Netflix documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, filmed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, is an up-close-and-personal view of the influential US writer
The eye of the storm – a compelling insight into the life of Joan Didion
If you were to think of American culture and politics in the past half-century as a hurricane of change and controversy, then you should also picture the petite Joan Didion calmly typing away in the eye of the storm, unruffled, helping us to make sense of it all.
With her essays, novels, screenplays and criticism, Didion has risen to the rank of America’s first lady of letters and its premier chronicler, through her observations on her personal – and her nation’s – upheavals, downturns, life changes and states of mind.
Now, her nephew Griffin Dunne has crafted an intimate documentary about his “Aunt Joan” – Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold – which promises a rare feature-length glimpse into her extraordinary life, when it debuts on Netflix this Friday.
A distinguished actor and Oscar-nominated filmmaker in his own right, Dunne, 62, has enjoyed a career on both sides of the camera, having starred in box-office hits such as An American Werewolf in London (1981) and dark comedy After Hours (1985) – and more recently opposite Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (2013).
Didion, 82, rose to fame as a fresh voice in the wave of New Journalism, a writing style that emerged in the ‘60s and ’70s. Like her fellow practitioners – who included the likes of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson and Norman Mailer – she immersed herself in her stories, took a subjective viewpoint and employed literary, storytelling techniques to emphasise the “truth” of the matter at hand, as opposed to remaining invisible and simply reciting facts like the conventional reportage of the era.
“My first notebook was given to me by my mother, with the suggestion I amuse myself by writing down my thoughts,” Didion recalls of her childhood. “I didn’t have any real clear picture of how to do it, but I do remember having a very clear sense that I wanted this to continue.”
Didion kept at it, and her breakthrough came with her 1968 book of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Its titular piece, says Dunne, proved to be “the definitive essay on what the hippie movement really was, what was really going on. Not peace, love and beads and free love and all that – but the disillusionment of the American family. The runaways. The drug problem. She was looking at that when other people were making cute Madison Avenue Volkswagen Bug commercials with hippies in it. She was seeing the darkness underneath.”
Dunne unearths a treasure trove of archival footage of his “Aunt Joan”, her husband the late writer John Gregory Dunne and their late daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, including: partying with Janis Joplin in a house full of Los Angeles rockers; hanging out in a recording studio with Jim Morrison of The Doors; and cooking dinner for one of mass-murderer Charles Manson’s women for a magazine story.
According to Netflix: “Didion guides us through the sleek literati scene of New York in the 1950s and early ’60s, when she wrote for Vogue; her return to her home state of California for two turbulent decades; the writing of her seminal books, including Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It as It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer and The White Album; her film scripts, including The Panic in Needle Park; her view of 1980s and ’90s political personalities; and the meeting of minds that was her long marriage to writer Dunne.”
“My husband, my daughter and me, we finally got a house (in California),” says Didion. “Everybody showed up at this house. Stephen Spielberg. Marty Scorsese. Warren Beatty.” The good times, however, would later be marred by tragedy, for both Didion and Dunne. Dominique Dunne, Griffin’s 22-year-old sister and a rising star of Poltergeist (1982), was strangled and subsequently died shortly after the film’s release. Meanwhile, in the space of two years, Didion lost both her husband and her daughter, in 2003 and 2005, respectively.
With superhuman determination, Didion wrote about her reckoning with grief after Dunne’s death, in The Year of Magical Thinking, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and later about the death of their daughter Quintana Roo, in Blue Nights. “I’ve always found that if I examine something, it’s less scary,” says Didion.
Friends and collaborators who appear in Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold include: Vanessa Redgrave, Harrison Ford, Anna Wintour, David Hare, Calvin Trillin, Hilton Als, and Susanna Moore. As a filmmaker, Dunne was challenged to find the right approach to capture the legacy of Didion, known for her unsentimental approach to her own life. “I try to avoid sentiment as much in my telling as she does in her writing,” he says. “I tried to tell her story, but still have that same sort of feeling (as she does) of also withholding – you’re sharing but you’re telling as much as you’re prepared to say. “We had loss in common over people we’d loved and had known the majority of our lives. I think when you experience that – and you have that in common, and you talk about it - you don’t talk about loss really in a sentimental way.”
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is streamed on Netflix from Friday