Didion, Joan: Author (Play It As It Lays) and Screenwriter (Star Is Born), Dies at 87

Joan Didion: Author, Screenwriter, Wife of John Gregory Dunne, Dies at 87

Joan Didion Dead Variet Obit
Alexandra Milovanovich / Fairchild Archive / PMC

Joan Didion, the author revered for her dispassionate essays and novels such as “Play It as It Lays,” has died, her publisher confirmed on Wednesday. She was 87.

Knopf executive Paul Bogaards said the cause was Parkinson’s Disease.

Along with her late husband John Gregory Dunne, Didion co-wrote screenplays for the films “True Confessions,” “A Star Is Born,” “The Panic in Needle Park” and “Up Close and Personal.”

It was the 1968 essay collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and 1970 novel “Play It as It Lays,” which she also adapted for a 1972 film, that secured her reputation as a sharp-eyed observer of the culture and people of California and beyond.

With lines like “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget” and her famous assessment of California’s Santa Anas, “The wind shows us how close to the edge we are,” Didion conjured up truths about writing, living and dying in plain but musical language.

Her nephew, director and actor Griffin Dunne, released a Netflix documentary about his aunt, titled “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” in 2017.

The 1972 film version of “Play It As It Lays” starred Tuesday Weld as a B-movie actress who drives the streets of L.A. compulsively after her husband forces her to have an illegal abortion. Though the novel was widely admired, the film was less well received, although Weld netted a Golden Globe nomination.

Dunne and Didion helped update the screenplay for the 1976 version of “A Star Is Born,” which was a hit with Barbra Streisand starring.

Didion also collaborated with her husband to adapt his novel “True Confessions” as a 1981 film directed by Ulu Grosbard and starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall; the story was partially based on the Black Dahlia murder case.

The couple also collaborated on the screenplay adaptation for Al Pacino-starrer “The Panic in Needle Park” and on the screenplay of the 1996 drama “Up Close & Personal,” based on the story of news anchor Jessica Savitch. Dunne later wrote about their difficult experiences working on “Up Close & Personal” in the book “Monster: Living Off the Big Screen.”

In the 1980s, she began ranging farther afield, writing about politics in “Salvador” and “Miami,” about Cuban expatriates. “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests,” she once explained about her approach that yielded such choice observations.

She drew acclaim for “The Year of Magical Thinking,” written after Dunne died in 2003. The memoir of grief was adapted as a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Her other novels included “A Book of Common Prayer,” which at one time was planned as a film with Christina Hendricks and Allison Janney, “Democracy,” “The Last Thing He Wanted” and nonfiction books “After Henry,” “Political Fictions,” “Where I Was From” and “Blue Nights.” Her last books included “South and West: From a Notebook,” published in 2017 and based on her earlier unpublished notebooks and 2021’s “Let Me Tell You What I Mean,” a collection of essays from 1968 to 2000.

Born in Sacramento, Calif., Didion received a summer internship at Vogue after graduating from UC Berkeley, during which time she wrote her first novel “Run River,” set in the rural Sacramento Delta of her childhood.

While at Vogue she met Dunne, at the time a writer for Time magazine, and married him in 1964.

She began writing for publications including the Saturday Evening Post and New York Times magazine, collecting the essays in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

Her adopted daughter Quintana Roo, who had suffered from alcoholism and mental health issues, died at the age of 31 after several health crises.

After living in Los Angeles from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, she and Dunne returned to New York, where she continued living after his death.