The New York Times
Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunneby John Gregory Dunne, Calvin Trillin (Foreword by)
No writer captured the tragic absurdity of late-twentieth-century America better than John Gregory Dunne. For over forty years, he cast an unsparing eye on contemporary America, never flinching from the unpleasant truths he saw around him. Whether novels, screenplays, or nonfiction, his work was marked with a droll wit and a pointed cynicism that often examined
No writer captured the tragic absurdity of late-twentieth-century America better than John Gregory Dunne. For over forty years, he cast an unsparing eye on contemporary America, never flinching from the unpleasant truths he saw around him. Whether novels, screenplays, or nonfiction, his work was marked with a droll wit and a pointed cynicism that often examined buried aspects of public and private life in Hollywood and America at large. Regards is a celebration of Dunne's best nonfiction, from frank observations on the film industry, politics, sports, and popular culture to tender reflections on what it was like to raise an adopted daughter. The collection spans his entire career, including his depictions of Las Vegas and an L.A. film studio, and essays from both of his existing compilations, as well as the essays from the last fifteen years of his life, never before collected. This book is a magnificent gift from one of the finest and most uncompromising writers of a generation.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
- Da Capo Press
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REGARDSTHE SELECTED NONFICTION OF JOHN GREGORY DUNNE
By JOHN GREGORY DUNNE
THUNDER'S MOUTH PRESSCopyright © 2006 John Gregory Dunne Marital Trust
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSneak 
* * *
There was never any doubt that the Studio would hold its first preview of Dr. Dolittle in Minneapolis. Fox considered the Minnesota capital its lucky city; Robert Wise's production of The Sound of Music was first sneaked there and, with the enormous success of that picture, the studio superstitiously kept bringing its major road-show attractions to Minneapolis for their first unveiling before a paid theater audience. With so much money at stake-the budget of Dr. Dolittle was close to $18 million-the Studio was unwilling to hold a sneak anywhere around Los Angeles, reasoning that it could get a truer audience reaction in the hinterlands, far from the film-wise and preview-hardened viewers who haunt screenings in and around Hollywood. The plan originally had been to go to Minneapolis on Friday, September 8, and to Tulsa the following evening, but early that week the Tulsa screening was canceled. "If the picture plays, we don't have to go to Tulsa," Richard Fleischer said. "If it doesn't play, why go to Tulsa the next night and get kicked in the ass again? You make some changes, then you go to Tulsa."
Because of the magnitude of Dr. Dolittle, the Minneapolis screening attracted twenty-eight Studio personnel from New York and Los Angeles. The major contingent from Los Angeles was booked on Western Airlines Flight 502, leaving at 8:30 A.M. on September 8. Arthur Jacobs, accompanied by Natalie Trundy, arrived at International Airport nearly an hour before flight time. He was tieless and wearing a dark blazer and he lingered around the escalator coming up from the check-in counters on the ground floor, greeting members of the Fox party as they arrived. His salutation never varied. "I'm not nervous," Jacobs said. "I'm not going to Minneapolis. I'm just here to wave you all goodbye."
"Oh, Arthur," Natalie Trundy said. "Calm down."
"Calm down," Jacobs said. "Calm down. You treat me like one of the dogs." He turned to Fleischer. "We've got poodles. She treats me like a poodle."
"You're a very nice-looking poodle, Arthur," Fleischer said.
They milled around the gate, waiting for Flight 502 to be called, Jacobs, Natalie Trundy, Fleischer, Mort Abrahams, Herbert Ross, the choreographer on Dr. Dolittle, and Warren Cowan, who was once a partner of Jacobs's in a public-relations firm and whose company, Rogers, Cowan & Brenner, was handling the publicity and promotion for Dolittle. At last the flight was called. As Jacobs and Natalie Trundy walked up the ramp, Jacobs turned to Fleischer and said, "I just don't want to go to Minneapolis. Let's go to Vegas instead."
"It would be less of a gamble," Fleischer said.
Jacobs and Natalie Trundy took two seats at the rear of the first-class compartment. Cowan, a short, pudgy man with constantly moving eyes and a voice that sounds somewhat like Daffy Duck's, sat by himself in front of them and spread the New York and Los Angeles papers on his lap. Jacobs could not keep still. "We land at noon," he shouted up the aisle. "At twelve-thirty, we visit the public library. At one o'clock, the museum."
