Monster: Living Off the Big Screen
by John Gregory Dunne
Random House, 203 pp., $21.00
“Another hour passed,” we read in Fitzgerald’s Last Tycoon. “Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed—to be dreamed in crowds, or else discarded.” Hollywood, long thought of as the dream factory, has probably more often been the cemetery of dreams, the place where possibilities flicker for a moment and die before they reach the world. By the 1970s the creation of discardable (and discarded) dreams appears to have become a major activity of the movie industry, the way it kept itself going. You made a film now and then, but mainly you made deals, put packages together, ran with them for a bit, and then at some lunch or meeting or other you dropped your package and picked up another one. “It had been a very creative deal,” Joan Didion wrote in The White Album of a movie that hadn’t happened, “and they had run with it as far as they could run and they had had some fun and now the fun was over, as it also would have been had they made the picture.”
Packages often started as concepts, drastic plot summaries yearning for a deal, a situation memorably parodied in Robert Altman’s film The Player, where all movie ideas are permutations of already permutated ideas, and the pitch, the talk of what the movie will be like, is everything. “It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman,” one pair of writers says about one of their projects. “Like Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate,” another writer says about his “psychic political thriller comedy—with a heart.” In Monster John Gregory Dunne defines “high concept” as “a picture that could be described in a single line, such as Flashdance (blue-collar woman steelworker in the Rust Belt becomes a ballerina) or Top Gun (cowboy Navy jet jockeys train and love at Mach 2), pushed along by a hit-music track.”
Dunne thinks the Hollywood writers’ strike of 1988 changed much of this, especially the pictureless running and the expensive fun. The studios wrote off “hundreds of projects in development, and the necessity of paying for them once the strike was settled.”
Once profligate in developing scripts, only a fraction of which ever went into production (it was not unusual for writers to make several hundred thousand dollars a year for years on end without ever seeing a picture go before the cameras), the studios…were in a feisty, fee-cutting mood.
The Disney studio, known locally, Dunne tells us, as Mouschwitz or Duckau, was particularly tough, and readers of The New York Review will recall the story Dunne relates in a previously published excerpt, and now in this book, of the Disney executive and the monster. A writer is arguing about changes to a script. The executive, losing patience, says he has to take the monster out its cage. He pretends to produce “a small predatory animal” from under the table, waves the (invisible) creature in the air, and mimes its …