Among the many possible explanations for Joan Didion's sixteen-year hiatus from Hollywood, the likeliest is that she grew tired of being the smartest person in the room. Or perhaps her patience thinned with the protracted process of hammering all the edges and ironing the kinks and quirks out of a film engineered to capitalize on the proven appeal of bland familiarity. Slap that muddle with a meaningless aphorism for a title and you have "Up Close and Personal," Didion's last produced screenplay and a film, which we defy you to describe in detail unaided by a digital device.
Whatever the reason for her absence, we're thrilled and intrigued by today's news that Didion is returning to the screen trade to write "As it Happens" (alas, another overused and ill-defined colloquialism) with writer-director Todd Field. Next to nothing has been revealed about the project beyond the fact that it's a political thriller, which is not as unexpected a choice for Didion as it may seem: She and John Gregory Dunne, her dearly departed husband and screenwriting partner (who died in 2003), dabbled in multiple genres, including several TV crime dramas and "True Confessions," the 1981 policier starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall.
"As it Happens" marks another significant milestone in Didion's Hollywood career: It's the first time she's ever written anything for the screen without Dunne. The pair's biggest screenwriting successes came during the industry's brief window of studio-sponsored creative experimentation in the 1970s, with such critical and commercial hits as "The Panic in Needle Park" and "A Star Is Born." This time out, she stands as good a chance as any to find herself similarly unshackled from the mediocrity machine with "As it Happens," which looks likely to be produced independently, given that all of Field's previous films have been non-studio affairs.
Whether or not "As it Happens" turns out to be a project worthy of Didion is almost beside the point. It's just good to have a writer who is arguably the most insightful and clear-eyed memoirist and chronicler of contemporary culture applying her vast talents to an industry sorely in need of authenticity and originality. Didion memorably wrote a screenplay for the 1972 film version of Play it as it Lays and now our secret hope is that this project could act as a gateway drug, enticing her to re-examine her own back catalog of books for adaptable titles. First on our wish list of Didion masterpieces most prime for the big screen: a "Short Cuts"-style treatment of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. We'd also love to see her tackle Miami.
So now that our suggestion box is officially open, let us know which Didion tomes you hope to see in a theater near you.