Sunday, September 6, 2009

Film Review: Dominick Dunne--After the Party

Today has been a much needed "slug day," which is what I call a day where I stay home and read, watch TV, go on the computer, and stay in sweats or pajamas all day long. A day like today is not necessarily unproductive, though. I have discovered some of the most fascinating documentaries on slug days.

It is no secret that I have a love of words and culture and learning about interesting people and periods in history, but sometimes I'm a late-bloomer when it comes to certain things. I attribute it to the fact that when I'm learning about something or someone new (to me) I like to give that subject my full attention, so multi-tasking doesn't quite work.

This disclaimer is necessary because I will honestly say that when I read the recent obituaries covering Dominick Dunne's death I didn't really know who he was. I knew that he was a writer. I knew that he was the father of Griffin Dunne, the director, and of Dominique Dunne, the actress from Poltergiest who was murdered by her boyfriend back in the early 80's.

But I have also found that sometimes the exact time I learn about people or events is an anomaly in itself. Last night during the party I had at my house the subject of Vanity Fair worked its way into the conversation. I did the head nod thing that we all have to do once in a while--I've never read Vanity Fair in my life. To me it's just been another thick, overpriced magazine that I pass on the way to the checkout at the market. Did I know that Dominick Dunne was the star true-life crime writer for the magazine? Not until today.

So today, while enjoying my well-earned slug day, I was browsing through new documentary releases available for instant viewing on Netflix. (It amazes me how much movies and TV have changed and how much my tastes have changed. 99.9% of TV these days is absolutely uninteresting to me.) While browsing I saw that there was a documentary about Dunne. Coincidence? Who know? But I thought, well, this is the time to learn about him.

I was riveted for an hour and half. Not only did he lead a fascinating life, but he was a fascinating person, who is not only the film's subject, but also the viewer's main tour guide on a retrospect of his life. And he does it all in a charming, yet self-effacing way that makes him very human and easy to relate to.

Like most interesting people, Dunne's life has been a mixture of privilege and tragedy. One of 6 children to a world-famous heart surgeon, he was also the unfavored son, beaten by his father with a riding crop until welts appeared on his legs. His need to find his niche in life led him to several different jobs until, at the dawn of the golden age of television, he was hired as a stage manager for an emerging network. As he worked his way up behind the camera, he became acquainted with some of Hollywood's most famous stars while they climbed to the top in the public eye: Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen, Jane Fonda and many others.

Yet, even as he married a beautiful ranching heiress and hosted the A-listers, he always felt like an outsider, and hardships continued to work their way into the family, including the young deaths of 2 daughters in their first days of life.

In his 80's at the time when he's narrating this documentary, Dunne describes and recognizes his earlier mistakes and choices that eventually led to his 1965 divorce and the ebb and flow of his career. He does it all with an appreciation for what he's had , what he's learned, and what he can pass on to others about his experiences. 26 years after the murder of daughter Dominique--who he absolutely adored--you can see that the wound is still very fresh, but he used that event as a way to educate others about the justice system in his own colorful way. Lucky for him, and lucky for his devoted readers, that the new editor of Vanity Fair met Dunne right before the trial of his daughter's killer and recommended that he keep a journal, also imploring him to contact her when it was all over. It set the wheels in motion for a new career that made his name synonymous with the magazine and with covering high-profile trials.

I remember reading in one of the obituaries that Dunne admitted that he always had a certain "prosecutorial" slant to his writing, but it stands to reason considering that his own daughter's killer was only given a 6 1/2 year sentence and served only 2 1/2 years of it. You can tell that he sees her face side-by-side every new victim. He offers his opinions about OJ Simpson, the Menendez brothers, Michael Skakel (the Kennedy cousin accused of murdering Martha Moxley in the early 70's,) and is shown attending every day of the first Phil Spector trial, which eventually ended in a mistrial due to a hung jury. The documentary is from 2008, but he obviously lived to see Spector prosecuted again and convicted.

Naturally, the defense attorneys hate him. That's Hate with a capital "H." Lesley Abramson***, the Menendez brothers' attorney talks about his twisting of facts, his unnamed sources, and does all but accuse him of influencing the outcome of the trials he attends. But he didn't write to impress the defense attorneys. In fact, it doesn't seem like he really wrote to impress anyone, but to simply tell it like he saw it, and hope that his readers saw it the same way.

A very, very interesting film.

***Sidenote: I had a brief encounter with Lesley Abramson a few years ago that I'll never forget. It was the year that I took off from teaching and working retail at Eddie Bauer. She came in and I recognized her. She's a lot shorter that you would think, but still has an intimidating presence.

As she came up to the register to pay for her items, I said, "You're Lesley Abramson, aren't you?" "Yes," she replied curtly. "Really?" I said back. And, in true, lawyer fashion she said, "Would you like to see my driver's license and I'll prove it to you?" My response, "No, no, that's OK."

We finished the transaction, exchange cool "thank you's," and she left, after which, one of the younger employees turned to me and asked, "Whose Lesley Abramson??"

That's what happens when you live in LA. Once in a while you have interesting run-ins with interesting well-known people.

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