This backstage memoir is part scrapbook of the people Dunne photographed during his time in Hollywood, a frustrating memoir of his encounters with them, and an account of his rise in the industry, his expulsion and the beginnings of his return as an investigative reporter and novelist.
Fortunately for us, Dunne took a camera with him wherever he went and captured the stars and players in the movie industry at their ease. There’s Natalie Wood (a Dunne favorite) checking her makeup , MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, arms outstretched at a dinner party, a beautifully young Roddy McDowall with his camera, Warren Beatty playing the piano. Photos of a radiant Tuesday Weld dancing with Truman Capote attests to the existence of glamor. There’s even an extraordinary encounter one evening with then-couple Elizabeth Montgomery and Gig Young and George Hamilton Jr. that ends with the playboy in tears (for reasons Dunne no longer remembers).
Seeing the stars out of their element can spark intriguing questions in the head of the reader. On a two-page spread, Dunne lays out photos from one of McDowall’s Sunday lunches. On the surface, the setup looks no different from anyone else’s BBQ: hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, Coppertone lotion, children running around. Except that’s a shirtless Paul Newman dabbing mustard on his frankfurter, Jane Fonda in a bikini curled up in a rattan chair, and Anthony Perkins cradling the remains of his lunch on a paper plate, gazing benignly at the camera. The banality of this mundane scene (with its no doubt mundane chat) collides with our knowledge of these faces, creating a frisson that’s intoxicating.
The photos tell us a lot more about the people than Dunne did. He was a frustrating storyteller, furiously dropping names and tags of description until you want to pat him on the shoulder and tell him to relax, he got the job. He seemed to have a magpie mind which made connections among the people he knew, so that the stories he told were interesting, not for their content, but for who was involved and whether or not they were famous.
A typical paragraph:
“Christmas Eve after Christmas Eve, we spent with the children at the Bel Air home of Martin and Katie Manulis, singing carols. Frances Bergen, the widow of Edgar, came with her daughter Candy, who wasn’t yet famous, and Candy’s younger brother, as did Jennifer Jones, who came with her daughter, Mary Jennifer. Each year, Charlton Heston read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to the children.” The brown-nosing is so over the top it becomes a terrible, boring art all its own: “Sharman Douglas, who became famous when she danced the can can with Princess Margaret, was a Sunday regular at Roddy’s lunch parties.”
As the book nears the end, Dunne turns to the facts surrounding his disgrace, which seems to have been caused by a combination of Dunne’s toxic character, accentuated by alcohol and speeded up by professional failure. Hollywood will tolerate a number of sins so long as you’re successful, and when Dunne no longer wielded power as a producer, he was thrown out of the kingdom and divorced by his wife. There followed a period of self-loathing and self-flagellation that must have been painful for him to recall, followed by the typical Hollywood ending, rising from the ashes and rebuilding his life.
“The Way We Lived Then” is a frustrating book, and it’s difficult to tell what you can take away from it beyond Dunne’s tale of downfall and redemption. The photos show the stars with little context, and the text, when Dunne turns the spotlight away from himself, gives up little on the surface, until you understand that you didn’t enter a Hollywood-centric world, but a Dunne-centric world, and that’s why the air chills your skin and the hairs rise on the back of your neck. You’re reading the story of a man who had ambition, but not much else.
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