Joan Didion and Hollywood



Deeply intertwined in Joan Didion’s experience and personal relationship with the screen was a list of apprehensions. Working alongside her husband, John Gregory Dunne, the pair would collaborate on a variety of screenplays most of which would be pried from their hands – rebuilt and reworked to satisfy the egos of producers, directors and studio heads. Writers deal in “shit”, said Dunne as he travails his complicated relationship with cinema in his essay ‘Gone Hollywood’ from 1976.

Joan Didion grew up in Sacramento, the civic capital of California that lay in the Northern part of the State in the Central Valley where the American and Sacramento River meet. “Anybody who talks about California hedonism,” she said in a profile for the New York Times in 1979, “has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Her childhood was worlds away from the imagination land of Hollywood, and when she finally moved to Los Angeles with her husband John Gregory Dunne, the sparkle and glamour of the film business must have seemed alien. Doubt hangs over her writing about the industry, and as David Thomson writes in an introduction to Play It as it Lays, Didion not unlike Maria, her solemn protagonist, is torn as to “Whether this novel is a sour kiss-off or an acid love letter.”

The industry of entertainment is at the heart of many of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne’s screenplays. Put aside their first collaboration, Panic in Needle Park which depicts heroin addicts in New York City, and the rest of their films are deeply embedded in the fantasy world of Los Angeles. Even the story of their most troubled screenplay, their 1976 adaptation of A Star is Born, while ostensibly about music depicts the glamour and ruthlessness of the Hollywood system. Listen to Karina Longworth’s ‘You Must Remember This’ podcast episode on the making of the film – which poetically evokes the troubled behind the scenes reworkings of the film: The story of the battling egos and raging insecurities far more compelling and tragic than the final film.

Few screenplays they worked on could even be called their own and while the industry in the 1970s was a far cry from the maniacal factory work of the studio system, writers were expendable. Exceptionally, the pairs work to adapt Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays, made in close collaboration with director Frank Perry, stood apart as a film infused with the authorial voice of the writer. The film, like the novel, depicts the day to day life of actress Maria who is increasingly estranged from her director husband Carter. Plagued by guilt over the hospitalization of her young daughter and a subsequent abortion, Maria seeks mental escape from the artifice of her Los Angeles life.

In ‘The Last Love Song’, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion, Tracy explains how the wandering spirit of the book was translated into the script – in part because of Didion’s dedication to translating thoughts and ellipsis’ into images:

Didion was fascinated with film editing – “cutting,” she called it. The white spaces, the gaps, in the novel became quick cuts in the film, fragments of Maria’s life repeated out of sequence. In particular, her abortion haunts her: bloody images, memories of the doctor’s gloved hands, these flit through her mind and across the screen when she and the viewer least expect them (326).


Didion’s script was only ever printed in a short 1972 anthology that is difficult to acquire. Writing about it in 2015, David L. Ulin for the LA Times remarked in 2015 how closely the final product resembles Didion and Dunne’s script. The disjointed edits that define the tone and look of the film often present in her writing. Revisiting the iconic illegal abortion sequence which prevails spiritually over the film, the script reads: “SIX FAST CUTS INSIDE THE HOUSE, “the DOCTOR’S line jacket,” “a chrome kitchen garbage container,” “a faucet being turned on.” The final product is defined by these cuts, and through visual and audio queues, these and other images are interspersed throughout the rest of the film – haunting Maria.

Large elements of the novel are used as a voice over, lifted almost word for word. This introspection works remarkably well, becoming an ironic antithesis to the first person narratives of film noir detectives that exceptionally have used Los Angeles “as it is”. Compared to Philip Marlowe though, the voice overs here are often menial and focused on moods and emotions rather than driving action. In capturing the spirit of the novel, the film wanders aimlessly, echoing Maria’s numb resignation.

Highways and driving become a central motif, and rather than link disjointed sequences, they serve to widen the gaps between human encounters and actions. The only times Maria drives with a destination in mind is en route to her illegal abortion and to visit her institutionalized daughter, Kate. Early on in the film, after she gets a flat as she changes a tire it seems like the only moment of presence in the film. Tuesday Weld, who gives a fantastically ethereal performance as Maria, comes alive in this moment – focused, determined and confident for once and only.

In Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), a whole chapter is devoted to Los Angeles on the road. The city, the most photographed city in the world, has become a non-presence on the screen – stripped of defining features to become a surrogate for literally anywhere in the world but Southern California. When it comes to discussing LA on its own terms, the city’s identity has become tied to roads, freeways, and traffic – trivia enthusiasts everywhere know that there are more cars than people in the magical city of dreams.

Carrying this legacy, Play It As It Lays uses these freeways as underwritten images to offscreen conversations and voice over. The labyrinthian roads cast in sepia tones and smoky atmosphere, portray Los Angeles in a greyish tone. A helicopter shot pans out wider and wider revealing more intricacy in the freeway, revealing it to be like the inner workings of a beating heart that have lost its passion. The cars like flowing blood are grey and cold, mirroring the icy tone Maria uses to converse on the phone with a man giving her directions to the doctor’s clinic where she will have an abortion.

The artifice of Los Angeles in the film is portrayed through empty platitudes and careless gestures of the people who surround Maria. Carter, in particular, embraces fakeness and embodies the toxic insularity of Hollywood life as he discusses his intimate experimental film in which Maria stars. Often caught in lies, he plays the fame game with calculated grace. His movie, which punctuates key moments of Play It As It Lays, leaves Maria bare – forcing her to break out of her comfort zone to discuss elements of her life that she clearly meant to remain private. Her performance in that film, as in life, are emboldened by Weld’s acting and Perry’s direction. To avoid confronting questions, Maria hums a familiar song in Carter’s film, only to do the same later on in her own life. Reality loses its footing, but the dream is not much better.

Memories as montage aptly describe Play It As It Lays. In adapting her novel, Didion and her husband were able to capture the solemn alienation of her book – translating Didion’s prose to images and sounds. Opening to mixed reviews in 1972, the film has found an enduring, if not quiet legacy among its supporters. Ostensibly a very feminine movie about the trials and tribulations of actresses in Hollywood, its cynicism feels exceptionally earned, rooted in dark and painful spiritual conflicts. Didion has not worked on a screenplay since Up, Close and Personal in 1996 – an experience described as “a retread of A Star is Born” in Daugherty’s biography. As one of the greatest living authors, her legacy has long been confirmed in the literary world, it’s about time her contributions to the screen, in particular, her work on Play It As It Lays, receive their due respect.