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The Whammy Strategy

March 05, 1997|ROBERT A JONES

Picture this: Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, sit hunched over a table at the Beverly Hills Hotel. They are trying to write whammies. For hours and hours they sit at the table, sweating it out. But no whammies come.

In the Hollywood trade, whammies are the scenes in an action movie where something huge blows up, usually killing a bunch of bad guys. Didion/Dunne, as they are known in the industry, had been assigned to write whammies for a possible Sylvester Stallone movie called "Gale Force."

Yes, this is the same Joan Didion who wrote "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and other books so cool and descriptive of Southern California that many of my journalist friends can still tell you exactly where their copies can be found on their bookshelves.

And her husband, Dunne, is the author of big novels such as "True Confessions" and "Playland" and writes regularly for the New York Review of Books.

So what produced this degrading scene? Surprise. As related by Dunne in "Monster," his new memoir of their years as part-time screenwriters in Hollywood, the two wanted to write whammies. No perverse Hollywood contract had forced them into it. They liked the idea and had promoted themselves for the job.

For days they paced the hotel room, doing their best to create peril for Stallone and then rescue him via mayhem. Finally, they took the results to the producer and director. No go. At the end of the meeting they were told to rewrite, and director Renny Harlin gave them this advice:

"First act, better whammies. Second act, whammies mount up. Third act, all whammies."

Didion/Dunne soon realized their paucity of whammy talent and resigned their assignment. But "Monster" never whines about that result. Nor does Dunne rail about the gutter taste of those who rejected their work. Rather, he marvels at the superior ability of the whammy specialists who can produce the material.

"Never had I so appreciated Steven E. De Souza's gift," Dunne writes. De Souza is the author of "Die Hard."

What goes here? Based on a half-century of tradition, the screenwriter memoir is supposed to be filled with contempt and self-loathing. It must rend its garments over wasted talent and spent lives. It must talk about humiliations at the hands of powerful cretins, and descents into alcohol and suicide.

From the beginning, there's been no other way. Take the great Raymond Chandler, who had this to say about his years of toil at the studios:

"The veteran [writers] of Hollywood do not realize how little they are getting, how many shoddy people they have to treat as friends, how little real accomplishment is possible, how much gaudy trash their life contains."

Of screenwriters themselves, Chandler wrote, "They are, to put it bluntly, a dreary lot of hacks, and most of them know it, and they take their kicks and their salaries and try to be reasonably grateful."

Or take F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps the greatest of the alleged wasted talents of Hollywood, describing a producer's reaction to a script in "The Last Tycoon":

"It's trash. . . . Who wrote that scene?"

"Wylie White."

"Is he sober?"

And so on. Perhaps the granddaddy of all screenwriter memoirs was written by the late, great Ben Hecht, author of "The Front Page" and dozens of other movies. It was Hecht, then a newspaper columnist, who was lured to Hollywood by the famous 1925 telegram from Herman Mankiewicz, which read:

"Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and the competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."

Hecht came, but 25 years later he left Hollywood discouraged and angry. "My chief memory of movie land is one of asking in the producer's office why I must change the script, cripple and hamstring it?" he wrote. "Why must I strip the hero of his few semi-intelligent remarks and why must I tack on a corny ending that makes the stomach shudder? Half of all movie writers argue in this fashion. The other half writhe in silence, and psychoanalyst's couch or the liquor bottle claim them both."

"Movies," Hecht wrote, "are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century."

But now comes Didion and Dunne, forced into dozens of rewrites for their potboiler about television news, "Up Close and Personal." Fired ceremoniously by producer Don Simpson and fired unceremoniously by Columbia. Frequently rejected and occasionally insulted by people half their age.

And they come up smiling! It's amazing. You can't read this memoir without concluding that a major shift has occurred. These writers are refusing to see themselves as victims.

Perhaps they have simply gotten smart. The mistake made by Fitzgerald, Hecht, Dashiell Hammett, William Faulkner and so many others came from the expectation, or hope, that Hollywood would make the kind of literate movies they wanted to write, rather than the movies that Hollywood has always made, and always will.

Didion/Dunne seem to harbor no such fantasies. They are slumming in Hollywood and they know it. They come to work here because--as Willie Sutton said about banks--that's where the money is.

In the eight years it took to get "Up Close and Personal" on the screen, Didion/Dunne also wrote two novels and six nonfiction books between them. Didion covered two presidential campaigns as a journalist and Dunne wrote and produced a PBS documentary on Los Angeles.

In other words, the movies fed and supported their literary habit.

So bring on the whammies. For once, a screenwriter's personal movie has produced a happy ending.

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