When I read The Year of Magical Thinking, I was struck, like many readers, by Joan Didion's ability to examine her own experience of grief, and to diagnose the mostly inadequate ways modern Americans make room for mourning. I was also struck by how much time she and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, spent writing screenplays. Much has been written about Didion's fiction and journalism, and about the work of her husband as well. But what about the screenplays they wrote together? Are they any good?
Happily for the would-be scholar of the couple's film work, their first picture has finally arrived on DVD (albeit with little fanfare and no extras, save the original trailer). Didion and Dunne first sold a screenplay in 1967, when a Hollywood friend asked them to write a thriller about a heart transplant. That film was never produced (though the novelization is still kicking around), but it seems to have whetted their appetite for screenwriting, and, with help from Dunne's brother, Dominick, they bought the film rights to a book they both liked: The Panic in Needle Park, a novel by James Mills published in 1966. This was hardly a commercial choice: The storycenters on Helen and Bobby, two junkie lovers hanging around Sherman Square on the Upper West Side (the "Needle Park" of the title; a "panic" occurs whenever dope supplies become scarce). But it was a natural subject for the couple: Dunne had begun to examine the underbelly of American society, while Didion had been writing about a younger generation that seemed, to her, adrift.
And though Dunne wrote the first draft, The Panic in Needle Park feels more like a Didion work. It opens with Helen, played by Kitty Winn, looking overwhelmed on a crowded subway. We soon learn that she has just gotten an abortion—a "free scrape," as her artist boyfriend (a young Raul Julia) calls it. As Roger Ebert has noted, this calls to mind Maria Wyeth, the protagonist of Didion's 1970 novel, Play It as It Lays, whose own abortion precipitates her decline into drugs and disaster. (Didion was finishing that novel just as she and Dunne began the Needle Park screenplay.) Helen's youth, and the bohemian trappings of her boyfriend's apartment, meanwhile, call to mind the subjects of Didion's nonfiction—in particular, the drug-addled adolescents in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," written just a couple of years earlier. Like them, Helen seems lost and uncertain, someone who was "never taught and would never now learn the games that held the society together," as Didion writes in her famous essay.
Enter Bobby, the boyfriend's dealer, played by Al Pacino in his first starring role. Bobby is from working-class New York, and he immediately takes to the vulnerable-seeming Helen, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind. Helen in turn falls for Bobby, attracted to his command of this massive city that seems ready to swallow her. In one of the film's best scenes, Bobby jumps into a neighborhood stickball game, telling Helen he was "the Babe Ruth of 81st Street." He proceeds to swing wildly and miss three straight pitches. Like the most striking images from Didion's essays, the scene seems to capture a character's past, present, and future in a single moment: Bobby is a legend in his own mind, exuberant and fearless, but lacking the discipline to convert those ambitions into anything beyond his life of drug dealing and petty crime.
The film's understated script provides plenty of such moments: Helen's fear upon waking alone one morning, when Bobby is out working; Bobby's sense of importance as he buys Helen a puppy he can't afford. Didion and Dunne researched the movie like reporters—staying in a West Side "junkie hotel," befriending addicts and dealers—and this helped them craft believable characters, whose lives they depict without glamour or sanctimony. This likely helped the actors earn their raves: Kitty Winn won the best actress award at Cannes, and Pacino got the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, who would soon cast him as Michael Corleone.