Griffin Dunne’s Tract Is a Cautionary Movie

About halfway through lunch with Griffin Dunne at Da Silvano, Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter rose from his chair at the adjacent table, where he was sitting with his children, and fixed the actor-director with a stare. “That dog’s illegal, by the way,” Mr. Carter said, referring to the border terrier that had been sitting at Mr. Dunne’s feet in silent violation of the city’s health code.

“He’s not mine,” Mr. Dunne, 46, replied to the man who employs his father, author Dominick Dunne. “His name’s Gort”–just like the robot’s name in The Day the Earth Stood Still .

” That makes sense,” Mr. Carter said in a skeptical voice. And as his brood checked out Gort–canine co-star of the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary –Condé Nast’s editorial arbiter of all things famous scrutinized Mr. Dunne’s improvised dog carrier, a Kenneth Cole bag that was apparently given as a freebie at one of the designer’s women’s shows.

“It’s not a great look,” Mr. Dunne said.

A few minutes later, the check paid, Vanity Fair ‘s editor started for the door, then stopped and turned once more to face Mr. Dunne.

” Lisa Picard ‘s a fabulous movie,” Mr. Carter said.

“Oh, thank you!” Mr. Dunne replied.

It was exactly the kind of jaunty banter that two people comfortable with their status and fame engage in in public spaces; one of those encounters that makes the notion of being a celebrity in New York look appealing.

But those who check out Mr. Dunne’s latest directorial effort, Lisa Picard Is Famous , when it opens at the Film Forum on Aug. 22 will come away with a much more sober view of the pursuit of fame.

A dark comedy filmed digitally in mock-documentary style, Lisa Picard Is Famous tracks two struggling actor friends, Lisa Picard and Tate Kelley–played by the two struggling actor friends who wrote the screenplay, Laura Kirk and Nat DeWolf–as they desperately try to get a foothold in their profession while a documentary maker (Mr. Dunne), who is betting that fame will smile on Lisa, tracks their lives.

But Lisa Picard is not so much about the attainment of fame as it is about its elusiveness. The characters in Lisa Picard have not yet managed to tether themselves to any kind of status or celebrity, and the world treats them accordingly. All of Lisa’s eggs are in a pitifully small basket: There are already a whole host of established actresses who look like her–Elizabeth Perkins, Penelope Ann Miller and Mary-Louise Parker, to name a few–and after damaging her commercial viability with a racy, downmarket Wheat Chex ad, she’s competing with a beautiful model for an Advil commercial. She’s also waiting for the broadcast of her “brief but crucial scene” in A Phone Call for Help , a television movie starring Melissa Gilbert. (Guess who places the phone call.)

Meanwhile, Tate is chewing the scenery as an extra on The Guiding Light and readying a one-man show, Hate Crimes and Broken Hearts , which is ostensibly about homophobia and gay-bashing, but is really about the closeted up-and-coming TV star who recently broke up with him. Though Lisa and Tate are likable, it’s pretty clear that they’re not star material, and even though one of them does get a day in the sun, it just marks the beginning of a new kind of humiliation, which involves Charlie Sheen.

Lisa Picard Is Famous is a slapdash but bracing antidote to the kind of celebrity brokered by Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and Survivor –shows that have done for fame what tech stocks did for the S.&P. 500. Lisa Picard reminds us that fame is not easy; it’s difficult and cruel. Mr. Dunne even inserts some tragicomic vignettes told by real people that elucidate the lures and snares of fame.

In one, an elderly actor named George Hall talks about how he got a second job as a private secretary to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. “I used to carry Mortimer Snerd and Charlie McCarthy around in two suitcases,” Mr. Hall tells the camera. Later in the film, he recalls: “I cried when [Bergen] fired me …. I was really hurt, because it was important to be with a celebrity like that. Because I was absolutely, totally nobody.”

Near the end of the picture, Carrie Fisher, who has been a friend of Mr. Dunne’s since childhood and lived with him briefly in Manhattan around the time of her Star Wars fame, delivers an observation about her fame and that of her parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. “When I grew up and I became an adolescent, I watched my parents’ celebrity go on the downswing, so I knew going into celebrity that there was a limit to it,” she said. “So when I got famous, I instantly got depressed, because I knew that I was going to end up being not famous.”

