Book Review: Monster: Living Off The Big Screen by John Gregory Dunne

First published in 1997, Monster is a memoir about working in Hollywood.  It follows eight years in the life of John Gregory Dunne (who wrote the book) and his wife, Joan Didion.  While Dunne (who passed in 2003) and Didion (who passed away a few weeks ago) were best-known as essayists and novelists, they also had a hand in writing a number of films.  As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that, along with being a portrait of Hollywood, Monster is also the story of the making of one particular film.

That said, Monster is not the story of the making of a great film.

It’s also not the story of the making of a terrible film.

Instead, it’s the story of the making of a thoroughly mediocre and forgettable film.  The film in question is Up Close and Personal, which still pops up on HBO occasionally.  Up Close and Personal tells the story of a self-righteous news producer — a gentleman with the laughable name of of Warren Justice — who finds and grooms an aspiring reporter named Tally (Michelle Pfeiffer).  While Warren (played by Robert Redford) teaches her how to work the camera and deliver the news, they fall in love.  Then Tally’s career skyrockets, Warren’s career goes downhill, and eventually Warren ends up dying.  Boo hoo.

Monster tells the story of how Dunne and Didion were originally hired to adapt a biography of Jessica Savitch, a real-life anchorwoman who eventually got hooked on cocaine, who was physically abused by her mentor, and who eventually ended up dying in a car crash.  Realizing that real life might be too depressing to generate a hit film, the executives at Disney instead decided that they wanted Dunne and Didion to turn Savitch’s Hellish life story into a sentimental romance.  The drug abuse was dropped.  Savitch’s death was abandoned.  Her abusive boyfriend was transformed into the saintly character of — snicker — Warren Justice.

(Dunne actually devotes a good deal of space to explaining why they named the character Warren Justice.  Warren was a good “everyman” name and Dunne was apparently under the belief that Justice was a common surname in the South because he knew someone from Florida whose last name was Justice.  The logic is understandable, if flawed.  I’ve lived in the South almost my entire life and I’ve never met anyone named Justice.  Still, writers of Dunne and Didion’s caliber should have known better than to try to get away with such an easily mocked name.)

For eight years, Dunne and Didion write and rewrite Up Close and Personal and, along the way, a large number of Hollywood figures are attached to the film.  Ultimately, it’s directed by a fellow named Jon Avent, who were told has a strong ego.  Actually, the entire book is full of people who have strong egos.  Scott Rudin, for example, is in the book, demanding that that Dunne and Didion focus on appealing to as wide an audience as possible.  “It’s about two movie stars,” Rudin explains when Dunne worries that the film doesn’t actually have anything to say.

While Up Close and Personal is going through the pains of production, Dunne and Didion work on a number of other studio films, few of which come to production and none of which sound like they would have been particularly good had they been produced.  Ultimatum is a thriller about a terrorist plot.  Dunne and Didion correctly realize that the title needs to be changed to something less generic but their proposed replacement, Ploot, sounds like the title for a film about a flatulent goblin.  A bit more intriguing is their attempt to write a serious movie about aliens for the infamous producer Don Simpson.  Simpson comes across as being savvy but unfocused, which is actually a pretty good description of just about everyone in the book.  The Hollywood of Monster is a town and an industry controlled by former outsiders who are determined to reinvent themselves as tough guys.

And Dunne did a pretty good job of capturing the town.  The book is written with a dry wit and, as acidic as many of the passages are, Dunne doesn’t let himself off the hook.  He’s as open about his role in the making of a thoroughly forgettable film as he is about everyone else’s role.  There’s little concern for art or higher truth to be found in Dunne’s Hollywood.  Instead, the entire town is a monster.

It’s a good book and a memorable portrait of the American film industry in the 1990s.

2 responses to “Book Review: Monster: Living Off The Big Screen by John Gregory Dunne

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 12/27/21 — 1/2/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

  2. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 1/3/22 — 1/9/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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