About a quarter of the way through John Gregory Dunne's "Playland," we find ourselves at the Copacabana in its late 1940s heyday. Walter Winchell is sitting at his usual table, slyly eyeing the assembled semi-sophisticates and making copious notes. Helen O'Connell has just finished a sultry rendition of "I Like the Likes of You," singing directly at Jacob King, a good-looking gangster celebrating the fact that he has just beaten a murder conviction. Then Blue Tyler makes her entrance.
Poured into a black evening gown, draped with a red fox fur, the now teen-age former child star sashays into the club with a small army of bodyguards, publicists and boyfriend of the moment, Arthur French, in tow:
"She smiled and waved at the photographers, their cameras loving her and she loving their cameras in turn, the cameras wiping the teen-age sulkiness from her face, Blue always in motion, posing, vamping, cooing, 'I'd walk a mile for a man who walked a mile for a Camel.' Joe Romagnola, the maitre d', produced a cigarette, offering a light from his silver Tiffany lighter, a gift from Frank, who when he played the Paramount gave Tiffany lighters to all the maitre d's at all the gin mills where he drank, and Arthur French just as quickly removed the cigarette from her mouth. 'J. F. says you're too young to smoke in public,' he said, and Blue said, 'I'm too young to do a lot of the things I do with you, Arthur, in public and especially in private, it's called statutory something, isn't it?' "
This is first-rate pop fiction writing: tart, evocative, nicely observed. Real people are crammed cheek by jowl alongside imaginary characters. Cameras, cigarettes and pocket lighters are brought to eerily animate life. And the words sprint lightly across the page thanks to a generous sprinkling of commas keeping each thought, feeling and texture tumbling along easily one after the other. You can find any number of well-written scenes throughout "Playland's" 494 pages. The question is: Are well-written scenes enough?
With "Playland," Dunne has set out to write the end-all Hollywood novel. It's his full-throttle, damn-the-torpedoes try at toppling "The Last Tycoon," "What Makes Sammy Run?" and "The Day of the Locust" from the literary pedestals that have held them for so long. But for all the verbal flash that makes it such an enjoyable read, it's no match for the likes of Fitzgerald, Schulberg and West. You can only coast on the surface for so long before a reader begins to hanker for some depth.
"Playland's" principal setting is Hollywood in the 1940s; a period Dunne rightly regards as the most fascinating in movie history. The studio system was operating at top speed. The power and influence of the images it created were reaching millions worldwide. Yet at the same time, that system was beginning to come apart at the seams. Industrywide strikes had led to an unholy alliance between moguls and mobsters, so desperate were the studios to break the unions' backs. The anti-Communist witch hunts of the blacklist era soon followed, bringing with it further demoralization and depletion of valuable human resources.
In "Playland's" acknowledgments, Dunne pays lavish tribute to the late writer-director Philip Dunne for his memoir "Take Two" ("essential to any understanding of the period") and Neal Gabler's classic study, "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" ("the best book about Hollywood I have ever read"). But, being a novel, "Playland" is less interested in the dry facts of history than the ways that fiction can engage a reader's imagination to make those facts come alive. And the means Dunne has chosen is pastiche: a real Hollywood with an imaginary star named Blue Tyler placed at its center.
With her shockingly adult voice and manner (much like child star Mitzi Green), Blue is a sensation in the 1930s. But by the mid-'40s her studio, Cosmopolitan Pictures (the actual name of the studio William Randolph Hearst built for Marion Davies), is beginning to wonder whether she'll be able to make the transition to adult roles (see Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland). Her uncontrollably foul mouth (see Louise Brooks, Frances Farmer, Carole Lombard) and her sensationally public affair with gangster Jacob King (see Bugsy Siegel and Virginia Hill), make her a studio publicist's nightmare. On top of that, Blue gets into hot water when she testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee (shades of Dorothy Comingore) and comes to the defense of her favorite director Chuckie O'Hara; a one-legged, gay ex-Marine who joined the Communist party out of love for a screenwriter (there's been loose talk that this is George Cukor, but Dunne more likely created the character from an admixture of Mitchell Leisen, Edmund Goulding and Irving Rapper). Blue makes the blacklist herself as a result.
Still, a career nose dive seems to be in the cards for Blue regardless, for following a string of bad marriages (Arlene Judge), worse Italian movies (Carroll Baker) and low-paying jobs (Veronica Lake), she finds herself out of show business and "off the planet": an alcoholic wreck (Lillian Roth) living in a trailer park (Evelyn Brent) on the outskirts of Hamtramck, Mich.
