“This place makes everyone a gambler,” Joan Didion sniped of Hollywood, nine years after she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne left Manhattan to make their fortunes as a screenwriting team.
When the newlywed magazine writers rolled the dice on a career change in 1964, neither had even read a script, let alone written one. Luckily, one tipsy night in Beverly Hills, they spotted a TV actor hurling one at his girlfriend. They stole it, diagramed how its story was pieced together, and resolved that unlike that drunken louse — and unlike the drunks they admired, such as Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had been jaded about the dream factory — they would never let Los Angeles make them lose their cool.
How hard could Hollywood be? Didion had a steady gig as a film critic for Vogue, where she championed teeny-bopper beach flicks (“All plot is incidental; the point is the surf”) and panned “The Sound of Music” for being a musical, a genre she found insulting. (“Think you can get me with some fat Technicolor chrysanthemums, just think again.”) Meanwhile, Dunne’s clinical interest in the movie industry would soon result in his landmark nonfiction book, “The Studio,” which covered, among other things, how a 20th Century Fox publicist flogged the 1967 “Doctor Dolittle” in an awards race where it earned nine Oscar nominations despite middling reviews.
Yet, Didion and Dunne’s get-rich scheme wasn’t as easy to pull off as they had hoped. In 25 years, the couple saw their names credited on the big screen just six times. Didion vowed to protect her heart from Hollywood. She never wagered more optimism than she could afford to lose. But screenwriting was supposed to afford her the freedom to write serious art, not waste her time on endless unpaid draft revisions.
Worse still were the movies they didn’t write. Over repetitive lunches of white wine and broiled fish, producers pitched the pair a disco-era remake of “Rebel Without a Cause,” a reworking of Fitzgerald’s tragedy “Tender Is the Night” with a happy ending, a U.F.O. flick for the ’80s blockbuster titans Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and this three-word brainstorm: “World War II.”
“What do you want to do with it?” Dunne asked.
“You’re the writers,” the producer replied.
The irony is that the more the couple mocked Hollywood in essays, the higher their script fees rose. Slamming the businessmen in suits could have made Didion and Dunne personae non grata at the Polo Lounge. Instead, cynicism made them look savvy. Here were two smart people who knew exactly what they’d signed up for. They got it, or as Dunne joked, “I have never been quite clear what Going Hollywood meant exactly, except that as a unique selling proposition, it’s a lot sexier than Going University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.”
It’s hard to argue that Didion and Dunne’s films are palpably them any more than one can touch an actor onscreen as he coils his tongue around Didion’s diction. (Or at least, the traces of her sharp precision that remain after being massaged into studio submission.) Yet, in honoring Didion’s creative life, it’s worth making time for the work that fills out our image of her as not only an uncompromising prose stylist, but also an ambitious artist who knew exactly when to compromise in service of her greater goals.
Here is a look at five films by or about Didion that are available to stream.
Before Didion and Dunne learned to play the Hollywood game, the fledgling screenwriters made the rookie mistake of optioning books that they found interesting — not John Q. Public. With James Mills’ heroin-addled paperback “The Panic in Needle Park,” Didion explained, “It just immediately said movie to me.” The film, with its mediocre box office receipts, served as a launching pad for the star Al Pacino’s career, but didn’t do much for hers. (It’s not available to stream.) At least the paycheck let Didion complete her own hazy, dispassionate novel, “Play It as It Lays,” about an actress untethering herself from a cold and callous Los Angeles by taking drugs, having sex and speeding down the highway in a convertible that functions as a motorized fugue. When the novel was a minor hit, Didion and Dunne turned it into their second film, with Tuesday Weld as the lead and “The Swimmer” director Frank Perry at the helm. Critics liked the film; Didion (and audiences), less so. “Everything was different,” she said, “even though I wrote the screenplay.”
‘A Star Is Born’
Stream it on HBO Max
It was time to make some real dough. So for their third film, the pair pitched a rock ’n’ roll refresh of “A Star Is Born” featuring Carly Simon and James Taylor. The truth was Didion and Dunne had never seen the previous versions. They just wanted to go with musicians on the road, where their research included talking to groupies about injecting adrenaline and following Led Zeppelin to Cleveland, where they amused themselves by calling a for-a-good-time number scrawled on the dressing-room wall. When Barbra Streisand announced her interest in the project, the couple was finally forced to watch the 1937 original at the recording star’s house while their daughter, Quintana Roo, played with Streisand and Jon Peters’s pet lion cub. Neither writer was passionate enough about the project to stick with it once Streisand seized the reins. Their draft was reworked by 14 subsequent screenwriters before the star was satisfied she had an awards contender. Streisand took home a Golden Globe for the film, making her the third actress in a row to win a prize for a role that Didion originated on the page. (Weld won best actress at the Venice Film Festival for “Play It as It Lays,” while Kitty Winn claimed best actress at Cannes for “Panic.”)
For 15 years, Didion and Dunne took turns trying to squeeze money out of studios. One would do the first draft of a script; the other would edit and revise. Now it was Dunne’s turn to adapt one of his novels, his best-selling crime noir, “True Confessions,” inspired by the Black Dahlia murder. Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro play siblings: Duvall is a detective; De Niro, a Roman Catholic monsignor whose future in the church depends on how his brother handles the case. While reviewers mostly enjoyed the thriller, some found the plot vague and confusing. The mixed response echoed the feedback on Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” before it was later deemed a classic, which might have made Didion smile. After all, not only did she buy her wedding dress at Ransohoff’s, the same shop where Jimmy Stewart made over Kim Novak, she and Dunne even got married at Mission San Juan Bautista under the bell tower where Novak leapt to her death.
‘Up Close and Personal’
Rent it on major platforms.
There was only one reason Didion and Dunne signed on to adapt a biography of the NBC News anchor Jessica Savitch, who died in a car accident in 1983 shortly after broadcasting a segment in which she appeared intoxicated: They needed the Writers Guild health insurance. The trade-off might not have been worth it given the stress of writing 27 drafts until Disney, the financier of the film, was satisfied that all traces of Savitch’s drug use, divorces, abortions and suicide attempts had been scrubbed out of what was now a wholly fictional Michelle Pfeiffer workplace romance about a successful journalist who survives through the end credits. “Up Close and Personal” took eight years to complete, and the best thing about it is the brutal memoir Dunne wrote about the ordeal, titled “Monster: Living Off the Big Screen.” Savitch never got her biopic, but a documentary about her struggle to be taken seriously in a mostly male workplace — a struggle Didion understood as studio executives’ assistants would frequently refuse to patch through phone calls from their boss without Dunne on the line — did inspire Will Ferrell to make his own film about chauvinism in local news, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.”
‘Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold’
Stream it on Netflix.
Even though Didion and Dunne escaped Hollywood to move back to New York, the movie business remained the family business. Her brother-in-law Dominick, a film and TV producer, raised a family of actors, including the“Poltergeist” star Dominique Dunne and the actor-director Griffin Dunne, who in 2017 convinced his famous aunt to let him film an interview with her for a documentary about her life. Their familiarity allows them both to speak candidly. Dunne thanks Didion for not laughing when his testicles fell out of his swimsuit as a boy; Didion confesses to him that stumbling across a 5-year-old girl on LSD, an encounter that led to one of the darkest scenes in her book “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” gave her a thrill. Didion admits: “You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.” The moment isn’t comforting, but it’s honest — a truly Didion-esque revelation finally immortalized on film.