Sunday, April 4, 2021

L. A. Noir

Joan Didion (1934–2021)
From Joan Didion: The 1980s & 90s

Promotional poster for The Cotton Club, 1984, featuring artwork by Michael Marcus and Jim Pearsall, designed by Ron Brant.
In the early 1970s Dominick Dunne produced two movies written by his brother John Gregory Dunne and sister-in-law Joan Didion: The Panic in Needle Park (1971), which featured Al Pacino in his first starring role, with Raul Julia in his film debut, and Play It as It Lays (1972), adapted from Didion’s second novel, which earned Tuesday Weld a Golden Globe nomination for best actress. Dunne’s next feature film, made without his brother’s or Didion’s involvement, would end his career as a movie producer.

Ash Wednesday (1973) is one of those films with a reputation that survives in no small part through the stories surrounding its creation. As Dunne recounted in his 1999 memoir The Way We Lived Then, the movie was grotesquely over budget, it was behind schedule, and the star, Elizabeth Taylor, was chronically late to the set, leaving more than a hundred extras and crew members waiting around and her costar Henry Fonda “fuming on the sidelines.” Taylor’s husband was on the set as well, and Dunne remembered how he “watched with utter fascination the deterioration of the famous marriage of Elizabeth and Richard Burton, as my own life was unraveling at the same time.”

The screenplay for the film was by Jean-Claude Tramont, who was the fiancĂ© of the agent Sue Mengers (“the most powerful woman in Hollywood at the time”), who was a close friend of Robert Evans, the chief executive of Paramount, which was financing the movie. Two years later Mengers would play a pivotal role in bringing the script for “Rainbow Road” by Didion and John Gregory Dunne to the attention of her client Barbra Streisand; it would eventually be released as A Star Is Born. In a made-for-Hollywood coincidence, when Dominick Dunne finally met Tramont at a meeting in Paris, on his way to Italy to shoot Ash Wednesday, he was stunned to discover that years earlier he had known the screenwriter as a young NBC Studios page named Jack Schwartz from the Bronx—but that’s another story. “What I learned from this episode of my life,” Dunne wrote, “is that it’s not a good thing to know other people’s family secrets.” Their previous acquaintance got the two men off to a bad start, because Dunne assumed Tramont/Schwartz was a chameleon who had exploited his romance with Mengers to place his script. Things got worse when Tramont had to leave the set after Taylor learned that the screenwriter was mocking her taste in clothing behind her back.

The end of Dunne’s Hollywood career occurred at a party following a screening of the movie back in Los Angeles. “I told a terribly cruel joke when I was drunk about Sue Mengers and Jean-Claude Tramont,” he admitted. To his utter mortification, the joke was printed verbatim in The Hollywood Reporter on the eve of the movie’s premiere. Dunne immediately received a phone call from a furious Robert Evans. “I can still recall the conversation almost word for word twenty years later,” he wrote in his memoir. “The underlying theme of the call was ‘You’ll never work in this town again.’” And he didn’t—as a movie producer, anyway.

Sixteen years later, after Dunne had recreated himself as a best-selling novelist and a crime reporter for Vanity Fair, he was in a Los Angeles courtroom covering the preliminary hearing for a Hollywood murder case. “Life has so many twists and turns, and people turn up whom you thought you’d never see again. . . . I watched Robert Evans, standing by his friend and lawyer Robert Shapiro—who himself later became famous at the O. J. Simpson trial—take the Fifth Amendment over and over during the trial of the hired killers who murdered show business entrepreneur Roy Radin, his former partner on the film The Cotton Club.”

Like many insiders in Hollywood’s cutthroat film industry, Dunne must have seen the trial as a comeuppance of sorts; he would never again mention Evans in print without bringing up the murder. “When I appeared in court, there wasn’t an empty seat,” Evans wrote in his autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture. “All the vultures were there: the producers and would-be producers of miniseries and TV shows; the book writers looking for an angle; the newspaper reporters and magazine writers of the world press.” He added pointedly, “Only after the verdicts were in did Vanity Fair publish an article stating that Roy Radin’s murder had nothing to do with The Cotton Club.”

Evans was not the only person Dunne knew at the preliminary hearing; also in attendance was his sister-in-law Joan Didion. She had an entirely different take on the proceeding: in her view, Evans shouldn’t have been there at all. She argued that the famous producer had been shoehorned into a narrative created by prosecutors looking for a story to capture the attention of the public, the media, and Hollywood itself. Despite her brother-in-law’s insinuation, Radin and Evans were never partners on the film The Cotton Club—or on anything else. The following year, in her skeptical and (at the time) contrarian report of the Central Park Five trial, in which five innocent teenagers were convicted of rape, she wrote that “crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept.” In the Cotton Club murder trial, as it became known in the press, Evans himself was the “story” that made it “news”; without his name, the case was just another murder trial.

Didion published her dissection of the court case as one of her “Letters from Los Angeles” in The New Yorker. When she included it in her collection 1992 essay collection, After Henry, she changed the title to “L.A. Noir,” and that is the version we present as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: Tiny Tim, a musician, is most often remembered for his comic falsetto-and-ukulele rendition of “Tiptoe through the Tulips,” and Frank Fontaine, a comedian, for his guest appearances on television variety shows in the 1950s and 1960s. In the McMartin child-abuse case, Virginia McMartin, founder of a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, was arrested in 1984 with six others and charged with child sexual abuse. There were two trials in their case, among the longest and most expensive in U.S. history, involving hundreds of children and allegations of satanic ritualism; the second came to an end in July 1990, and all charges were dropped. William Morris was a Hollywood talent agency. Colombian cocaine smuggler Carlos Lehder, a cofounder of the MedellĂ­n cartel, was extradited to the United States in 1987 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

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Around Division 47, Los Angeles Municipal Court, the downtown courtroom where, for eleven weeks during the spring and summer of 1989, a preliminary hearing was held to determine if the charges brought in the 1983 murder of a thirty-three-year-old road-show promoter named Roy Alexander Radin should be dismissed or if the defendants should be bound over to superior court for arraignment and trial, it was said that there were, “in the works,” five movies, four books, and “countless” pieces about the case . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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