“This place makes everyone a gamer,” Joan Didion said of Hollywood, nine years after she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, left Manhattan to make their fortune as a writing team.
When the newly married magazine editors threw the dice on a career change in 1964, neither had even read a script, let alone written one. Luckily, one drunken night in Beverly Hills, they spotted a TV actor throwing one at his girlfriend. They stole it, illustrated how its story was pieced together, and resolved that unlike that drunkard – 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 lose their temper.
How difficult could Hollywood be? Didion had a regular gig as a film critic for Vogue, where she championed teeny-bopper beach flicks (“All intrigue is incidental; the point is surf”) and swept “The Sound of Music”. “for being a musical, a genre she found insulting. (“Think you can have me with some big Technicolor chrysanthemums, think again.”) Meanwhile, Dunne’s clinical interest in the movie industry would soon translate into his landmark non-fiction book, ” The Studio, ”which covered, among other things, how a 20th Century Fox publicist whipped up 1967’s“ Doctor Dolittle ”in an awards race where he won nine Oscar nominations despite poor reviews.
Yet Didion and Dunne’s enrichment plan was not as easy to implement as they had hoped. In 25 years, the couple have only seen their names credited on the big screen six times. Didion has vowed to protect his Hollywood heart. She never bet more optimism than she could afford to lose. But screenwriting was meant to give him the freedom to write serious art, without wasting his time on endless unpaid draft revisions.
Even worse were the films they does not have write. Over repetitive breakfasts of white wine and grilled fish, the producers presented the couple with a disco-era remake of “Rebel Without a Cause,” a rework of Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night” tragedy with an ending happy, a UFO movie for the ’80s hit titans Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and that three-word brainstorm: “World War II”.
“What do you want to do with it?” Dunne asked.
“You are the writers,” replied the producer.
The irony is that the more the couple made fun of Hollywood in their essays, the more their script fees increased. Slamming businessmen in suits could have made Didion and Dunne personae non grata at the Polo Lounge. Instead, cynicism made them savvy. Here are two smart people who knew exactly what they had signed up for. They had or as Dunne joked, “I was never very clear on what exactly Going Hollywood meant, except 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 demonstrably them, any more than one can touch an on-screen actor as he wraps his tongue around Didion’s diction. (Or at least, the traces of her razor-sharp precision that remain after being massaged into the studio submission.) Still, in honoring Didion’s creative life, it’s worth the time to devote to the work that fills our image as she not only as a stylist of uncompromising prose. , but also an ambitious artist who knew exactly when to compromise in the service of her greatest goals.
Here is an overview of five films from or about Didion available to stream.
Before Didion and Dunne learned to play the Hollywood game, novice screenwriters made the rookie mistake of opting for books that they or they found it interesting – not John Q. Audience. With the pocket book to James Mill’s heroine “The Panic in Needle Park,” Didion explained, “It immediately told me movie.” The film, with its mediocre box office receipts, served as a launching pad for star Al Pacino’s career, but did little for his own. (It’s not available to stream.) At least the paycheck allowed Didion to finish her own hazy and unbiased novel, “Play It as It Lays,” about an actress coming off a Los Angeles. cold and unresponsive while taking drugs, having sex, and speeding up. on the highway in a convertible that works like a motorized runaway. When the novel was a minor success, Didion and Dunne made it their second film, with Tuesday Weld as the lead role and “The Swimmer” director Frank Perry at the helm. Critics liked the film; Didion (and the public), less. “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 real dough. So, for their third film, the duo presented a rock’n’roll refresh of “A Star Is Born” with 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 adrenaline-pumping groupies and following Led Zeppelin to Cleveland, where they had fun calling a hobby number scribbled on. the wall of the lodge. . When Barbra Streisand announced their interest in the project, the couple were ultimately forced to watch the 1937 original at the record star’s house while their daughter, Quintana Roo, played with Streisand and Jon Peters’ cub. Neither writers were passionate enough about the project to stick with it once Streisand took the reins. Their draft was reworked by 14 subsequent writers before the star was convinced she had an award nominee. Streisand won a Golden Globe for the film, making her the third actress in a row to win an award for a role created by Didion on the Page. (Weld won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for “Play It as It Lays,” while Kitty Winn won Best Actress at Cannes for “Panic.”)
For 15 years, Didion and Dunne took turns trying to extract money from the studios. We 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 black crime bestseller, “True Confessions”, based on the murder of Black Dahlia. 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 matter. While critics mostly enjoyed the thriller, some found the plot vague and confusing. The mixed response echoed comments about Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” before it was later considered a classic, which might have made Didion smile. After all, not only did she buy her wedding dress from Ransohoff, the same store where Jimmy Stewart made Kim Novak, but she and Dunne even got married in Mission San Juan Bautista under the steeple where Novak jumped to his death.
‘Up close and personal’
Rent it on major platforms.
There was only one reason Didion and Dunne signed to adapt a biography of NBC News presenter Jessica Savitch, who died in a car crash in 1983 shortly after airing a segment in which she appeared. drunk: they needed health insurance from the Writers Guild. The compromise might not have been worth it given the stress of writing 27 drafts until Disney, the film’s financier, was convinced that all traces of drug use, divorces, abortions and Savitch’s suicide attempts had been erased from what was now an entirely fictional workplace romance starring Michelle Pfeiffer about a successful journalist who survives to the end credits. “Up Close and Personal” lasted eight years, and the best thing about it is Dunne’s brutal memoir on the ordeal, titled “Monster: Living Off the Big Screen”. Savitch never got his biopic, but a documentary about his struggle to be taken seriously in a predominantly male workplace – a struggle Didion understood because studio managers’ assistants frequently refused to make their boss’s phone calls. without Dunne online – inspired Will Ferrell to make his own local news chauvinist film, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”.
“Joan Didion: the center will not hold”
Stream it on Netflix.
Even though Didion and Dunne fled Hollywood to return to New York City, the film business has remained the family business. His brother-in-law Dominick, a film and television producer, raised a family of actors, including “Poltergeist” star Dominique Dunne and actor-director Griffin Dunne, who in 2017 convinced his famous aunt to leave him. shoot an interview with her for a documentary about her life. Their familiarity allows them both to speak frankly. Dunne thanks Didion for not laughing when his testicles fell from his swimsuit as a child; Didion confesses that bumping into a 5-year-old girl on LSD, an encounter that led to one of the darkest scenes in her book “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”, made her shiver. Didion admits: “You live moments like this, if you do a song. Good or Bad. ”It’s not a heartwarming timing, but it’s fair – a truly Didion-esque revelation finally immortalized on film.