There are certain novels that get widely branded by critics as “unfilmable” – usually only after someone has gone to the trouble of trying to film them. The term is rarely justified: even the most abstract and abstruse prose can translate to the screen with enough interpretive bravado and rich visual imagination. (Consider Jonathan Glazer’s startling reinvention of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin or David Cronenberg’s thrilling, deranged take on William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch as examples that beat the odds.) Still, it is more often attached to films that can fairly be regarded as failures, and it’s with a heavy heart that I add Dee Rees’s perplexing new adaptation of Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted to that list.
The second of Netflix’s fresh-from-Sundance titles to head to the streaming service – after the lower-profile but superior Horse Girl, discussed last week – was raked over the coals at the Utah festival last month. Seemingly lost in the maze of Didion’s densely plotted 1996 thriller – about a morally upright Washington journalist (played with earnest commitment by Anne Hathaway) stumbling upon far-flung skulduggery as she covers the 1984 general election – it’s murky and overwritten, lacking the stylistic conviction of Rees’s earlier films Pariah and Mudbound. Head over to Netflix if you’re curious – a curiosity it certainly is – but the streaming giant’s best offering for the author’s devotees remains her nephew Griffin Dunne’s literate, intimate documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.
Rees’s film did get me thinking, however, about Didion’s odd relationship to Hollywood, both as an adaptation source and as a screenwriter herself. For one reason or another, the tart, sometimes acerbic crispness of her writing has rarely connected with audiences in film form, though not for the lack of interesting attempts. The letdown of The Last Thing He Wanted prompted me to visit the only previous full-fledged film of a Didion novel, 1972’s fascinating Play It As It Lays: a long-buried work that is seldom screened and remains unavailable either on physical media or formal streaming outlets.
It can be viewed, however, via the Internet Archive, and it’s far more vital and rewarding than its interment might suggest. Centred on an unhappily married Hollywood actress adrift in a glittery fog of showbiz parties and hotel-room liaisons, Didion’s desolately moving study of depressive nihilism might well have been labelled “unfilmable” back in the day. Its fragmented, inward-looking structure of downbeat vignettes could have made for a real mess in the hands of a screenwriter less invested than, well, Didion – who, with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, fashioned it into a screenplay of matchingly modernist, angular architecture. It’s also anchored by a performance of piercing, gradually de-varnished sadness by the ever-undervalued Tuesday Weld. The whole is chilly and alienating, which hasn’t helped its reputation, but aptly so for a character study of a woman who, in her words, “knows what nothing means, and keeps playing”. It deserves a proper small-screen platform.
It’s a richer study of showbiz rot than one of Didion and Dunne’s other screenwriting efforts, 1976’s Barbra Streisand-starring A Star Is Born (on Amazon) – the most hedonistic but least affecting version of the oft-filmed chestnut – or 1996’s marshmallowy newscaster romance Up Close and Personal (on YouTube), which is enjoyable enough for the sheer starry glow of Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford. But a forensic Swat team would struggle to turn up any traces of Didion’s voice in the whole thing, complete with its Celine Dion closing-credits ballad.
Things get a bit spikier with True Confessions (on iTunes), a sleek 1981 noir based on Dunne’s novel and inspired by the Black Dahlia case, though The Panic in Needle Park (on Chili) is coloured a little more by Didion’s typical blend of romanticism and irony. A 1971 love story between two heroin addicts (Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, desperately lovely together) in grimiest Manhattan, it maintains a slender thread of hope in its downward spiral. Like Play It As It Lays, it’s a reminder that Didion had a more cinematic imagination than she often gets credit for.
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