that may change, of course. With the publication of this usually good-natured but still potent inside look at the way films are made, which names plenty of names, Dunne may not be called to do much future screenwriting work--which would leave the business to Joe Esterhaz and his satanic kind.

Aspiring screenwriters may swallow hard after reading Monster and opt for another line of work themselves...And everyone else will just have to settle for the monstrous garbage the studios serve up, postcoital bios and all.

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