No one laughed except Fleischer, who tried to humor Jacobs. "At one-thirty, the textile factory," Fleischer said.
"And then we have a rest period between eight and eleven this evening," Jacobs said. This was the time scheduled for the screening.
"What I like about you, Arthur, is your calm," Fleischer said. "Why should I be nervous?" Jacobs said. "It's only eighteen million dollars."
The trip to Minneapolis was uneventful. Most of the Fox people slept, except for Jacobs, who kept prowling the aisle looking for someone to talk to. It had just been announced in the trade press that week that Rex Harrison had bowed out of the musical production of Goodbye, Mr. Chips which Gower Champion was scheduled to direct and Jacobs to produce for release by M-G-M. "It was all set," Jacobs said sadly. "Gower and I even went to Paris to see Rex. We drive out to his house in the country and he meets us at the door. 'Marvelous day,' he says. You know the way he talks." Jacobs put on his Rex Harrison voice. " 'Marvelous day. Bloody Mary, anyone, Bloody Mary.' He gets us the Bloody Marys and then he says, 'Now let me tell you why I'm not going to do Mr. Chips.' That's the first we heard about it. It was all set. Well, Gower looks at me, picks up his attache case and says, 'Sorry, I'm going to the airport, I'm going home.'" Jacobs gazed out the window at the clouds. "It was all set," he said. "All set."
* * *
The Fox party was met at the airport in Minneapolis by Perry Lieber, of the publicity department, who had flown in from Los Angeles the day before to supervise the preview arrangements. Lieber approached the task as if it were-and indeed he seemed to equate it with-the annual pilgrimage of the English royal family from Buckingham Palace to Balmoral. There were none of the ordinary traveler's mundane worries about luggage, accommodations and transportation. Lieber had checked the entire twenty-eight-man Studio contingent into the Radisson Hotel, ordered a fleet of limousines to transport each planeload of Fox people to the hotel, and arranged that all baggage be picked up at the airport and sent immediately to the proper rooms and suites. He gathered baggage tags and dispensed them to waiting functionaries and gave each new arrival an envelope containing his room key and a card listing that person's flight arrangements to New York or Los Angeles the next day, as well as the time that a limousine would pick him up at the hotel for the trip out to the airport.
Jacobs took his envelope and gave it to Natalie Trundy. For a moment, he peered intently at Lieber's tie pin, a musical staff on which the words "The Sound of Music" were written in sharps and flats. "You've got the wrong picture," he said.
"Are you kidding?" Lieber replied boisterously. "This is my lucky tie pin. You know how Sound of Music did and we previewed that here."
Warren Cowan shook his head slowly. "This has got to be the most superstitious movie company in the world," he said.
"If they're so superstitious," Fleischer said, "then why didn't they get Bob Wise to direct this picture?"
Outside the airport, standing beside a limousine, Natalie Trundy pulled out a Kodak Instamatic and began snapping pictures of the Fox party. She was dressed all in white and was wearing pale yellow sunglasses. She aimed her camera at Cowan, but her flashbulb misfired and she asked for one more shot.
"Oh, for God's sake, Natalie," Jacobs said. "Let's get going."
Cowan sat on the jump seat and opened a copy of the Minneapolis Tribune to the theater section, where the Studio had placed a teaser advertisement that did not give the name of the picture. The advertisement was headlined "Hollywood Red Carpet Preview."
"They're charging two sixty a ticket," Cowan said. "That's a mistake. You want to get the kids at a preview of a picture like this, and at two sixty a head, it's too steep."
"They should have made it two bucks a couple," Jacobs agreed miserably. At this point, he seemed to see disaster in everything. "To get the Friday night dates."
"It's a mistake," Cowan repeated softly.
As the limousine sped toward downtown Minneapolis, the chauffeur began to issue statistics about the city. "There are fifty-eight lakes and parks within the city limits," he said. No one paid any attention. Jacobs put out one brown cigarettello and lit another.
"Are you going to stand or sit in the theater tonight?" he asked Fleischer.
