The observer becomes the observed, and is a joy to behold, in “Dominick Dunne: After the Party,” a straightforward but gripping docu about the titular writer. Allowing Dunne to narrate his own story, pic draws an arc from the one-time tube exec’s childhood to his prominence as a reporter of star trials. Limited theatrical release in Oz, where docu was originally funded (and titled “Celebrity: Dominick Dunne”), successfully attracted niche auds. Pic unspooled at Hamptons fest to much acclaim and should intrigue other fests looking for sophisticated fare with a whiff of tabloid glamour. Pubcasters will snap up the 52-minute tube version.
While few would watch this splendid piece without prior knowledge of its subject, pic is structured to hook the uninitiated as well as established admirers. Docu begins with Dunne holding forth at a New York speaking engagement about the time Frank Sinatra arranged for the maitre d’ of Beverly Hills nightclub the Daisy to thump Dunne in the face. Succinctly, the anecdote informs of this bespectacled, 82-year-old powerhouse’s glamorous associations and the fact that they’ve bruised him, both physically and metaphorically.
The punchline, that Dunne has never been able to maintain admiration for Ol’ Blue Eyes’ voice since, simultaneously illustrates both Dunne’s grudging tenacity and his aptitude for self-deprecating reflection. Post-opening credits, Dunne is at a media stakeout of Paris Hilton, magnetically drawing a crowd of admirers from the reporting ensemble. By the first reel’s end, even the most completely indifferent observer will be riveted.
Friends like novelist Joan Didion, playwright Mart Crowley (“The Boys in The Band”) and actor-producer offspring Griffin Dunne are prodded for intimate insights, but mostly it’s Dunne himself who revealingly peels the layers off his personality and several careers. With razor-sharp wit, sartorial elegance, cool demeanor and an armory of stories that would give Scheherazade a run for her money, Dunne takes filmmakers Kirsty de Garis and Timothy Jolley in hand and gives auds a gratifying performance that brims with integrity, intelligence, restrained indignation and flawless showmanship.
Helmers follow Dunne from his regular haunt, Los Angeles’ Chateau Marmont, where he keeps tabs on Phil Spector’s trial, to his grand country home in Connecticut and his rooftop bungalow in Manhattan, as he dispenses anecdotes along the way. Name-dropping is backed up by thorough archival accoutrements that smartly enhance the viewing experience. Interviews with detractors fail to score significant points and will merely consolidate auds’ admiration.
While Dunne is unsparing in his detail about the failure of his marriage and the deaths of his daughter (“Poltergeist” actress Dominique Dunne) and his ex-wife, he adroitly skips over details of his own long, dark night of the soul. At 50, Dunne lost his Mercedes, his marriage and his Hollywood career, then suddenly holed up in the Oregon woods, digging to find the writer within, with nature as his witness.
Details of what happened are thin, indicating Dunne only reveals what he wishes to reveal. What the raconteur does reveal, however, is plentiful, juicily personal and honest and fresh to boot.
Viewed on the bigscreen, lensing mostly looks murky, but pic uses its disadvantages to favorably resemble the worst of tabloid television. Camera occasionally jerks erratically and, despite some eloquent framing, helming overall feels rough, though none of this detracts from the pic’s enthralling subject.
Judiciously, de Garis and Jolley ensure that auds’ view of Dunne feels unfiltered. A sequence cross-cutting between mutual recollections of Dunne’s first meeting with Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown is the most transparent example of pic’s considerable debt to its talented editor, Suresh Ayyar. Superb, jazzy soundtrack by Antony Partos adds finesse.