Joan Didion: oversized black sunglasses, a bob, a polo neck, a cigarette in hand; an icon. She’s the reason a thousand girls picked up a pen or bought a typewriter. She’s the shorthand for cool detachment and artful angst, the woman who made the essay society’s greatest weapon and its steeliest critic. She’s the writer you may pretend to have read – because you know all this – and the writer you may love – because you have read it all. Today, Netflix released the first ever documentary on Didion, The Center Will Not Hold, created and directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, and it’s as exposing as her writing always is.
It feels no coincidence that it’s dropped on Netflix the same day as Stranger Things – that could have been a title of one of Didion’s essays, or even of the documentary itself. She wrote about the strangest things that happened to the world in her time: the Manson murders, the Black Panther movement, the Iraq war, the political instability of El Salvador, a 5-year-old child taking acid in San Francisco.
It’s an invasive, if measured, documentary, with contributions from her closest friends and family, agents and editors, from Anna Wintour, playwright David Hare, music critic Hilton Als, actress Vanessa Redgrave, and the greatest cameo of all time from Harrison Ford, who was Didion’s carpenter in the 1970s and laments how much he had to charge her for her bookshelves.
Most of us know her for her work in the '60s, and the film explores that. Her most famous works – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) – defined the period as much as it defined her. She watched The Doors make, or not make, an album; sat in Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s apartment as his wife made sausages: fetches a Brandy & Benedictine for Janis Joplin at her house. Her wedding dress has a wine stain put there by a clumsy Roman Polanski, a few years before she would go dress shopping for Linda Kasabian, one of the women there at the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate. Sometimes it’s hard to know where the '60s end and Didion begins.
Like any good journalist, she was always looking for a story, and the one she seemed to struggle with the most was her own. With her characteristic erudition and a sense of knowing absurdity, her writing captured her own mental unpinning running parallel to the events she reports on. She reproduces one of her own psychiatric reports from a mental health facility in Santa Monica in The White Album, and follows it with: “By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”
The film doesn’t focus much on her mental health, besides a brief description of her father’s depression, but it doesn’t suffer for it. The snippets of Joan aged 82, her frail arms flailing and her eyes close to tears at times, seem as intimate a portrait as we’re likely to get.
While the crazy days of the '60s are prominent in the documentary, more interesting, perhaps, are the times of her life with which few people associate her. Her later political writing in the '80s and '90s, her films and the tragic loss of both her husband and daughter in a matter of two years, which she wrote about stunningly in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). The documentary is at its best in the latter half, focusing on this titan of letters in her 80s; tiny and fragile, but still writing, still grieving. One of the most poignant moments is Didion with Vanessa Redgrave, looking through the wedding albums of the daughters they both lost.
There’s so much mythology about Joan Didion that she’s sometimes more icon than woman. The best thing this documentary does is strip that back and remind us of the reality. As she says herself: “Remember what it is to be me, that is always the point.”