In 2013, then-President Barack Obama presided over the ceremony to award the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest distinction for contributions to the country’s arts and letters. Among the recipients was Joan Didion, the iconic American writer who penned unparalleled observations of the country’s cultural manifestations and social grievances. “Joan Didion has rightly earned distinction as one of the greatest American writers of her generation,” Obama said during his ceremonial introduction. “I’m surprised she hadn’t already gotten this award.” The aside elicited a few laughs from the crowd, which included fellow honorees such as director George Lucas and opera singer Renée Fleming.
This clip, as well as one moments later, showing a frail but proud Didion being helped onto the stage where Obama loops the medal over her head, comes late in The Center Will Not Hold, a new Netflix documentary on Didion directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, who most famously co-produced and starred in the Martin Scorsese-directed After Hours. In a playtime of just over an hour and thirty minutes, Dunne charts the rise of Didion’s career alongside unprecedented access to her history and private life. Though many facets of Didion’s life and work will already be familiar to fans, Dunne includes rare archival footage and family photos, and brings in several of Didion’s friends and colleagues to give personal anecdotes and chime in on her cultural significance.
From the beginning, the film follows a sentimental tone. We see an elderly Didion at home, going about her day, with Dunne himself making periodic appearances beside her. She chuckles when he mentions a playfully embarrassing memory involving a ripped bathing suit noticed by the guests of a pool party hosted by Didion and her late husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, at their seaside Malibu villa. It’s very clear the two are close and, as other reviews have noted, if Dunne didn’t have such close relationship with his aunt, this documentary likely wouldn’t have been made.
But Dunne’s immediacy to his subject has its hindrances. One senses he is protective of her and wary of pushing her the way an unbiased director might. Didion is a patient speaker who is shown grabbing at thoughts as they come to her, but in no hurry to rush them out. Though she provides some wry anecdotes, including the time she encountered a 5 year old tripping on acid—“That was…” she says in the film, giving dramatic pause. “Gold! Journalistic gold!”—we seldom get Didion’s reflections on the many subjects that made her journalism so glorious and impactful. Instead, more often, Dunne presents Didion as a writer in repose, sipping a bottle of Coke in the morning as she sits down to work. Even in discussing Didion’s major breakthrough, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, we get more of a sense of Didion’s celebrity than the impact of her words to American readers.
Dunne doesn’t break her mystique, but nor does he intrude upon it to wrangle out any darkness that might be hiding behind those sunglasses. Little is said about the couples’ adopted daughter Quintana Roo until near the end of the film, when her death, at the age of 39 (from acute pancreatitis) becomes pivotal to the narrative. Allusions are made to alcoholism, but if Quintana Roo had become an alcoholic, we’re never made aware of what led her to take the bottle.
And though there is mention of Didion’s famous line about heading to Honolulu “in lieu of filing for divorce,” and an even briefer comment on John’s six-month stay in Vegas (where he produced an eponymous autofictive novel), little is made of any contentions between husband and wife aside from the fact that John was “restless” and a “hothead.” And though Didion affirms that she and her husband edited each other’s work, and never envied each other’s successes, one wonders if John ever felt like he lived in his wife’s shadow. Nearly all her works remain in print. His are mainly printed-on-demand, or out of print entirely.
Instead we are presented with Los Angeles’s most glamorous literary couple, a married duo with enough star power to sell their scripts and have their books adapted for film, and enough magnetism to lure in some notable people. Janis Joplin once partied at their house. Brian de Palma and Warren Beatty (who is outed as having “a massive crush” on Didion) were regular visitors. Prior to his acting break, Harrison Ford reminisces of building their deck and bookshelves and later being invited to their Easter parties. And Tom Brokaw remembers requesting an interview simply by mailing letter addressed to “Joan Didion – somewhere on Malibu Beach.” It reached her.
Aside from a brief overview of her pieces for the New York Review of Books (Dunne chooses to highlight her reportage on El Salvador and the Central Park Five), Didion’s mid-career was, for the most part, passed over. Filling in this gap is writer Hilton Als who, perhaps more than anyone else included in the project, reflects on Didion’s fierce ability to see what others do not.. Als, a gay black writer from Brooklyn, recalls that most of white America were all too quick to see five minority kids (four black, one hispanic) as the brutal rapists of a Central Park jogger (their convictions were later overturned), and that only Didion seemed to challenge the verdict. “Hers was the piece I had been waiting for,” he says solemnly.
It’s not until the dramatic last third of the documentary, when Didion’s husband and daughter die within a year and a half of each other, that Dunne slows down to allow Didion to focus on her grievances. It’s regarding more than it is sad; Didion best reflects on these events in her book about John’s death (A Year of Magical Thinking) and Quintana’s (Blue Nights). Instead Dunne focuses more on her cathartic recovery, including presenting A Year of Magical Thinking on Broadway starring Vanessa Redgrave (who also makes an appearance in the documentary) and directed by David Hare (who explains how made Didion put on weight after she had dropped to 75 pounds and who, in a rather wincing moment, tears up when he says Didion wrote Blue Nights for him).
Though the film is currently streaming on Netflix, I attended a screening of it at the New York theater, Metrograph, where Dunne was in discussion with producer and actress Amy Robinson. “I remember being scared shitless when she said yes,” recalled Dunne when asked about the development of the documentary. “I was like what have I done. But she watched the editing of it at various stages, including a three-hour cut, and was very happy with the result. And that’s all I wanted, to make her happy.” That’s ultimately what The Center Will Not Hold feels like: a film to celebrate Didion, rather than to reveal her. Bigger revelations were made in The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s 752-page biography of Didion released in 2015. Didion reportedly refused to have anything to do with its publication.