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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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.

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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.

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."

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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