Insight from the man who 'got' Hollywood

WILLIAM Goldman famously said that in Hollywood nobody knows anything. But I would suggest a second maxim equally applies: In Hollywood, nothing ever changes. At lunch several weeks ago, I found myself across the table from a quick-witted young agent, so abuzz with moxie and feral energy that I had the unnerving sensation of imagining what it must've been like for Budd Schulberg -- nearly 70 years ago -- to have stumbled onto his prototype for Sammy Glick.

No book makes this point better than "Regards," a recently published collection of essays by John Gregory Dunne that ended up in my vacation reading bag. Dunne, who died in 2003, is nearly a forgotten figure in under-40 movieland (bringing to mind another obvious maxim: Nobody in Hollywood remembers anything). But in addition to his respected work as a novelist and essayist, Dunne spent nearly 30 years as a highly paid screenwriter, writing and rewriting scripts with his wife, Joan Didion.

Their produced credits are relatively sparse, including "The Panic in Needle Park," "Up Close & Personal" and the 1976 version of "A Star Is Born." But in their heyday, the 1970s and 1980s, they were the go-to writer team for sophisticated, star-power dramas. It's no coincidence that virtually every movie they wrote ended up with the likes of Streisand, De Niro, Pacino or Redford in the lead. Both stars and studio hands felt safe knowing the Dunnes were on the job. "They were the hottest, sexiest couple in the '70s," recalls ICM's Ron Bernstein, who still reps Didion. "John loved all the rough 'n' tumble of Hollywood. He had a wicked wit and a brilliant eye for everyone's foibles."

The movies are not always memorable, but the best ones do have a great sense of place -- it's hard to imagine a movie that better captures the slightly stoned ennui of late 1960s L.A. than "Play It As It Lays," a 1972 movie they adapted from a Didion novel. What Dunne will really be remembered for is his acerbic portrayals of the people who work around the movies, including the executive who shows off a Miro etching in his office -- helpfully adding "M-I-R-O" -- and his description of Pauline Kael at an Oscar party, "perched in front of the TV set, a tiny, birdlike woman in a Pucci knockdown and orthopedic shoes, giving the raspberry to every award."

In "Regards," Dunne rarely discusses the craft of screenwriting, other than to dismiss any talk of screenwriters being in ascendancy as "tendentious malarkey." The art of film leaves him cold; what he appreciates most is the vanity, guile and gamesmanship of moviemaking. When he describes a business affairs lawyer as having "all the ethics and charm of Meyer Lansky," it almost feels like a compliment. Perhaps that's why these essays, many of them published decades ago, seem so of the moment. Artistic fashions change, but ego and hubris are eternal.

"Given his uncanny Irish ear and his novelist's bent, John was able to capture all of the internal sounds of the business -- and those sounds haven't changed at all over the years," says Creative Artists Agency's Bob Bookman, who represented Dunne during much of his career. "You either get Hollywood or you don't. And John got it."

We have a tendency to write about things today as if they were new lows in narcissism or excess, whether it's the way studios kill expensive movies before shooting begins or the way top actors have scripts reworked by their own personal screenwriters to better reflect their own quirks or personalities. But reading Dunne, you see that it all happened long ago. In 1974 he describes a film, never made, that after being rewritten to satisfy first Joanne Woodward, then Natalie Wood and Faye Dunaway, went from being a picture about a social worker in Detroit to a film about a college professor's wife whose life comes into crisis at the Ojai Music Festival.

"John came from Time magazine, so he had a reporter's sensibility that allowed him to look at things with a hands-off attitude -- he could see the truth and the [hooey] and know the difference," says producer-director Irwin Winkler, who made "True Confessions," a Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall picture adapted by Dunne and Didion from a Dunne novel. "My favorite scene in one of his books is where he watches Don Simpson at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue order room service by calling his secretary in L.A. and having her get it sent up to his room in New York."

Today everybody writes about Hollywood, from economics professors to Internet bloggers volunteering their own tendentious malarkey about the Oscars. In Dunne's day, he practically had the field to himself. Although much of today's reporting about studios feels dated and irrelevant barely weeks after it is written, Dunne's shrewd observations about Hollywood foibles have as much freshness and insight as the day they were put to paper.

"It really is amazing -- you feel like the stuff he's writing about could've happened yesterday," says David Freeman, a veteran screenwriter and novelist who has often written about Hollywood himself. "A good writer doesn't just pay attention to the hairstyle and clothing but to the DNA of the people in the picture business. That's what stays the same. Hollywood today is made up of the same mixture of hustling shoe salesmen and thwarted poets that you see all the way back to Irving Thalberg."

One of the mantras you hear from executives today is that they want characters, even villains, to be more likable, stories more upbeat and, when in doubt, add exposition -- voice-overs or even a block of text at the beginning of the movie -- rather than trust the audience to figure things out on its own. Studios are always reshooting movies because a focus group in Van Nuys didn't like the ending.

Dunne observes in an essay from 1974 that he was asked by a studio production VP to change the downbeat ending for an adaptation of "Tender Is the Night." As he dryly recounts, the VP asked: "Couldn't 'the two young people' -- he could never remember the Divers' names from the synopsis, so always referred to them as 'the two young people' -- get back together?"

It would seem to defeat the point of the book, Dunne replied. "That might be so," the executive responded. "But your audience today would like to see these two young people get back together. Your audience today likes your up ending."

On the business side, it is often said today that if you want to swing a big deal, you go to attorney Skip Brittenham, who often represents everyone in the deal, be they actors and their agents or studio chiefs and directors making deals at their studios. That might raise eyebrows in other businesses, but in Hollywood it's old hat. When Dunne was negotiating a writing deal for a film of "The Little Drummer Girl" in the early 1980s, he put the negotiations in the hands of his lawyer, Morton Leavy, who also represented John le Carre, who wrote the novel, and George Roy Hill, who was directing the movie, as well as both of Dunne and Didion's literary agents.

It is clear that Dunne relished his showbiz insider status, which gave him access to grade-A gossip and rich material for his pieces. He quotes Celia Brady in "The Last Tycoon," who says, "We don't go for strangers in Hollywood," adding that he and Didion had to be "thoroughly vetted before receiving passports into that closed community." Dunne often went to Hollywood funerals simply out of writerly curiosity. At one such event, he was seated with Gore Vidal, who leaned over and said in a knowing whisper: "Are you working?"

What Dunne understands better than most is the peculiar mixture of fear and ambition that defines much of the behavior in the movie business. "He really got how all of us are like snails on the wall, hanging on for dear life," says producer Art Linson, an old Dunne friend. "We might have a new car and a fresh paint job on the house, but we're all scared to death. John understood the desperation about your next job, about your standing in the community. That's been around forever."

In Hollywood, as Dunne often points out, appearances count for everything -- even the image projected by the inside of your medicine cabinet. In a piece about the downfall of producer Julia Phillips, Dunne recalls an early '70s party at his home where she got drunk and threw up in his bathroom, returning to dinner full of praise that he and Didion had "the most thrilling medicine cabinet -- every upper, downer and in-betweener of interest in the PDR." (They both took prescribed medication for migraines.)

It is classic Dunne, both in the telling behavioral detail and the subtle praise for his guest's critical eye. The drugs of choice may have changed over the years -- today's are more geared toward performance and cosmetic enhancement -- but in Hollywood, an admiring assessment of your prescription medication -- by a professional drug taker, no less -- conveys a certain status that is never to be sneezed at.

"The Big Picture" runs each Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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