“It really turned into much more of a cautionary tale than I had planned on,” Mr. Dunne said with a smile as he perused the menu at Da Silvano. His dark, floppy hair framed intense but cautious eyes, and he was wearing a T-shirt that said “Tater Red’s Lucky Mojo’s & Voodoo Healings.”

“At some point in our lives, there’s been a variation of somebody looking in the mirror and accepting the Academy Award and thanking their mother,” Mr. Dunne said, but he added that he wants Lisa Picard to make us “question our motives” for recognition: “Do we want to be famous for our work, or do we want to be famous for the point of being famous?” And “once you’re there, what is it you’re going to be famous for doing? For being a guy on Survivor ?”

Mr. Dunne recalled seeing a recent photograph from an event celebrating American heroes. “There was a picture of this guy Richard Hatch, the survivor of Survivor , talking with a survivor from the U.S.S. Indianapolis and talking like they had something in common.” He drew his head back and shot an incredulous look. “There was a man who fended off sharks and saved as many lives as he could for three nights, talking with …. ” And then he described the CBS series.

Asked whether he ever gives much thought to maintaining his own fame, Mr. Dunne hesitated a moment. “I, I, don’t, um … No, I don’t,” he said finally. “But I don’t really think of myself as terribly famous.” Perhaps sensing that modesty does not make good copy, he then recalled working with someone terribly famous: Madonna. He recalled shooting scenes with the performance artist for Who’s That Girl? (although he never actually mentioned the movie’s title) that took place outside the Plaza Hotel on the day of the New York marathon. “We’re right near the finish line, and as we’re shooting, people would get off their route–they have just run 26 miles, they have another 400 yards to go–and they would stop to watch the shooting, drenched in sweat.” At this point, Mr. Dunne started panting like an overheated runner. “And I’m like, ‘That’s the [finish line]. You can go there and come back, you know!’”

Mr. Dunne shot his incredulous look again. ” That’s famous,” he said.

His own level of fame is a lot more manageable than Madonna’s. Indeed, if fame has a sweet spot, Mr. Dunne’s persona exists within its perimeters, along with the likes of Dave Eggers, Edie Falco and Lucinda Williams. These actors, writers and performers have achieved a kind of boutique celebrity. Their names and, in most cases, their faces are recognizable, but their celebrity stems mostly from their work, which usually appeals to niche audiences, and not some rarefied star quality that makes audiences go slightly wacky no matter how mediocre the art is (see Madonna’s Drowned World Tour). Boutique celebrities such as Mr. Dunne tend to be able to partake of the rewards of fame–the recognition, the prime restaurant tables, the ripped-up speeding tickets–without too much of the downside–the earpiece-wearing bodyguards in the bathroom, the omnipresent paparazzi, fans breaking into the country house.

Mr. Dunne’s exposure to fame came at an early age. He was born in New York in 1955, but when his father was hired to be the assistant to Martin Manulis, the producer of CBS’ Playhouse 90 , the Dunne family moved west, first to Santa Monica and later to Beverly Hills. Debbie Reynolds and her daughter lived a few blocks away. Jack and Mary Benny’s daughter Joan lived across the street, and the Dunne children’s nanny came from the Ronald Reagans. One year, young Griffin celebrated his birthday with a party at La Scala.

Recalling that time in his memoir, The Way We Lived Then , Dominick Dunne wrote: “Trying now to re-create my frame of mind then, I am aghast. It was as if I was trying to turn us into the Gerald and Sara Murphy of Beverly Hills–adopting their creed of ‘Living well is the best revenge’–with the house on Walden Drive becoming the Villa America. Come to lunch, come to dinner, all you famous and beautiful people, and we will entertain you. They came. We entertained.”

As a child of 60′s and 70′s Hollywood (a period that claimed his parents’ marriage), Griffin Dunne remembered fame as a “kind of jittery thing around the house. I think it was a little too revered,” he said. “There was a lot of serious partying, but it mostly went on in the middle of the night,” past his bedtime. “So we didn’t really sit on William Wellman’s lap,” Mr. Dunne said with a smile. “But I knew somewhere that these were important people who were coming over for dinner. And,” he added, “it made everybody tense and crazy. It didn’t look like fun to me. Once everyone was getting shitfaced, then they looked like they were having fun.”