The director stared out the window at the early autumn foliage. "I'm going to lie down," he said. He patted Jacobs on the knee. "It's only a preview, Arthur," he said.
"Of an eighteen-million-dollar picture," Jacobs said.
* * *
Lunch was served in the Flame Room of the Radisson. It was after three o'clock and the dining room was deserted, but the kitchen had been kept open for the Fox group. Many had not yet arrived and others were up in their rooms napping. Jacobs had changed into a dark suit and he bounded from table to table.
"Don't forget, we're due at the art museum at three-thirty," he said.
"Arthur's making jokes," Lionel Newman said. The head of the Studio's music department, Newman had arranged the score and conducted it on the sound track. He had arrived in Minneapolis the day before with a Studio sound engineer to help set up the theater for the preview. "Arthur, as a comic, you're a lard-ass."
Jacobs looked chagrined.
"You know what I call this hotel?" Newman said. "Menopause Manor." He smiled at the waitress. "That's okay, honey, I don't mean you. But you got to admit, there's one or two old people staying here. I mean, this hotel talks about the swinging sixties, they don't mean the year, they mean the Geritol set."
Suddenly Jacobs raised his arm and shouted, "The Brinkmans." Standing in the doorway of the Flame Room, with his wife Yvonne, was Leslie Bricusse, the tall, bespectacled young English writer who had written the screenplay, music and lyrics for Dr. Dolittle. Jacobs was beside himself. "The Brinkmans are here," he cried to Fleischer. "Brinkmans" was his nickname for the Bricusses. "Did you see them?"
"He could hardly miss, Arthur," Newman said. "You make it seem like the start of World War III."
"Sit over here, Leslie," Jacobs said. He snapped his fingers for the waitress, who was standing right behind him. "We need chairs. Leslie, you want a sandwich, coffee, a drink?"
The Bricusses were pummeled by the Fox people and diffidently gave their order to the waitress. Yvonne Bricusse, a handsome, dark-haired English actress, slipped into a banquette alongside Natalie Trundy, who kissed her on the cheek. She poured herself a cup of coffee.
"What are you wearing to the opening?" Natalie Trundy said.
"New York?" Yvonne Bricusse said.
"Mmmmm," Natalie Trundy said.
"A heavenly thing," Yvonne Bricusse said. "Leslie bought it for me. Autumn colors, sort of. Burnt orange, with a bow here." She patted her bosom.
"Divine," Natalie Trundy said. "How about Los Angeles?"
"Nothing yet," Yvonne Bricusse said, sipping her coffee. "I thought I'd get something made. What do you think of Don Feld?" Feld is a motion-picture costume designer.
"Heavenly," Natalie Trundy said. She reached over with her fork and speared a piece of steak off Jacobs's plate. "A lot of feathers, though."
Yvonne Bricusse brooded for a moment. "Mmmmm," she said. "I know what you mean. He does like feathers." She stirred a spoon lazily in her coffee cup. "What about you?"
"In the works," Natalie Trundy said. "They're on the drawing boards, New York, London, Los Angeles, all the openings." She fluttered her arms like a ballerina. "I'm going to float. I haven't even talked about colors yet. I want to see how they look on the board."
* * *
That evening, before the preview, Richard Zanuck hosted a party for the Fox group at the Minneapolis Press Club on the second floor of the Radisson. Zanuck had just that day returned from Europe, a combination business and pleasure trip to London and Paris, then a week vacationing in the South of France with David and Helen Gurley Brown. He looked tanned and healthy. "I'm still on Paris time," he said, dipping a cocktail frankfurter into some mustard. "Stopped off in New York this morning to see a rough cut of The Incident, then back onto a plane out here."
"You can sleep tomorrow," Arthur Jacobs said.
Zanuck shook his head. "I'm going back to Los Angeles at six-thirty in the morning."
"Why?" Jacobs said.
"I want to go to the Rams game tomorrow night," Zanuck said. Jacobs looked incredulous. He filtered through the room, stopping at each little group. "Dick's leaving for L.A. tomorrow at six-thirty. In the morning. You know why? He wants to go to the Rams game."
