In a strange land, Dunne's no stranger

September 15, 1994|By Bernard Weinraub | Bernard Weinraub,New York Times News Service

John Gregory Dunne was upset.

The novelist and screenwriter, who lived in Los Angeles and worked in the movie business for 24 years, could not get a lunch reservation the other day at one of his favorite restaurants, the Ivy.

So he called his agent, Jeff Berg, the chairman of International Creative Management, a top talent agency here. Mr. Dunne promptly got the best table in the house.

"Hollywood!" he laughed after recounting the story.

Hollywood is, in fact, Mr. Dunne's theme in his wickedly funny and sad novel, "Playland," published recently by Random House. It is his 10th book and fifth novel, after such books as "True Confessions," and "Dutch Shea Jr.," and the memoir "Harp," as well as a number of screenplays written with his wife, Joan Didion.

"Playland" focuses on the heyday of Hollywood, from the 1930s to the 1950s. It was a lavish and treacherous world of spoiled stars, thugs, hacks, malevolent studio bosses and producers and agents whose lives are almost entirely consumed with control and manipulation.

Those were the bad old days, Mr. Dunne said.

"At birthday parties for kids, they had elephants and clowns," he said. "On Halloween, they would ride up and down in limousines on the streets of Beverly Hills, and the chauffeur would stop and go out and get the candy. The most amazing things."

A bear of a man, friendly, funny and a bit disheveled, Mr. Dunne, 61, was wearing a loose khaki shirt open at the neck, cotton trousers and Topsiders.

He shrugged off a question about the mixed reviews given to "Playland." "I once figured out Joan and I have been reviewed 4,000 times between our movies and books," he said. "Reviews don't bother me."

His research for "Playland" centered on conversations with friends who were often the sons and daughters of the Hollywood elite 50 years ago.

These friends included Johanna Mankiewicz Davis, who died in 1974; Brooke Hayward; Barbara Warner; George Stevens Jr.; Daniel Selznick, and Jean Stein. Natalie Wood was a friend, and he spent time over the years talking to Billy Wilder and Irving Lazar, the agent.

Mr. Dunne also studied photography memoirs, including Jean Howard's classic "Hollywood," as well as the private photo albums of Miss Warner and others.

Writing "Playland" was delayed a year because of serious health problems -- emergency heart surgery in March 1991, followed that summer by a life-threatening blood infection caused by a mosquito bite. "My daughter was in a play off-Broadway," he said. "I mean it was so off-Broadway, it was in Philadelphia. It was a hot, un-air-conditioned theater, and I got bitten in the ankle." (Mr. Dunne's daughter, Quintana Roo, 28, is now a photography editor at Elle magazine.)

Exhaustion and depression took their toll after that. But then, structural problems of "Playland," which had beset him before his illness, were suddenly resolved one day. Mr. Dunne said he realized that each of the main characters viewed the events in the plot with totally different perspectives -- and the book was written to reflect these blurred points of view.

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