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The Netflix doc demystifying the literary hero Joan Didion

A new film produced by her nephew called ‘The Center Will Not Hold’ aims to shed light on the seminal writer’s life

On the day that Joan Didion received a National Medal for Arts and Humanities, along with 23 other writers at the White House, there was no question that she was the show-stealer in the building. Cameras flashed as President Obama spoke of how her work had fundamentally changed him and, with a sigh, of his surprise that she hadn’t already received the award. Yet, watching her hobble onto the stage, dressed in a pale pink floral tea dress, and clinging tightly to an aide, you couldn’t help but worry that the weight of the medal might cause her to topple over. It’s a moment shown right at the end of a new documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, produced by her nephew Griffin Dunne and released by Netflix, that emphasises the writer’s special combination of human fragility and literary stature.

Didion is extraordinary in that she achieved a level of fame and hysteria, a kind usually reserved for rock stars, relatively early on in her career. A former New Yorker journalist, Caitlin Flanagan, once recalled in a piece her encounters with a young Didion on the Berkeley campus where her father taught and she had taken a short residency as a lecturer. Flanagan described how students and staff would congregate outside her office and rearrange their schedules to catch a glimpse of her in the hallway. When she gave her famed “Why I Write” lecture, there was kicking and screaming, shoving and crying to get into the auditorium, as though there was a Rolling Stone inside.

Just a few years back she was cast in a Céline campaign, wrapped in a black jumper, peering out with her large, dark glasses and silky grey bob looking cool and composed. The Kickstarter campaign that began in 2015 to raise funds for the documentary hit its goal of $80,000 in twenty-four hours. The hunger for Didion is still bordering on fangirl mania. But stripped of the glamour and fuss, we get to see Didion, now aged 82, vulnerable and relaxed in the company of family. She no longer seems aloof and worldly but a wise old lady sharing the triumphs and pains of her life. It’s in the documentary’s ability to demystify Didion that its value lies. 

The film guides us chronologically – in interviews with Didion, her editors and loved ones – through her life and work. From winning a job at Vogue magazine in her final college year to the self doubts that almost stopped her transitioning to political journalism in her 40s, we begin to understand how a brilliant writer and social critic is formed. Didion recalls her editor Allene Talmey at Vogue violently crossing out her work, demanding “action verbs, action verbs!!”, an attitude she explains trained her to write. Bob Silvers, her editor at The New York Review of Books, tells us of how he convinced her to start publishing political pieces, an area she was insecure in, purely because he was interested in what she thought. The personal, provocative New Journalism that she became known for was a result of Didion following her instincts on the issues that unnerved her, spurred on by fierce mentors and a reporter’s mind.

There is a particularly jarring moment in the film, when discussing Didion’s piece on the Haight-Ashbury hippy scene of the 1960s, she is asked how she felt to find a five-year old child, dazed and in need of help, high on LSD. Didion exhales, takes a long time grasping for the right words, and then says “it was gold”. This was surely a heartbreaking thing to witness, but Didion, razor-focused on getting her story, saw the anecdote that could help form her piece and the message she wanted send readers: hippiedom is no peace-and-love paradise. 

We also see her still dealing with the grief of losing her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Theirs was a marriage so close that they literally finished each other’s sentences and never filed a piece without the other editing it. Dunne died in 2003 while her daughter Quintana was critically ill in hospital before she eventually passed away two years later. These experiences produced two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, and Didion is immensely self-reflective in examining her own pain. She ponders Dunne’s temper and her daughter’s drinking and admits mistakes in her upbringing. She is unflinching in her decision to look at, and share, the things which frighten her, born from a conviction that things are less scary once examined. 

Snakes, for example, are a recurring motif in Didion’s work and a subject brought up in the film. “You keep snakes?” Didion asks her interviewer, eyes darting round the room. “I have no snakes,” he responds reassuringly, “but, how do you know out here in the country?” she asks. He replies that if he finds one he just kills it with a rake and Didion asserts that that’s the same thing as keeping one. By simply existing in the world you are complicit in its chaos – there is no way of coming out clean. So then, her ability to grab the snake, a symbol of lurking personal pain and societal disorder that she fears, and look it in the face is her bravery and service. Most of us would kill the snake.