All this is par for the course for Hollywood novels: the seamy underside of the "dream factory" cocktailed up through a bittersweet mixture of glamour and sleaze. What Dunne adds to the usual stew are "Forrest Gump"-like flights of fancy:
"(Here's) a photo of Blue at age 10 receiving from Clark Gable that special Oscar at the 1939 Academy Awards. Another of Blue giving Eleanor Roosevelt a contribution to the March of Dimes. . . . (Blue) with Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin both penning Tyler songfests. . . . Blue being comforted by Norma Shearer outside the Wilshire Boulevard Temple where she was 'the youngest mourner at the funeral of Beloved Industry Legend Irving Thalberg' . . . weeping at the news that Carole Lombard's plane had crashed in Table Rock, Nevada, outside Las Vegas, killing everyone on board. 'Blue misses fatal flight,' read the caption headline."
This is very clever stuff; catnip for lovers of movies lore. But while Dunne brings 1940s Hollywood to vivid life, his heroine remains more a conceit than a character.
"Playland" is narrated by Jack Broderick, the central figure of Dunne's 1987 Kennedyesque family saga "The Red White & Blue." A down-on-his-luck screenwriter, he hopes to turn Blue's story into a novel that will be bought as the basis for a screenplay--which he will also write. And so Broderick sets out to interview not only the faded star, but everyone who ever knew her, directly or indirectly. As Blue's story spills out "Citizen Kane"-style, the testimony of aged studio heads, sleazy police informers, Hollywood has-beens and assorted mobsters slowly builds up the notion that her life history is of earth-shattering importance. But at the end of the day, it's hard to imagine how the petty travails of a small-minded, mean-spirited, foul-mouthed, self-obsessed nymphomaniac can be seen as typifying Hollywood as a whole.
Dunne's mistake is letting his love of tough-guy prose and show biz cynicism get the better of him. For the greatest of Hollywood stars weren't libertines like Blue, but hypocrites who believed--and promoted--every one of the pristine images the studio manufactured for them, even while living wildly contradictory lives behind closed doors. Or, to put it another way, Joan Crawford was a madwoman who thought she was Joan Crawford.
Strangely, Dunne seems to be aware of the limitations of his premise, for in the novel's last quarter, he abandons Blue's story and shifts to an investigation of the unsolved murder of her "best pal," a "non-pro" named Meta Dierdorf.
"It was odd, even obscene, looking at old forensic photographs of a naked dead nineteen-year-old who if she were still alive would be close to seventy, with all the attendant miseries and complaints of old age and failed expectation."
There's nothing odd, however, about Dunne's fascination with an old forensic photo. We've been here before--in "True Confession," Dunne's spin on the "Black Dahlia" case. But there's a harsher undertone this time:
"Meta Dierdorf was not a pretty sight in her bathtub. Her face was battered, her nose bloodied, her lips puffed and split, her breasts bare and bruised. On the side of the tub, there were smeared traces of excrement, indicating that as she was dying her sphincter had loosened and that she had evacuated her bowels. . ."
The reader doesn't arrive at this passage unprepared. From Blue Tyler's sardonic recollections of almost dying in an emergency room, to an underworld informer's grotesque descriptions of a series of gangland slayings, Dunne's novel is a virtual catalogue raisonnee of physical revulsion and misanthropic disgust. Sexual couplings are minutely described, but the pleasures of lovemaking are passed over in silence. The four-letter word for intercourse is used constantly--but primarily as a weapon of verbal violence. And in one indelible scene we're served a description, in exhaustive detail, of Jacob King engaged in a fit of excessive vomiting.
Attraction/repulsion to corporeal existence is nothing new to serious literature. A bit more reserve, and Dunne's meditation on Meta Dierdorf's corpse would bear comparison with the clinical cool of J. G. Ballard; a few more kinks, and it could be right out of one of William Burroughs' pornographic vaudevilles; more passion could invoke parallels with the Nietzschean melancholia of Georges Bataille; more excess, the Marquis de Sade. The problem is, unlike the authors of "Crash," "The Wild Boys," "Blue of Noon" and "The 120 Days of Sodom," Dunne hasn't owned up to his own morbidity.
"Playland" is supposed to be a novel about Hollywood. But it doesn't take an expert in textual analysis to discover a very different piece of writing beneath its slick roman a clef surface. Not quite fiction, not quite cri de coeur confession, this "other kind" of book overflowing with inchoate gushes of bile, has absolutely nothing to do with the movies. In fact, the closer you look at "Playland," the more obvious it appears that Dunne is using Hollywood as a mechanism of denial. Plainly, for all his showbiz savvy, Dunne is far more comfortable at the morgue than at the movies.
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