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Dominick Dunne: After the Party
Dominick Dunne's writing for Vanity Fair - as well as his fiction - is concerned with inequities in the justice system, and the corrosive effect that wealth has upon the concept of a fair trial. What makes Dunne unique is that he comes from the privileged world he writes about.
Dominick Dunne: After the Party tells his story, mostly in his own words, although it is peppered by interviews with his friends, colleagues, rivals, and son. Archival footage provides context for different periods of Dunne's life - his beginnings as a television producer, his rise in Hollywood as host of star-studded parties, the dark period during the mid-1970s following his divorce and retreat from Hollywood, the murder of his daughter, and the beginning of his career as a writer in the early 1980s.
The son of a famous heart surgeon, Dunne grew up in an exclusive Connecticut neighborhood, returned from WWII a decorated hero, and moved to Hollywood, where he immediately fell in with the crème de la crème of late-Golden Age film stars and writers. He led the life that hack writers and starlets everywhere only dream about. But when his marriage fell apart in the 1970s, and he struck out on his own as a writer after a period of alcohol and drug abuse, Dunne hit rock-bottom. When he bounced back, he was a changed man.
His daughter Dominique's sudden, brutal murder in 1982 - along with the devastatingly brief sentence received by her killer - completed Dunne's transformation from high-flying socialite to dedicated journalist. Infuriated by the trial, he wrote a scathing, heart-wrenching piece for Vanity Fair that cemented his reputation as a writer. Since then, he has let his poison-tipped pen fly, revealing the rancid place where wealth and privilege meet the American criminal justice system.
Dunne was a difficult, austere father and husband, as his son Griffin attests, but his blunt assessment of himself as a former "asshole" would suggest a newfound self-awareness. At 83, Dunne is as plainspoken about the corruption of the rich and powerful as he is about his own faults. At one point, he says of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., (apropos of the feud sparked when he fictionalized the Martha Moxley murder in A Season in Purgatory), "He's a man for whom I have no respect."
Amid much nervous talk of the "role" or "significance" of bias in reporting, I feel more comfortable knowing where a writer stands. Nevertheless, Dunne has been as polarizing as he is popular during his career at Vanity Fair - often accused of presenting rumor and gossip as fact. Dunne is less interested in hard fact than he is in the way people talk about things - to call him the Herodotus of Tinseltown would be pushing it, but the approach is similar. People's opinions and perceptions of a murder or corruption charge, whispers about prosecutors and wealthy in-laws, reveal things about society that a courtroom verdict cannot.
Dunne himself acknowledges that he is not in the top tier of American letters. He has plenty of critics - many of them rich and well-connected (to wit, the Kennedys) - and he has occasionally stumbled as a journalist. One mini-scandal, recounted in the film, came after Chandra Levy's disappearance in 2001. Dunne repeated a story he'd been told about Congressmen Gary Condit, with whom Levy had been having an affair, arranging for a group of Dubai-based pimps to kidnap Levy and dump her body in the ocean. Dunne ended up in a lot of trouble, ultimately forced to admit it was nonsense. Condit sued. In the documentary, Dunne readily accedes he made a fool of himself.
The film is relatively one-sided, and allows Dunne to tell his story unfettered by opposing versions of events - save a few words from the always amusing Robert Evans, who amiably suggests that certain things may have happened differently. Still, he doesn't seem to hold a grudge and speaks of Dunne in generally warm tones. The documentary (by Australians Kirsty de Garis and Timothy Jolley) is a bracing, involving show that follows Dunne as he covers the first Phil Spector murder trial for Vanity Fair. Dunne's outrage upon the declaration of a mistrial borders on incoherence. But this emotional response is Dunne's strength. Outrage has perhaps too marginal a place in our media - righteous outrage that grows not from religious or political fervor, but from a sense of civic duty and justice. Dunne's ability to prodigiously ventilate this feeling, and turn it into witty, lucid prose is what lends originality to his voice.
Mercury Media's enhanced 1.78:1 image is good, and retains the look of the documentary's DV source. The image is bright, with the white-yellow California sunshine captured naturalistically in several sequences. There is some edge enhancement, and minor other artifacts, but nothing worth complaining about.
The 2.0 stereo track is fine, with a low-key jazzy music score by Anthony Partos coming through nicely. There is a problem with some of the interview audio, as if perhaps Dunne's mouth was too close to the microphone - low buzzing inference can be heard. This was wisely retained, however, as Dunne's raconteurship more than makes up for this kind of technical flaw.
The Extra Features
There is about 45 minutes of interviews with co-directors de Garis and Jolley. They come across as affable people who enjoyed working with Dunne and making the film. I wouldn't say their comments are fascinating, but they are informative, especially for students of the documentary form. A trailer is also included.
Dominick Dunne's colorful, tragic, and accomplished life makes an excellent documentary subject. The man is full of fantastic stories of old Hollywood, and his jaundiced view of our criminal justice system is oddly refreshing. Dominick Dunne: After the Party is easily recommended.