Panic in Needle Park and the films of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
July 19 2007 1:21 PM

Slouching Towards Hollywood

The screenwriting of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.

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The movie's uncompromising treatment of unpleasant subject matter did not, on the other hand, lead to big box-office receipts. But that did not deter Didion and Dunne from adapting difficult material for the screen, at least not right away—their next script to get produced was an adaptation of Didion's Play It as It Lays, about the dissipated life of a failed actress. Once again, there were good notices for the leads (Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld) and little affection from moviegoers. It remains unavailable on DVD (or VHS, for that matter), though it has its admirers.

Shortly after the theatrical run of that second movie, Didion wrote an essay titled "In Hollywood," later collected in The White Album. Didion declares that searching for artistic value in a Hollywood movie is a fool's errand, and scoffs at the notion that one can discern artistic intentions in a major American movie: "The responsibility for every frame is clouded not only in the accidents and compromises of production but in the clauses of its financing." To "understand whose picture it is," she writes, "one needs to look not particularly at the script but at the deal memo."

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That dismissal of a screenwriter's importance seems fueled by her keen awareness that, when she worked on a movie, she did not have control over the finished product. But in light of Didion and Dunne's subsequent screenwriting career, it reads almost like a justification for their decision to play the Hollywood game themselves. In July of 1973, the same year that essay appeared, Dunne had the idea for "a rock-and-roll version of A Star Is Born." Unlike Needle Park, this was a commercial project from the get-go: Dunne was well-aware that remakes had great "title identification" (i.e., the public knew what to expect) and that the soundtrack would likely be a cash cow. He and Didion again did their reporting—"going on the road with rock groups, three weeks of one-night stands in the armpit auditoria and cities of the land," as he later wrote—and that research even helps liven up a few of the early scenes. But along the way to production, A Star Is Born became a Barbra Streisand vanity project. The script had 13 subsequent writers. One hopes that someone else in that baker's dozen was responsible for the long, sappy interlude between Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the desert—and, well, most of the rest, too.

A Star Is Born was a smash, though, and made Didion and Dunne a lot of money. They continued to work as a team in Hollywood until Dunne's death, mostly on rewrites and movies that would never be produced—a few of which Dunne describes in Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, his amusing account of the preproduction hell he and Didion experienced while writing Up Close & Personal, a cheesy star vehicle for Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. They agreed to write that script in part, Dunne claims, so they could keep their Writers' Guild health insurance. They had long since decided to treat screenwriting not as an artistic endeavor but as a means of funding their novels and nonfiction—not to mention the house in Malibu, the apartment in New York, the trips to Hawaii. And perhaps the world of letters is richer for it. But, judging from Needle Park, American movies are undoubtedly poorer.

David Haglund lives in Brooklyn. He can be reached at davidhaglund@gmail.com.

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