At a certain level of spiritual coarseness, the nobler aspirations of humanity are stripped of meaning, made ridiculous, and life becomes mere agitation, a wonderment over trifles: the deceits of glamour, the frenzy of renown, the opiate of dissipation. As with the pursuit of religious epiphanies, devotees must suspend disbelief and clutch at faint traces of the sublime, willing their bright moments into being. The real thing, come to Earth, is a marvel, perfect and transforming, and close approximations A sightings of the Virgin Mary in Hialeah, divine providences in the hinterlands of Georgia -- are better than nothing. The heart's true work, with either believers, the demented, or the pilgrims of decadence, is to deny what is: the ordinariness of existence.

The higher good of fabulousness coming to mind during a conversation with John Gregory Dunne, in town to promote his novel Playland, an entertaining frolic through the historical continuum of glitz and evil, centered around the golden age of Hollywood. A time when movie studios made icons from nothingness -- phantasmagorical creatures who were at once splendid as gods and familiar as neighbors -- and then, like the Catholic Church, zealously manipulated the workings of worship. Hopelessly flawed graven images, but unlike the current all-too-bounteous crop of tabloid beings, they at least acted like stars, dramatic enough to seize the delusions of the nation.

Dunne, whose screenwriting career has spanned Barbra Streisand's A Star Is Born to the forthcoming Up Close and Personal -- inspired by the story of newscaster Jessica Savitch -- isn't given to golden-days fervor: "Stars were more interesting when they pranced about with ocelots, but moral degeneracy is a human constant." The characters of Playland, throughout the ages, remains all too human, bound together by the protagonist's obsession with "cinemoppet" Blue Tyler, a child star of the Forties who winds up in a Detroit trailer park, a riches-to-rags story that includes an affair with a gangster (Bugsy Siegel), fights with moguls (from Harry Cohn to Louis B. Mayer), epicene directors (George Cukor, Irving Rapper, et al.), black-listing, vulgarians in Armani, and assorted degeneracy.

Dunne's conversation laden with a vast array of connections suitable for bicoastal romps. He is married to the very talented Joan Didion, his partner in screenwriting and the author of, among other works, Miami. Years ago we watched her float around a Coral Gables cocktail party, quiet and effective as a heat-seeking missile, deflecting her own journalistic credo about reporters always working against the best interests of their subjects. Dunne has been fighting with his brother, Dominick Dunne, objecting to Dominick's treatment in Vanity Fair of his close friend, Erik Menendez lawyer Leslie Abramson A Playland is dedicated to her. Both brothers will be covering the O.J. Simpson trial ("Someone is going to blink, and there'll be a plea bargain eventually") and both are united on the celebrity-dysfunction beat, a sustaining memory being our own encounter with Dominick Dunne in a Chateau Marmont suite last summer, surrounded by glimmering invitations -- from the Gregory Pecks to Ivana Trump -- and engulfed with the horror report of the Menendez proceedings.

For Playland Dunne drew on the memories of Hollywood royalty, the children of privilege -- Brooke Hayward, Jean Stein, Barbara Warner -- reared with epic indulgences: estates with golf courses; elephants brought in for birthday parties; limousines cruising Beverly Hills on Halloween, the chauffeurs fetching candy for the kids. Then there were the chats with Natalie Wood, Billy Wilder, Lauren Bacall, and industry figures from the red-menace era A people like Danny Santiago of Famous All Over Town A Dunne bringing together former friends who had fingered one another: "Being Irish, I can nurse grudges forever." In the interest of settling his own scores, Dunne based a movie-executive character on a "loathsome human being" he once worked with, his screenwriting career featuring imperious studio veteran Otto Preminger: "During Such Good Friends, we told him we were going home for Christmas and he actually tried to forbid us from going." After 24 years in Los Angeles, the Dunnes left Brentwood -- O.J.'s old stomping grounds -- and moved to New York: "It was a whim really. We needed to jump-start our lives. I miss little things, like doing errands in the soothing steel cocoon of a car. You go to the shoemaker in New York and it's an aggravation. And the social life is pitiless, especially in the Hamptons, although Nora Ephron, who we've known for a hundred years, did lend us her house for a relaxing week this summer A of course we didn't call anybody. Hollywood is so different now, too; everyone knows how much everybody else makes, and the game never ends. On my last trip, I had to call my agent at ICM, Jeff Berg, for a good table at the Ivy. After being away six years, I couldn't have got in with a machine gun. On this tour, Miami has been one of the more interesting stops. The Up Close and Personal production moved here from Houston for the look of the place, and we changed minor things in the script: Mexican immigrants into Cuban floaters, adding Haitian characters, things like that. On my day off, Gene Miller from the Herald took me for a Dolphins game A Christ, it was murderously hot A and then dinner on South Beach, which used to be so moribund. Now it's an endless stream of cars and beautiful people flitting around the cafes, very much like La Dolce Vita." Well, it used to be like that, sort of, but the locals have to make do with present truths, as opposed to the balm of movieland visions.

Another week gliding by -- a film industry fundraiser for Lawton Chiles at the Biltmore, Nestor Torres making a bid for the easy-listening big time at Vizcaya -- and then it's Friday night, time for the district tour. A mass arrest of warring youths at the Cameo, proudly sporting "No Fear" T-shirts, metal teeth, and plastic handcuffs, a trouble-making vixen laughing in the chaos. On to Warsaw for the sixth anniversary celebrations, Louis Canales hosting another "Fellini" theme party, complete with costumed nuns sporting dildos, Satyricon go-go boys, and paintings of skeletons begging for sex. A sinister drag version of Anita Ekberg cooing like a whore and licking his lips. Not pretty, although we've had worse offers. All of us mourning the old days of baroque Warsawian decadence -- midgets feeding grapes to fat ladies, strippers lighting torches in their vaginas -- amid the gluttony of self-aggrandizement, the reverie of the lost. And suddenly it's exactly like Fellini's Casanova, a waltz of marionettes, frozen in time and space. A land where there's always too much of everything, a wallow transcending taste and appetite, dark children, twisted beyond redemption and still yearning for the whisper of miracles, the elusive radiance of the divine.

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Tom Austin