Dominick Dunne is not everyone’s idea of a great writer—much less a reliable journalist—but he’s terrific company, and he sure does have a story to tell. The new 85-minute documentary After the Party leaves out vast chewy chunks of that story, and the lacunae really show—but no matter. This is an improbably riveting, improbably touching movie, and even if you’ve never read the compulsively readable Dunne—or, alternatively, never read him without a giant dollop of skepticism—you will come away cherishing him.
Who else has lived the life he’s lived? Who else could be so charmingly frank in the telling of it? Shambling along in oversized suits, his eyes penetrating behind owlish specs, Dunne is now 82. But his own foibles still stagger him, quite endearingly, just as they stagger the illustrious friends who are here gathered to dissect him: his sister-in-law, Joan Didion, who generously compares him to Trollope(!); his editor at Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, visibly straining for diplomacy; the producer Robert Evans, luxuriating in the hit-man timbre of his voice; The Daily Beast’s editor-in-chief, Tina Brown, who discovered Dunne and made him a fixture at Vanity Fair when she was its editor; and Dunne’s actor/writer/director son, Griffin, who is shockingly candid about how “flawed” his father was and whose accounts of his painfully artificial “royal family” pack a royal wallop. The specter of Dunne’s greatest tragedy—the 1982 murder of his daughter, Dominique, by a deranged boyfriend—lurks in the background, waiting for its entrance about two-thirds of the way through the story. It, too, delivers an appalling punch.
The movie’s writer-director-producers, Kirsty de Garis and Timothy Jolley, are fine, fluent storytellers, and they have dutifully structured their account around Dunne’s coverage, for Vanity Fair, of the Phil Spector murder trial. This is an intelligent way of going about things, yet, apart from Spector’s spectacular creepiness, it isn’t terribly revelatory. Dunne, though, always is. He has given his biographers gold: seemingly unfettered access to his lovingly tended scrapbooks and photos, and, above all, to his own boisterous and rueful recollections. He is a born raconteur and a hauntingly wounded soul, part vindictive attack dog and part pussy cat, clawing away tirelessly at old scars until they bleed anew for our delectation. Here is his childhood in a big family whose regal father derided him as a sissy; here are his war years, during which he became an unlikely hero; his marriage to Lenny, an heiress and a beauty whom he always deemed too good for him; his nearly inexplicable Hollywood rise, first as a TV stage manager and then as a movie producer, but mostly as a party host to the boldest of boldface names: Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Billy Wilder, David Niven, Rock Hudson—the list winds absurdly on and on.
And then the fall: a shattering divorce; the familiar downward spiral of drinking and drugs; a dropped remark at a party that, in time-honored Hollywood style, resulted in his never eating lunch in that town again. Dunne’s exile took him to the Oregon woods to rediscover a self he had failed to discover in the first place. Humbled and penniless, he began to write. And did he have stories to tell. The novels about the rich and famous would place him once again among them. The Vanity Fair articles in which he vengefully finds privileged murderers guilty until proven innocent (and innocent not even then) would maintain him in the spotlight he so adored.
And this is perhaps the movie’s greatest strength—its unvarnished portrayal of Dunne’s yearning for renown. That it stems from an engrained sense of unworthiness and shame is something that Dunne is winningly eager to acknowledge. But acknowledgment brings him no closer to relief. Like so many of the stars whose comradeship he always sought, and whose misdeeds he now so furiously condemns, Dunne harbors a hunger for recognition that can never be sated. What’s most remarkable about him, and about this film, is that he makes that naked quest for adulation so sympathetic.
For more information and to buy the DVD, see www.DominickDunne.net
J. J. Berzelius (1779-1848) was one of the fathers of modern chemistry, having worked out the technique of chemical formula notation. He was also the person who first identified silicon, selenium, thorium, and serium.