“Depressed famous people, I think his family specialized in. I mean, Play It As It Lays , we have yet to see the musical,” Ms. Fisher told The Observer. “Anyway, [Griffin] has a really good sense of humor, but that comes from having a lot of alcoholism and mental illness in his family. And a lot of talent. So whatever Griffin knows, he knows. And I think, like me, he was always embarrassed by what I would call display. But that’s having been around people that were successful at it.” Then she added: “I think Griffin and I were always cringing off to one side of whatever was going on in our families–mine more so than his.”

As for her own perspective on fame, Ms. Fisher was reluctant to generalize. “I think it’s different for everybody,” she said. “I think it’s probably fun for some people. I don’t know them, but hey–I thought it was fun for Ben Affleck a little while ago.” (Later, Ms. Fisher stressed that she was joking when she said this.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Dunne grew up with “an anti-movie-business feeling. You know, I’d read my Catcher in the Rye and I thought they were all a bunch of phonies. But then I ended up in New York and couldn’t get enough of it.”

In 1975, Mr. Dunne appeared in the film The Other Side of the Mountain and then, when the phones weren’t ringing, took a shot at producing a film, 1979′s Chilly Scenes of Winter . “I found it easier to produce a movie for a studio and give myself a part that got me work than I did actually going into a room and auditioning for a small part,” he said. He remembered flying to Los Angeles with his partners to meet with the studio and being treated to swanky hotel rooms at the Beverly Wilshire and per diems (“the only Latin I knew”). In 1981, Mr. Dunne got his big break playing the decaying, undead sidekick to his lycanthropically cursed buddy David Kessler in An American Werewolf in London . Four years later, he produced and starred as the hapless yuppie trapped in scary, pre-shopping-mall Soho in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours .

Mr. Dunne came of age as a New York actor in a grittier, less polished time in the city’s history: a time when fame was considered a pernicious disease and not just an unavoidable symptom. “Actors–at least the ones I worked with when I moved to New York–really just wanted to work,” he said. “Al Pacino was a young actor [and] movie star, and De Niro. And these were gods to us, of course. It was a very uncool thing to want to be famous. It was really incredibly tacky.”

If Mr. Dunne was able to bring perspective to Lisa Picard , the film’s screenwriters and stars, Ms. Kirk and Mr. DeWolf, brought the pain. “I don’t think we can even pretend to know what it’s like to be famous,” Mr. DeWolf said. “It’s just people ready to be famous without even considering what the consequences would be.” Ms. Kirk said the “original, inciting incident” for Lisa Picard came when she needed to put a demo reel together for her first trip to Los Angeles. “All I had was a Dr. Pepper commercial and the dramatic reenactment, which you actually see in the film, and then some inexplicable Japanese thing where I played an android.” A friend of hers in L.A. told Ms. Kirk, “You can’t show this to anyone.”

“So, for me,” she said, “a huge bubble had been burst.”

Mr. DeWolf, meanwhile, was experiencing his own depression. “I had just gotten out of graduate school for acting and had sort of found myself waiting on tables.” One of them, he said, was a “kind of the male version of Hooters, where I got in trouble if I didn’t wear tight clothes to work.”

In the late 90′s, the two regularly met at the K-Cafe at Kmart to write their script. Then, by chance, Ms. Kirk ran into the actress Mira Sorvino, with whom she and Mr. DeWolf had also taken acting classes. Ms. Sorvino encouraged the duo to expand the script into a full-length feature. In 1998, Ms. Sorvino brought the finished screenplay to her agents. Attached was a succinct contract: “This movie will never be done unless it stars Laura Kirk as Lisa and Nat DeWolf as Tate,” Ms. Kirk recalled. Ms. Sorvino and her independent producer, Dolly Hall, agreed to produce it. Mr. Dunne got the directing gig.

In 2000, the finished film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. On August 15 Lisa Picard Is Famous will premiere at the Chelsea West theater, with a party to follow at Lotus. But life in between hasn’t been dramatically different. Mr. DeWolf said that, over the last year, he’s only landed one commercial, for Coinstar, that machine at supermarkets that exchanges loose change for cash. And Ms. Kirk said she’s spent the last year “going through a hundred auditions. And I only booked one job. I’m the flower seller in The Time Machine with Guy Pearce.” That meant, Ms. Kirk said, she had gone from writing a film and taking it to Cannes to “Have some flowers, sir?”

At Cannes Mr. DeWolf recalled “We were doing a lot of press, and people were telling us: ‘Oh, your life is going to change.’” But, Mr. DeWolf added, “it really hasn’t.”