Didion, now 84, did indeed show up for last night’s premiere at the New York Film Festival, as did the likes of Liev Schriber, Kevin Bacon, and Kyra Sedgwick. The presence of the legendary novelist, journalist, and screenwriter made for a very New York moment indeed. At one point during the documentary, Didion is shown watching the theatrical adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking, her devastating memoir about the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Sensing Didion’s presence in one of the boxes above me (she and Dunne would later get a standing ovation), I realized we were all watching Didion watch Didion watch Didion.
Didion’s self-referential work made her a perfect subject for a documentary, Dunne later told the crowd. “Fortunately, Joan wrote so much of what she was going through personally,” he said of her 60-year career. “And then what she was going through personally would be reflected in what was going on in the country historically.”
The film, coming to Netflix and to Metrograph on Oct. 27, recounts Didion’s life chronologically, weaving in her own readings from a body of work that touches on the Summer of Love, the Manson Family, the Salvadoran Civil War, the Iraq War, and the Central Park jogger case. (During a clip of Donald Trump calling for the conviction of the Central Park Five, many in the audience began hissing in a way that recalled Didion’s fixation on snakes.)
A trove of archival photos tells the story of Didion’s early years of writing personal essays at Vogue; her move from New York after she realized “it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair”; her move to a “senseless-killing neighborhood” in Hollywood, where she partied with Janis Joplin and admired “bad boy” Jim Morrison; her idyllic family life in Malibu, where Spielberg and Scorsese would drop in; and her move back to New York, where she faced the tragic loss of her husband and child. There are also talking heads, including Harrison Ford, who served as the family’s carpenter in Malibu, and members of Didion’s inner circle. Her editor, Shelley Wanger, shares Didion’s cure for writer’s block: putting a manuscript on ice (as in, actually putting it in a Ziploc bag and placing it into the freezer). Hilton Als, David Hare, Vanessa Redgrave, Susanna Moore, Anna Wintour and Calvin Trillin also make appearances.
At the center of The Center Will Not Hold are Dunne’s interviews with Didion herself. A New York magazine profile once noted that “critics may charge Didion with a lack of feeling for her subjects,” and she doesn’t do much to dispel that reputation when she describes the time she encountered a five-year-old on LSD while writing her breakthrough piece, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.”
“Let me tell you, it was gold,” the journalist says.In her conversations with Dunne, Didion is far more reserved than she is in her writing. You can see why she has described herself as “shy,” and once said in an interview that “sometimes I think I can’t think at all unless I’m behind my typewriter.” Still, she’s clearly at ease with her nephew (Griffin is the son of John Gregory Dunne’s brother, the late Dominick Dunne), and his presence makes for some degree of intimacy. At one point during the film, he thanks Aunt Joan for being the only family member who didn’t laugh at him when, as a child, he suffered a humiliating (but also kind of hilarious) wardrobe malfunction. Though she didn’t laugh then, she does have a sense of humor, Dunne told the crowd at Alice Tully. “I can’t express enough how much she laughed, how funny Joan was.”
Clearly, Dunne’s film is an adoring one, but it doesn’t present Didion’s marriage as a fairy tail. She confesses that falling in love is not in her vocabulary, and acknowledges her husband’s bad temper (though apparently he had a good sense of humor about Warren Beatty’s crush on Didion). Still, even during their rough patches, “John and Joan,” as they were called by friends, were extremely close as collaborators and as a couple. John even edited The White Album, with its memorable confession that he and Didion had adjourned to an “island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”
“They did the whole completing each other’s sentences [thing] and John did most of the talking, but she did most of the laughing,” Dunne said of the couple’s relationship.Indeed, one of Dunne’s primary goals was to make a film that “belies the perception she has of being the Mistress of Gloom,” he said. Instead, he wanted to show “the Joan I know: the funny, fierce, bravely fierce, strong woman that I know,” he said as he introduced the film, his voice quivering with emotion.
Dunne came up with the idea in 2011, while he and Didion were filming a promotional video for Blue Nights, her gut-wrenching memoir about the death of her adopted daughter Quintana, whose best friend is interviewed in the film. “I decided to push my luck and said, ‘Would you let me do a documentary about your life?’ And she said yes, and I went, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’”
To do his subject justice, Dunne raised money on Kickstarter and conscripted his cousin (and Didion’s grandniece) Annabelle Dunne, who was also a producer of the Nora Ephron documentary Everything Is Copy. The end result, Dunne said, pleased Didion greatly. “I think it was pretty emotional, pretty powerful for her,” Dunne said of her first viewing. Every time she has seen the film, Dunne said, “She just has this big-ass smile.”