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In Hollywood, screenwriters are a curse to be borne, and beating up on them is an industry blood sport. But in this ferociously funny and accurate account of life on the Hollywood food chain, it's a screenwriter who gets the last murderous laugh. That may be because the writer is John Gregory Dunne, who has written screenplays, along with novels and non-fiction, for thirty years. In 1988 Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, were asked to write a screenplay about the dark and complicated life of the late TV ...
In Hollywood, screenwriters are a curse to be borne, and beating up on them is an industry blood sport. But in this ferociously funny and accurate account of life on the Hollywood food chain, it's a screenwriter who gets the last murderous laugh. That may be because the writer is John Gregory Dunne, who has written screenplays, along with novels and non-fiction, for thirty years. In 1988 Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, were asked to write a screenplay about the dark and complicated life of the late TV anchorwoman Jessica Savitch. Eight years and twenty-seven drafts later, this script was made into the fairy tale "Up Close and Personal" starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Detailing the meetings, rewrites, fights, firings, and distractions attendant to the making of a single picture, Monster illuminates the process with sagacity and raucous wit.
Monster is intended to answer a particularly baffling set of questions: how and why two of our country's most perceptive writers and cultural critics — John Gregory Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion — managed to lose eight years of their life to a movie, Up Close and Personal, that was by the time it saw the screen so over-the-top schmaltzy even Rex Reed found it hard to take.
The two embarked upon the script for Disney in 1988, in large part, Dunne notes, as a way of keeping themselves covered by the Writer's Guild health plan. (They hadn't worked on a script for some time.) In its original incarnation, the film was to be an adaptation of the life of troubled TV journalist Jessica Savitch. Many drafts later it became a "contemporary love story" about a journalist bearing only slight resemblance to Savitch. This is because Disney wanted a nice film, and "it was clear that an uplifting story that would make an audience feel good about itself was not going to encompass any allusion either to Savitch's suicide attempts or to the lesbian episodes in her life," among other disturbing facts of a personal history that was anything but feel-good.
The tale Dunne tells — how over 27 drafts of the script, Savitch's calamitous life became a kind of "Pretty TV Reporter" — is a combination of melodrama and black comedy. Much of the comedy, alas, is inadvertent. Dunne describes several other abortive film projects the two embarked upon in these years — from a Die-Hard-inspired action flick (pitting "rogue" Arab terrorists with a nuclear device against a heroic presidential aide) to an "oil field thriller called 'North Slope,'" based on "an annual report from a now defunct oil drilling concern in which we owned a few shares."
Surely, you might think, the two realized the absurdity of these endeavors. After all, in the years they were writing and rewriting this monster of a script, the two managed to produce a number of novels and essays that showed they were still capable of much more than melodrama. Dunne does recognize the absurdity of their life — up to a point. Monster makes clear how easily even the most talented writers can become caught up in the Hollywood machine, so enmeshed in the process of writing and rewriting, negotiating and renegotiating that they lose sight of how ludicrous it has all become. Instead of wondering if the world really needed another syrupy, star-driven love story, the two become obsessed with fixing the "obdurate" scene 158.
Monster is a book you may not wish to read, but you would do well to send copies of it to any aspiring screenwriters you might know: It may be able to scare one or two of them straight, thus saving them (and perhaps the rest of the movie-going public) from a considerable amount of pain. -- Salon