At 7:45, Perry Lieber beat on the side of a glass with a fork. He told the assembled group that the preview started at eight sharp and that after the picture there would be a supper served in Richard Zanuck's suite on the twelfth floor. The picture was playing just down the street from the hotel at the Mann Theater, one of a chain owned by a Minnesota theater magnate named Ted Mann. Fox had rented the theater for the night, paying off Universal Pictures, one of whose road-show films, Thoroughly Modern Millie, was playing there. Three rows of seats had been roped off for the Fox contingent, along with three other seats in the back of the house for Jacobs, Mort Abrahams and Natalie Trundy. Jacobs had specially requested these seats because he is a pacer and wanted to be free to walk around the theater without disturbing anyone. As Jacobs walked into the lobby of the theater, his eye caught a large display for Camelot, the Warner Brothers-Seven Arts musical that was to be the Christmas presentation at another Mann house. He stopped in his tracks.
"Oh, my God," he said. He looked at the people spilling into the theater. "Oh, my God, Camelot. That's what they'll think they're going to see. Oh, my God."
* * *
The house lights went down at 8:13. The audience was composed mainly of young marrieds and the middle-aged. There were almost no children present. Zanuck sat in an aisle seat, with Barbara McLean, the head of the Studio's cutting department, beside him, a pad on her lap, ready to take notes. The overture was played and then a title card flashed on the screen that said, "Equatorial Africa, 1845." The card dissolved into a prologue and Rex Harrison, in frock coat and top hat, rode onto the screen on top of a giraffe. There was no murmur of recognition from the audience. Some of the Studio party began to shift uneasily in their seats. The prologue lasted only a few moments. Harrison, as Dr. Dolittle, the man who could talk to the animals, slipped off the back of the giraffe to treat a crocodile ailing with a toothache. He tied a piece of string to the aching tooth and then tied the other end of the string to the tail of an elephant. At a signal from Dr. Dolittle, the elephant pulled on the cord and the tooth snapped out of the crocodile's mouth. Harrison patted the crocodile on the snout, put its huge molar in his waistcoat pocket, climbed on the back of a passing rhinoceros, and rode through the jungle out of camera range. There was not a whisper out of the audience as the prologue dissolved into the cartoon credits. At the appearance of the title Dr. Dolittle, there was a smatter of applause from the Studio contingent, but the clapping was not taken up by those who had paid $2.60 a ticket.
Throughout the first half of the film, the audience was equally unresponsive. Even at the end of the musical numbers, there was only a ripple of approval. At the intermission, David Brown hurried out into the lobby. "I want to hear the comments," he said. The noise in the lobby was muted. Most of the people just sipped soft drinks and talked quietly among themselves. Several of the Fox people blatantly eavesdropped on their conversations. Jacobs stood by one of the doors, his eyes darting wildly. Natalie Trundy leaned against him, her eyes brimming with tears, kneading a Kleenex between her fingers. In the center of the lobby, a circle of Studio executives surrounded Richard Zanuck.
"This is a real dead-ass audience," Zanuck said. "But you've got to remember, this isn't Sound of Music or My Fair Lady. The audience hasn't been conditioned to the songs for five years like they are with a hit musical."
"This is an original score," Stan Hough said.
Zanuck nodded his head vigorously. "And an original screenplay," he said. The muscles in his jaw popped in and out feverishly. "My God, these people didn't know what they were going to see when they came into the theater. The first thing they see is a guy riding a giraffe."
"It's not like Sound of Music," Hough said.
"Or My Fair Lady," Zanuck said. "Those songs were famous before they even began shooting the picture."
Excerpted from REGARDS by JOHN GREGORY DUNNE Copyright © 2006 by John Gregory Dunne Marital Trust. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
John Gregory Dunne was the author of six novelsVegas; True Confessions; Dutch Shea, Jr.; The Red White and Blue; Playland; and Nothing Lostand seven works of nonfiction, among which are the memoir-like Harp and two books that look at Hollywood, The Studio and Monster. Born in West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1932, he graduated from Princeton in 1954. He collaborated with his wife, the writer Joan Didion, on many screenplays, including Panic in Needle Park and True Confessions. John Gregory Dunne died in December 2003.
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