Wide Angle

When Joan Didion Was a Hollywood Schlockmonger

Didion’s dark estimation of the American public’s taste in movies was more damning of our culture and politics than anything she ever wrote elsewhere.

Joan Didion.
Netflix

Joan Didion wrote elegant, spare prose that summed entire zeitgeists up with piercing remove, as widely memorialized upon her death Thursday at 87. But I have never felt more personally intrigued by the writer as I did when reading Monster, her husband John Gregory Dunne’s 1997 account of the couple’s Hollywood work alongside people like Jerry Bruckheimer and Scott Rudin.

The Didion revealed in those pages is scrambling for cash, taking dumb assignments for the health insurance, griping about edits, seeking out bold-faced names, swimming in trashy plots, and missing deadlines at every turn.

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In other words, Didion was a proper movie hack, and comes across as both more fun and more awful than she does in her journalism and essays. And the Hollywood stuff is just as revealing of her worldview as her bylined work: Didion’s dark estimation of the American public’s taste in movies is more damning of our culture and politics than anything she ever wrote in the New York Review of Books.

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The book starts in 1988, when a Hollywood executive approached the couple about adapting a biography about anchorwoman Jessica Savitch’s seamy life and death for the screen. The movie finally arrived eight years later; the twists and turns to get there explain how Hollywood actually works. Didion and Dunne—who’d had a big success writing the screenplay of the Kris Kristofferson version of A Star Is Born—were interested in the Savitch job because Dunne had serious heart problems and they needed to get enough Writers Guild credits to keep their health insurance going. (We tell ourselves stories in order to live!)

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Didion took notes on the couple’s first meeting with Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg, in which he told them he wanted something that will “make the audience walk out feeling uplifted, good about something and good about themselves.” This sort of thing is  … not exactly what Didion’s journalism does. But she was game to try, to get the big bucks.

They brainstormed names for the Savitch character that would telegraph a life on the economic fringe: Nancyanne? Bettyanne? Peggyanne? Sallyanne? (The original Savitch was a nice middle class Jewish girl from the northeast, not a “redneck,” as Dunne called their creation.) They wrote dialogue for the male lead: “Did some juvenile time, got out, went one on one with an off-duty cop, hit him with a tire iron.”

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At Disney’s suggestion, they added some “fun” to the script, like their anchorwoman lead character covering a chili tasting, or going on a Caribbean vacation, or getting spotted by fans wearing only her underwear in a dressing room. The couple also considered at one point having a character win a Nieman fellowship to spend some time at Harvard. (This is when they realized they’d lost the plot.)

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Disney didn’t go for any of it, and the couple began to send long faxes to the studio bitching about rewrites, refusing to do any more for free: “Jill Mazursky tells the New York Times that she did something like 42 rewrites for Disney, presumably for free. We won’t.” (They ended up doing several free rewrites, and Didion sent countless annoyed faxes.)

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Didion and Dunne saw Hollywood, generally, as a cash machine. At one point, they tried incorporate a writing collective with their friends Elaine May and Peter Feibleman that would only do rewrites, and only on movies that were already in production or very nearly so—the closest thing to a sure payday.

Didion and Dunne got particularly excited to do a rewrite on a film in which Arab terrorists “threaten to set off a nuclear weapon on the eve of a presidential election,” and holed up in Honolulu with a laser printer in their hotel room one Christmas trying to make it work:.They changed the film’s name from Ultimatum to Ploot, and engineer a way to get the president tossing a football with that year’s Super Bowl champions. They soon learned that industry gossips were talking about how bad the Ploot script was.

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The couple has questionable taste in people, seeming to care mostly whether someone has juice in Hollywood or not. Scott Rudin—noted bully and abusive boss—comes into the book in its second half as the adored savior of their Jessica Savitch project. “What we liked about Rudin,” Dunne writes, “was that he got his pictures made, which meant there was now a good possibility of our seeing end money.” Dunne also enjoyed the story Rudin told him of going to lunch at Michael Jackson’s home, where he was served a Snickers bar for dessert. “We thought we could probably do business with someone who had lunched at Neverland.” Whoops.

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They’re also obsessed with casting big names: they want Bruce Willis, they want Gwyneth Paltrow. And you want to talk about insider baseball? Over long lunches they stew about what the succession drama at Disney (someone named Roth is in, Katzenberg is out! David Hoberman’s job is on the line!) will mean for their own prospects.

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You could read Didion’s famous essay about the women’s movement. Or you could just look at her reaction to notes on her scripts by suits who wanted to avoid sexist Hollywood tropes:

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1. The couple gets annoyed that they’re asked why a male lead goes for a much younger woman. (“He meets girls his own age, they hear the clock ticking, they want an involvement he is not willing to give,” Dunne shoots back.)

2. Didion gets frustrated by an executive’s suggestion that they be careful to not include sexual harassment because “unless it’s a self-destructive personality, this doesn’t play in 1994, the whole consciousness is different,” the executive warns. They don’t like this line of thinking. They want to be able to have their male lead slap a woman across the face when she doesn’t give him a smile, which the executive cuts. “We could not dynamite Jon from this stance, no matter how many times we invoked the dreaded letters PC,” Dunne complains.

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While the couple seemed to mostly decide whether to take on a project based on the amount of cash involved, sometimes they did it based on substance. Not particularly highbrow substance, mind you. They take meetings with Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson (a producing team known at that time for Flashdance, Top Gun, and Beverly Hills Cop) to consider writing a script for them about UFOs; they laid out a cork board with their ideas: “There was a genius prodigy scientist who at age sixteen had invented his own argon laser … there were a number of murdered bodies.” They recruited Michael Crichton to help them write dialogue about string theory.

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I’m not sure if it’s unexpected or not, but Didion loved violent movies—what Dunne calls “whammy movies,” referring to special effects that kill people. They were asked to rewrite a script that would be a real whammy:  a combination “Die Hard and Key Largo, with our job to supply the love beats and tortured Key Largo morality. What we wanted to write, however, was the Die Hard part, and toward that end we suggested making the bank schedule to be hit during the hurricane a cocaine Fort Knox maintained by the DEA, holding tons of confiscated coke and millions of confiscated drug dollars.” They also wanted to end a scene at a drug kingpin’s house with everyone dead in an Olympic-size swimming pool, “turned red with the blood of the dead.”

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Like much of their work, that one never got made. It’s too bad Netflix didn’t exist during Didion’s Hollywood years, though she’d probably complain about the lack of points on the back end.

In the end, it’s unclear if Didion and Dunne were as good at actually writing films as they were enthusiastic—and cynical—about the whole thing. The Jessica Savitch project did finally see the light of day as 1996’s Up Close & Personal, starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. After 27 drafts, it was no longer about Jessica Savitch.

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On the set of Up Close & Personal, Dunne and Didion kept sending their faxes with notes and revisions to the producers. In one, they explain why they’ve changed a line to “scut work” from “dog work”:

JGD [John Gregory Dunne] insisted that the proper phrase was “donkey work; JDD [Joan Didion Dunne] said it had to be one syllable, and RR [Robert Redford] would not say shit work; the compromise arrived at was “scut work.” This is just in case you wonder how JDD and JGD collaborate.

It might be donkey work Didion was doing, in other words, but she didn’t want it to be shit. Still, she was just fine with schlock.

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