Joan Didion Dies: Journalist, Novelist, and Screenwriter Was 87

Her screenwriting work included the 1976 version of "A Star Is Born."
FILE - Author Joan Didion sits in front of a photo of herself holding her daughter, Quintana Roo, and another picture of her daughter's wedding, in her New York apartment Sept. 26, 2005. Didion, the revered author and essayist whose provocative social commentary and detached, methodical literary voice made her a uniquely clear-eyed critic of a uniquely turbulent time, has died. She was 87. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)
Joan Didion
AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Joan Didion, the journalist, novelist, and screenwriter of such films as the 1976 “A Star Is Born” died Thursday at her home in Manhattan at the age of 87. The New York Times reported that the cause was Parkinson’s disease.

Didion was born in Sacramento in 1934. The fifth-generation Californian found some of her most important material for her earliest writing in the culture and chaos of her home state. Her career began after she won a pair of writing contests put on by magazines during her time at UC Berkeley. One of those wins led her to begin writing at Vogue.

She worked her way up to features editor at the fashion magazine. In 1963 she published her first novel, “Run River,” about the unraveling of a marriage that also serves as a commentary on the history of California.

Around that time and while living in New York she struck up a friendship, and then romance, with writer John Gregory Dunne. The year after her first novel was published, Didion and Dunne moved to California and started writing screenplays. The couple adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo, who died in 2005. Dunne died in 2003.

Didion published her second novel, “Play It as It Lays,” in 1970. It was named by Time as one of the best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. It tells the story of a young actress who compulsively drives the California freeways of the 1960s.

Didion and Dunne’s first screenplay was “The Panic in Needle Park.” Based on the novel by James Mills, the film was produced by Dunne’s brother, Dominick Dunne, and directed by Jerry Schatzberg. The 1971 New York-set movie gave Al Pacino his first starring role, as a heroin addict caught in a tumultuous romance with a small-time hustler, played by Kitty Winn.

Their next collaboration was for a screen adaptation of “Play It as It Lays.” Frank Perry directed the 1972 film, which stars Tuesday Weld as the young actress central character and Anthony Perkins as her closest friend, a gay man.

Their third screenplay is easily Didion’s most famous contribution to American cinema. She and her husband rewrote “A Star is Born,” with a vision for the second remake of the movie to channel the rock era. They wrote the adaptation with James Taylor and Carly Simon in mind for the lead roles. The Frank Pierson-directed film, released in 1976, ultimately starred Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It was the second-highest grossing film released that year and received four Oscar nominations.

The couple’s screenwriting work also included 1981’s “True Confessions,” starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall, and a 1996 adaptation of Alanna Nash’s 1988 book “Golden Girl: The Story of Jessica Savitch,” which became “Up Close & Personal,” starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.

During her time writing screenplays, Didion wrote several novels, including “A Book of Common Prayer” and “Democracy” and nonfiction books including “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which is among her best known collections of essays.

But it was her 2005 memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” that is among Didion’s most highly regarded works. It’s an account of the year following the death of Dunne. It won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography.

In a 2011 interview with New York magazine, Didion explained that she wrote the novel in 88 days because she wanted to “write it fast so it would be raw, because I had the feeling that was the texture it ought to have.”

She added, “I found it amazingly easy to write. It was like sitting down and crying. I didn’t even have the sense that I was writing it. I’m usually very conscious of the rhythm of sentences and how that’s working. I didn’t even give that any thought.”

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