Joan Didion's Biggest Pop Culture Contributions, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem to A Star Is Born

Remembering the pioneering writer and journalist, who died at age 87 on Dec. 23

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Remembering Joan Didion

joan didion

"It's easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends." So begins Joan Didion's perhaps most famous essay, "Goodbye to All That," a seminal text for anyone who has loved or left New York. Didion died of complications from Parkinson's disease on Dec. 23 at her home in Manhattan, according to the New York Times. She was 87.

It's hard — impossible, really — to see where her cultural impact ends. An author, screenwriter and journalist for nearly six decades, her observations on place, politics, grief and more defined an era and continue to shape generations of writers. Here, we've rounded up some of her most essential works and moments from her lasting legacy.

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joan didion

Run River was Didion's first novel, written while interning at Vogue in the 1960s. But it was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays published in 1968, that established Didion's reputation as a keen observer and storyteller. Culled from her work for the Saturday Evening Post and New York Times Magazine, the essays capture the essence of her native California in the '60s, and glimmer with essential truths on what it means to be a writer and a person. "On Keeping a Notebook" and "Goodbye to All That" shine particularly bright.

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joan didion

On the heels of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion published her second novel, 1970's Play It As It Lays. The blisteringly elegant, sparse and deeply disturbing prose is as sharp and haunting today as it was 40 years ago as it tells the story of a young woman coming undone in a California psychiatric hospital after her husband forces her to get an abortion.

A film version starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins was released in 1972.

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joan didion, Barbra Streisand

Didion built her reputation on her books of essays, but in those essays, she would admit that her work screenwriting alongside husband John Dunne was ultimately what paid the bills. The pair's most successful screenplay was their rewrite of the 1976 version of A Star Is Born, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

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joan didion, robert redford

Dunne and Didion's also collaborated on 1996's Up Close and Personal, a film starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. (Another of their major screenplays: 1981's True Confessions, starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall.)

Dunne chronicled the experience of co-writing Up Close and Personal in his book Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, in which he also explores how the pair found the process of screenwriting to be stifling and frustrating.

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joan didion

2005's The Year of Magical Thinking is one of the most poignant explorations of grief in modern literature. The book, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography, chronicles the year after the sudden death of Didion's husband and longtime collaborator, John Gregory Dunne. Dunne died on Dec. 30, 2003, of a heart attack, while mid-conversation with Didion. His death came just days after their daughter Quintana Roo, had been put into a coma after an infection turned into septic shock; Quintana underwent several more hospitalizations, and died a few months before the book was published in 2005, at age 39.

"Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends," she writes.

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joan didion, Quintana Roo Dunne, John Gregory Dunne
John Bryson/Getty Images

Here, the late literary icon is pictured with her husband, their daughter and a family dog.

The wrenching, beautiful volume digs into the power of language as "magical thinking," as well as grief as a physical place, somewhere both prosaic and profound. "These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal," she writes. "I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved."

The book was adapted into a theatrical production starring Vanessa Redgrave in 2007.

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joan didion, barack obama
Pete Marovich/Getty Images

In 2012, President Obama bestowed the National Medal of Arts and Humanities to the writer. Didion was honored for "her mastery of style in writing, exploring the culture around us and exposing the depths of sorrow."

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joan didion

We've often had the pleasure of reading Joan Didion, but 2017 brought a welcome opportunity to watch and listen to her: the writer's nephew, actor Griffin Dunne, directed The Center Will Not Hold, a documentary about her life and career, brimming with archival footage and interviews with the legend herself. The Netflix documentary's title comes from the terse and tactile first line in the essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem."

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Joan Didion Celine

Didion was the rare writer whose appearance was nearly as iconic as her work, and her inimitable style was tapped for a Céline ad in 2015, when the author was 80. The ads made a major splash online, but Didion was unimpressed: "I don't have any clue" about the sensation, she told The New York Times.

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joan didion

Didion's most recent collection of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, was published amid the pandemic earlier this year and features 12 pieces, spanning 1968 to 2000. Perhaps most notably, it includes her formative piece "Why I Write," a title she cheekily notes that she stole from George Orwell. The piece, adapted from a Regents' Lecture given at the University of California at Berkeley, has become a primary text for aspiring and established writers.

"Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer," she says. "Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. 1 write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."

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