Author and essayist Joan Didion was first introduced to writing through her mother, who presented her with a notebook and told her to write as a means of amusing herself. That childhood amusement translated into Didion becoming the voice of a generation, capturing the “horror of disorder” that colored the ’60s, ’70s and beyond. Her career took on a second life after a series of personal tragedies captured in two heartwrenching tomes, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.
Her life and writing is laid bare in the enchanting and bittersweet documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. Director Griffin Dunne – Didion’s nephew – takes audiences on a tour of his aunt’s life while simultaneously helping Didion reconcile with her past, present and uncertain future.
Call it coincidence or luck, but Didion’s had it ingrained in her family tree; the Didion’s almost became victims of the Donner party but seemingly had a more accurate map. She called California home, and even when she moved to New York it’s hard not to see a West Coast glow about her. Captured in photos with a trademark cigarette in her hand, Didion came to exemplify an effortless cool and elegance that first showed up in the pages of Vogue magazine.
The word “feminist” is never uttered in Dunne’s documentary but it’s impossible not to think. A brief interview with Anna Wintour discussing the “different times” in which Didion lived, makes it impossible not to consider the strides she made for women writers and entrepreneurs. Dunne himself seems to acknowledge this, placing Didion’s photo amongst those of fellow feminist geniuses like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Georgia O’Keefe.
Didion’s life flows out as smoothly as the ocean she once lived by. Her childhood is probably the most elusive part of a life that’s been openly captured in her books. Her books act as filmic bookmarks for each section of the documentary, and her melodious and searching words are heard and felt in every scene. Whether she’s talking about the chaotic state of the world after the Manson murders or her own sense of meaninglessness after losing both her husband and her daughter, Didion’s words accurately act as a “verbal record” of the times that feel both present and nostalgic.
It is this nostalgia that allows for Didion, the person, to shine through concurrently to Didion, the public figure. As Dunne interviews his aunt about her relationship with fellow writer, and Dunne’s uncle, John Gregory Dunne it’s hard not to detect the surprise and humor each finds in the other. The two both share a mutual appreciation of their past, while presenting it to the masses and noting that time brings a certain rosiness to things. Didion never reveals anything too unkind about her husband, a laughing pronouncement that he was a “hothead,” as deep as it gets.
At times the audience can do little more than gasp at her stories that include name drops of Jim Morrison and Natalie Wood. The desire to come to terms with one’s own views of the past color Didion’s memories, perfectly coupled with more pictures of Didion and her husband, her extended family, and the celebrities she interviewed that create a life lived, yet still etched in a time and place steeped in sentiment.
Didion herself is a woman who holds a wealth of stories, and it’s amazing to hear both her written words and her own reminisces. She’s replaced the cigarette with hand gesticulations that do little more than hint at the stories within her, as if she’s filled to bursting. You can’t help but be fascinated as she tries to find the perfect word to share her thoughts, a writer always. The interviews with her range from the funny – she makes no bones about the fact she wishes better movie adaptations had come from her books – to the poignant, but every word is sincere. It’s a sincerity shared by those who know her; playwright David Hare, film producer Amy Robinson, and even Didion’s own brother, have their individual views on her, painting a portrait of a woman who is only ever captured in snippets, once again showcasing the idea of perception and how we find it that’s worked out in her novels.
Once the documentary inevitably turns to Didion now, and how she continues to cope with the death of her husband and daughter, it’s hard not to see that coincidence she once discussed – an outline connecting a dress she bought to the JFK assassination and the Manson murders – bare out. Her work influenced her life which influenced her work. As Dunne captures her aimlessly walking the halls of her house or the streets of New York City, the questions of existence she brought up as a young woman feel pointedly hard to bear. A moment of her looking at pictures of Vanessa Redgrave’s own deceased daughter, Natasha, does a heartbreaking job of presenting Didion’s idea that grief is both a communal and individual moment. (Coincidentally, yet again, Redgrave played Didion in a play about Didion’s grief.) The documentary ultimately ends on an air of melancholy, leaving the audience to wonder whether Didion will ever truly come out of her grief, and how we will react when we experience that for ourselves.
I can recall reading Didion’s book Play It As It Lays in college and feeling like I didn’t understand it. As an adult, it finally clicked, and that’s what Didion does. She brings up parts of life that feel abstract until the individual experiences it. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold will inspire you to seek out her work and question what centers you to the universe. Whether you’ve only casually heard her name, consumed her works, or never heard of Didion at all, The Center Will Not Hold is a must-see documentary, and one of the year’s best!
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold premieres on Netflix October 27th.