A nightmare look at the 'dream factory'

September 15, 1994|By Owen McNally | Owen McNally,Hartford Courant

Blue Tyler, America's sweetheart superstar cinemoppet of the 1930s, has vanished from the face of the earth for four decades in John Gregory Dunne's "Playland," a ribald, rip-roaring satirical novel about Hollywood.

Blue's career was destroyed by the red-baiting rage that ravaged Hollywood after World War II, and her vestal-virgin image was forever stained by her star-crossed romance with notorious mobster Jacob King. He was gunned down in 1948 in Playland, his Las Vegas gambling casino and resort.

Blue has aged into a blue-haired, trailer-park hag, a bag lady who scavenges through rat-infested Dumpsters.

Her Shirley Temple-like flicks were Tinseltown's No. 1 box-office draw in 1936-1938. But now the recluse earns the rent for her RV by using her ravaged voice to turn on pathetic male customers calling a phone sex-line number.

Jack Broderick, screenwriter and scion of the rich, powerful, Kennedy-like clan we first met in Mr. Dunne's "The Red, White and Blue," is researching a cop story for a screenplay when he runs into the now all-but-forgotten screen star. Actually, Jack was leaving a shabby, one-night stand in suburban Detroit when his cab accidentally ran over Blue's pet dog.

Jack becomes obsessed with his miraculous discovery, a foul-mouthed yet still charismatic crone who, as a nymphet, slept with innumerable rich and famous men. Her trysts probably included Jack's father, Hugh, a Joseph Kennedy-like billionaire, close pal and sage adviser to presidents.

Mr. Dunne, who has worked as a screenwriter ("A Star Is Born" and "True Confessions"), has a superb ear for dialogue, especially gritty, gutter vernacular and gangster talk.

He is familiar with the nightmarish underside of Hollywood, America's dream factory. No skeleton in any closet can long be safe when Mr. Dunne, or his equally savvy brother, the noted social scourge and literate gossip Dominick Dunne, is on the scene.

John Gregory Dunne has written an entertaining roman a clef. But he plays off the real with surreal fervor, savaging Hollywood in hilarious scenarios of cinematic crispness.

What makes "Playland" such good reading is the menagerie of characters Jack encounters during his fitful search for truth.

At the center is Blue, our tragic anti-hero, a classic study in fleeting fame and fabricated celebrity.

Blue is surrounded by oddball moguls and mobsters you won't soon forget. Best of all is her mobster lover Jacob King, a vain, cold-blooded murderer, Olympian sex athlete and low-life arriviste.

King attempts to enthrone himself as Hollywood royalty by erecting his own palace, his Playland, a gambling pleasure dome and huge hotel in the Las Vegas desert. Bugsy Siegel is the inspiration for this mad Caesar crying out in the desert wilderness. But it's Mr. Dunne's fervid imagination that really makes this blood-stained king of shreds and patches come to life.

Mr. Dunne also soars way over the top with his creation of Chuckie O'Hara, a feisty bantam cock hybrid of George Cukor and Truman Capote. Chuckie is a gay, one-legged war hero, an ex-Marine and combative, gossipy-yet-brilliant movie director gifted at working with female stars.

Chuckie takes no guff. When being harassed by a witch-hunting congressional committee, he snaps off his wooden leg and batters it on a table in protest against the injustice, asininity and windbaggery of his congressional tormentors.

Be warned: "Playland" is stocked with violence and copious sex without love.

But thanks to Mr. Dunne's sardonic wit and pyrotechnical verbal skills, the literary accommodations at "Playland" are first-rate and most entertaining.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Playland"

Author: John Gregory Dunne

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 496 pages, $25

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