It’s hard to believe that anyone who actually sat through Up Close & Personal — 1996’s deeply dopey newsroom romance starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer — would be at all interested in a book about the movie by one of its screenwriters. I mean, what next? An eyewitness expose on the making of Beverly Hills Ninja? A behind-the-scenes tell-all about the filming of Carpool?
But — go figure — sometimes interesting books happen to mediocre movies. John Gregory Dunne’s account of the eight years he and his writing partner/wife, Joan Didion, spent toiling on this trashy flick turns out to be a Hollywood cautionary tale worthy of Fitzgerald — or at least Jackie Collins. Chockful of chowderheaded studio suits, arrogant auteurs, and slickster producers, Monster is a mordantly fascinating 200-page descent into the very depths of Hollywood stupidity.
Up Close, as it happens, was originally going to be a biopic about the life and untimely death of newscaster Jessica Savitch, who was killed in a car accident in 1983. Not a bad idea for a film: Aside from being one of the most successful female broadcasters of her day, Savitch was also supposedly a bisexual drug addict who had attempted suicide on more than one occasion. According to Dunne, though, these minor biographical details were tossed out during the writers’ first meeting with Walt Disney Pictures. ”When we left Burbank that day,” he notes, ”this is what we knew: That, as long as WDPc was footing the bills, Jessica Savitch would cease to be a factor in the Jessica Savitch screenplay.”
Instead, Up Close endured dozens of rewrites and rethinks, a preproduction nightmare stretching from the late-1980s into the mid-1990s. Bit by bit, year by year, Dunne recalls how the original concept got watered down until the film’s main character — ultimately named Tally Atwater — was turned into a sort of power-suited Mary Richards. ”We’d like to help balance her character by showing…instances of kindness toward co-workers,” he recalls one typical studio suggestion. Dunne makes the process seem so excruciatingly idiotic, so brazenly anticreative, you can’t help but wonder why he and Didion bothered to stick with the project for so long — aside, that is, from those Hollywood megabucks.
Which brings us to Monster‘s one big weakness: Dunne never lets slip a discouraging word, never gets angry or impatient. Throughout the book, no matter what horrifying new spin the Up Close production takes, he affects a bemused tone of business-as-usual detachment, sometimes slipping into an Upper East Side patois so smug you want to smack him (”The following Sunday noon Natasha Richardson and Robert Fox were getting married at our apartment…”). But c’mon, John — if those eight years of humiliation and aggravation didn’t get under your skin, why write this book in the first place? And another thing: Nowhere in these pages does Dunne acknowledge just how lousy a movie Up Close turned out to be. Dunne and Didion have penned too many screenplays over the years — A Star Is Born, True Confessions, The Panic in Needle Park — not to know a stinker when they’ve helped hatch one.
It’s clear Dunne doesn’t want to offend anyone. He’s drawn a scathing portrait of the industry as a whole, of the insane process by which Hollywood movies are manufactured, but is either too polite or too chicken to let the dish hit the fan. Frankly, Monster would have been a tastier read with a dash more hostility. Still, it’s definitely worth checking out — especially for anyone self-destructive enough to be contemplating a career in the screen trade.