Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Quote of the Day (Dominick Dunne, With the “Ash Wednesday” Joke That Got Him Excommunicated From Hollywood)

"If the history of this movie is ever written, it should be called 'When a fat girl falls in love.'"—Novelist-essayist Dominick Dunne, in the documentary Dominick Dunne: After the Party, recounting his joke about Hollywood ‘70s superagent Sue Mengers that finished his career as a producer.

In the above headline, “Ash Wednesday” doesn’t refer to the day that begins Lent, nor the T.S. Eliot poem referring to the same, but to something far more unholy—a 1973 Elizabeth Taylor film that few people have seen (and I confess that I’m one of the holdouts), and that many of its principals, from all accounts, wish they hadn’t made.

Dunne, who produced this box-office bomb (and who is with La Liz in the photo accompanying this post), took aim at two people with his remark: the film’s screenwriter, Jean-Claude Tramont, and especially the latter’s fiancée, Sue Mengers, then at the height of her power in Hollywood. (Another 1973 movie, the Anthony Perkins-Stephen Sondheim-penned The Last of Sheila, has Dyan Cannon in a thinly veiled portrait of the agent.) The latter didn’t appreciate the attempt at a witticism, and before Dunne knew it he was listening to studio head Robert Evans telling him, Listen—it’s over for you here.

Some might say that Dunne’s banishment recalls producer Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, or even that of his acquaintance Truman Capote. But I think the writer who understood his plight most deeply would have been John O’Hara, another social-climbing Irish-American novelist who knew intimately the agony of what he called being “cut dead” by old friends.

A prior post of mine, on the 1953 TV adaptation of O’Hara’s best novel, Appointment in Samarra, related how O’Hara invited the then-young TV stage manager Dunne out with the rest of the crew that had worked on that night’s taping of the show.

Dunne absorbed a lot that evening from the veteran writer on how to elicit information and listen, but he would have been well advised to pay equally strong attention to the message of O’Hara’s cautionary tale of a drink-induced faux pas and its disastrous consequences.

O’Hara’s protagonist, Julian English, begins his downfall when, in a bit of drunken pique, he hurls a drink in the face of arriviste Harry Reilly. English’s doom is sealed when the social circuit in his town, Gibbsville, turns their back to him in record time.

Dunne must have felt that his fall—hastened by alcohol and cocaine—happened even more rapidly: One day he was making his little joke in Europe, then before he could take it back, it had traveled halfway around the world, where it appeared verbatim in The Hollywood Reporter.

Two days ago, Leonard Lopate’s WNYC-FM radio show repeated its interview with Griffin Dunne, son of the novelist and nephew of novelist-screenwriter John Gregory Dunne. Griffin, with the sad duty of promoting his father’s posthumous novel Too Much Money, spoke with sympathy but also unblinking honesty about his late parent, as well as with the kind of understanding that his own experience with the entertainment industry (as actor-producer in films such as After Hours) has given him.

One of his father’s most prominent characteristics, he said, was a tendency to say anything, a penchant that got him into legal trouble a couple of years ago when his speculation on the death of Washington intern Chondra Levy sparked a lawsuit from her onetime married lover, former Congressman Gary Condit.

Hollywood will forgive a lot, even embezzlement (was Griffin thinking of the David Begelman-Cliff Robertson controversy?), the novelist’s son noted, but it won’t forgive failure. The dismal box-office results of Ash Wednesday ensured that Dominick Dunne’s assiduous courting of friends—not to mention virtually the only livelihood he’d known in adulthood—was over.

Several weeks from now, Hollywood will engage in its annual smarmy exercise in self-congratulation at the Oscars about its tolerance. Keep in mind their cold-shouldering of Dunne if you insist on watching the ceremonies.

At the same time, remember that this one story, despite the efforts of Mengers, Tramont, Evans, et. al., had a happy ending: Dunne rose from (the thought is inescapable, given the circumstances, the film title and today) the ashes.

Nearly a decade later, at the nadir of his life—career and marriage over, trying to rebound from substance abuse, his beloved daughter murdered by a boyfriend who received a shamefully short prison term—he turned his world around and began a new career, as a writer who acted as a kind of avenging angel for crime victims (e.g., Martha Moxley, the teenager who, a jury found, a quarter century after her death, had been murdered by Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel).


Ken Houghton said...

"when his speculation on the death of Washington intern Chondra Levy sparked a lawsuit from her onetime married lover, former Congressman Gary Condit."

His "speculation" ran multiple columns in Vanity Fair, each evermore accusatory and less evidentiary, all while in this noble "Avenging Angel" mode.

Papering over his excesses in the matter does him no credit. Dunne was rather careful in guarding some (his writings about Yoko Ono are adulatory), and more prone to "Bully Pulpit"--emphasis Bully--than "Avenging Angel."

MikeT said...


Yoko Ono, whatever her faults (and I am certainly no fan by a long shot), was not dilatory in answering questions related to a criminal investigation, unlike Condit. (Condit's interview with Connie Chung was a masterpiece of evasion.)Dunne, then, didn't have to be "careful" about guarding her.

I'm not interested in "papering over" Dunne's excesses or anything else about him, for that matter. My point specifically was that he had a habit of shooting his mouth off, and he got in trouble for it in this case.

On the other hand, he continually spoke up for the victims of crimes--and against, I might add, sleazy lawyers who traduced them all over again in court.

MikeT said...


I forgot to add: Thanks for continuing to read this blog, and for sending in your comments--whether I agree or, in this case, disagree with them.

Best regards,

Mike T.