This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.


Joan Didion Remembers “The Panic in Needle Park”

Joan Didion Remembers “The Panic in Needle Park” (photo)

Posted by on

Journalist, novelist, essayist and all-around elegant wordsmith Joan Didion won the National Book Award in 2005 for “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a memoir and instant classic about the year following the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne. With her late partner, Didion co-wrote such screenplays as “True Confessions,” “Up Close & Personal” and “A Star is Born” (the Babs version, naturally), as well as the best of the lot, an adaptation of James Mills’ novel “The Panic in Needle Park.” Released in 1971, director Jerry Schatzberg’s stark, moving, gorgeously photographed drama refers to the triangular Manhattan intersection at Broadway and 72nd Street — now dubbed Sherman Square, but then a hotbed for heroin junkies. A brilliant but at the time unknown Al Pacino stars as a small-time pusher who falls for smacked-out Midwesterner Kitty Winn (who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her role), their story not so much a rise-and-fall chronicle as much as a fallen-and-fallen-further saga of love and betrayal. Ten minutes is never enough time with an interviewee as erudite as Didion, but the literary icon was kind enough to chat this past weekend in honor of the “Panic” re-release at New York City’s Film Forum.

When you read “The Panic in Needle Park” in the summer of 1967, what was it that appealed to you for a potential screenplay adaptation?

The love story. Plain and simple, that was it. It was an interesting world that we hadn’t seen on the screen in exactly that way, so I just felt as if it could work. As written by James Mills, it had a good strong narrative, you know?

At the time, what did or didn’t you know about the life of heroin junkies on Manhattan’s West Side?

I was living in California at the time. I knew a little more about other drugs because I had just [written] a long piece on the Haight-Ashbury, but heroin was not one of the drugs that was in play. What did I know about it? I didn’t know really about that life, so we did some research. We stayed at the Alamac Hotel [at Broadway and West 71st] for two or three weeks.

01292009_panicinneedlepark2.jpgBesides your experience co-writing it, does the film itself mean anything differently to you now?

I saw part of it on television one night about a year ago. Before that, I hadn’t seen it in a long time. There wasn’t a DVD of it until last year. I’d like to think it held up. [laughs] I kind of have to think that. When a picture is shooting, a lot of things seem arbitrary, or you might’ve done them differently if you thought twice about it. When we were shooting, I was overcome with what I had failed to do. Actually, when I saw it [again], I was struck by how much we did do. I can’t reconstruct exactly what. When you’re making a picture, you’re hypersensitive to everything that might be wrong with it or might not work. You don’t see what’s right quite often. It can work the other way, too, but this is one that happily worked the good way. [laughs]

It’s fascinating to me that there’s still an air of romanticism about New York of that era, as if it was more alive and creative when it was riddled with crime, drugs and sleaze.

That was a nasty part of town. I was amazed to drive back by there and see apartments on that very corner being advertised on the side of a building, starting at $1.5 million. I’m happier with the cleaned up [New York of today]. You can still find un-cleaned-up parts. [laughs] Just not at the corner of 72nd and Broadway.

In your 1973 essay “In Hollywood,” you were rather caustic towards film criticism. Do you still feel it’s a “peculiarly vaporous” occupation?

I think the phrase I used was “petit-point-on-Kleenex,” and a lot of it seemed to have that situation. But no, I think people know more about film now than they knew then. And I think critics really have a more accurate sense of how pictures are put together, and why certain things work the way they do. People know a little more about the business. There were so many great pictures in the ’70s; I think, gradually, people were looking at them in a serious way.

Watch More

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

Posted by on

The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

Watch More

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

Posted by on

Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Watch More

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

Posted by on
GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

Watch More