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John Gregory Dunne has managed a neat trick: writing a tell-all book without burning his bridges to Hollywood.

March 07, 1997|SARA DAVIDSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Sara Davidson, the author and television producer, is working on a new book called "Why Ladies Love Cowboys."

NEW YORK — He is not the most tractable subject for an interview. He has a keen eye, he misses nothing, and if he does not want to answer a question, he wanders amiably to another subject and all attempts to tug him back will be futile.

We've been friends for 26 years and journalists for longer than that, and as we talk, John Gregory Dunne watches me watch him. "There go those journalist's eyes," he says as I scan the books on the coffee table. Then he laughs--a deep, full-bodied laugh of delight at the caught detail, the juicy observation.

We are meeting in the apartment on East 71st Street where he lives with his wife, Joan Didion. The rooms are large and airy, painted a pale, almost subliminal shade. Green? Yellow? Didion, who walks in later, says it's "an underwater color. It's very restful."

Dunne is 64, with white hair and blue eyes. Before we start, he takes several pills for his heart. In 1991, he had his aortic valve replaced with a plastic device, and the phrase "Life is too short" runs through his conversation like a basso continuo.

His book "Monster," about the making of the film "Up Close and Personal," has just been published and has quickly become a bestseller. "[Random House] thought it was a little book about Hollywood that would have a modest sale," Dunne says. But it seems there is more than a little interest in what he calls "the business of show business." More significantly, there is interest in Dunne's story, for he has done what few have dared and lived to work again: tell the truth and name names.

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Question: Were you worried about biting the hand that feeds you?

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Answer: No. Joan and I have been writing about Hollywood for 28 years. I've always found that people in Hollywood do not really care what is said by people who work there, as long as you get it right.

Q: What's been the reaction from people in the industry?

A: Off-the-charts positive. We're doing another picture with Scott Rudin and another with Jon Avnet. We had an offer from Disney--you'd think Disney would want to chop us off at the legs.

Q: I still don't get it. How did you pull this off?

A: I write well, and I'm funny. I don't do any cheap score settling, and I don't tell tales--if somebody's cheating on a spouse.

Q: Still, people one writes about usually find something that offends them.

A: As Joan once wrote, "Writers are always selling someone out." What she meant--she's been explaining this for 30 years--is that your view of someone seldom corresponds to someone's view of him or herself. I've been written about, I've been blasted, and I never complain. Let me get you something. [He goes into his office and returns with a quotation from Samuel Johnson, which he reads aloud.] "It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends."

That's what it's all about. You never complain.

Q: In "Monster," you make it clear you write movies for the money.

A: For the money, for the health insurance and because it's fun. We were never dewy-eyed about it. We knew early on we did not want to be directors. I was 36 when I wrote my first movie ["The Todd Dossier," never produced]--a bit late to be a director. I'd published two or three books and with a book, I was the director, producer, cinematographer and editor.

Also, writing movies allowed us to do things like go to Nebraska five times, which I did when I wanted to write a piece about the white underclass for the New Yorker. I spent $9,000 on those trips and never charged the magazine because I didn't know what I would write. The movie business allowed me to go there and think things through, instead of having to do a piece against a deadline.

Q: Is it difficult for you to write to someone else's vision, to a committee's vision?

A: I worked for Time magazine. Writing for Hollywood is not that different than writing for Time. You just get paid more. What ultimately keeps you going is the sheer professionalism. I did a number of crash covers at Time. That's when they change the cover on Friday afternoon and you have to get a new cover story reported, written, edited, photographed, laid out and locked in by Saturday night. It's tough but you get it done. And there's that same professionalism in Hollywood. You're rewriting a scene that shoots tomorrow and you don't like the changes they're asking for but they're the ones who're paying you. Once you accept that bargain, you try to make it work the best you can.

At Time, I did the stuff on Vietnam, for God's sake. Time thought the Vietnam War was winnable. That's what ultimately made me quit, and yet, I don't begrudge one second of my five years there. It taught me to be a professional.

Q: Does the studio system foster mediocrity--with the development process and multiple drafts that don't necessarily get better?

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