In the New Joan Didion Documentary, a World of Imperfect Mortal Beings
The questions that occur as you watch Griffin Dunne’s “love letter” to his Aunt Joan feel almost impolite, but they haunt the documentary.
Photograph by Neville Elder for Getty Images.
Joan Didion’s physicality has always been an important part of her persona as a writer, and it is moving to notice, in the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold, the changes to her face and body that age has wrought. Arthritis has gnarled her hands, causing her to gesture knuckle-first. Her plain brown hair has lightened to a brindle. Photos of her in youth and middle age convey intense and glamorous stillness: half-sitting on the hood of a white Corvette Stingray; extending an arm along the spine of an expensive sofa; in sunglasses or an Hermes scarf or kerchief tied just so; smoking a cigarette like a silver screen siren. The Center Will Not Hold conveys that air of stillness even in moments of action, as when we watch Didion painstakingly cut the crusts off an egg salad sandwich, silently glide through a Central Park garden, or visit a chapel to light a candle for her late daughter.
For much of the documentary, Didion sits in her sumptuous living room on East 71st Street, Tiffany lamp aglow like a subway globe, fireplace lively with burning logs (no tacky gas flame here), answering her nephew Griffin Dunne’s mostly softball questions with her signature mix of succinct candor and graceful evasion. Dunne is the director of this mood board of a movie, and is a warm, likeable presence where Aunt Joan is a coolly self-possessed one. Their chemistry works; he draws her out.
He starts at the beginning: How did Didion start writing? It was at the encouragement of her mother. “My first notebook was a Big Five tablet given to me by my mother, with the sensible suggestion that I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts,” she tells us in voiceover, quoting from her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” and, later, from “Where I Was From”: “I remember that once when we were snowbound, my mother gave me several old copies of Vogue, and pointed out in one of them an announcement of a competition Vogue then had for college seniors, Prix de Paris. First prize, a job in Paris or New York. ‘You could win that, my mother said. When the time comes. You could win that and live in Paris. Or New York. Wherever you wanted. But definitely you could win it.’ My senior year at Berkeley, I did win it.” She moved to New York and worked at Vogue for seven years. She met and married John Gregory Dunne, then a reporter for Time. “I don’t know what ‘fall in love’ means. It’s not part of my world,” she tells Griffin. “But I do remember having a very clear sense that I wanted this to continue.” They moved to California, to a gorgeous house in Portuguese Bend, and adopted a baby girl whom they named Quintana Roo, after the Mexican state on the Yucatán Peninsula whose picturesque beach towns—Cancun, Cozumel, Tulum—Americans visit to forget their troubles.
The film depicts a mostly loving and productive marriage. (One wobble is resolved with a vacation in Hawaii.) Neither John nor Joan would submit an article without the other looking it over. They co-wrote a column about California for the Saturday Evening Post and collaborated on three screenplays. John would wake up early, make a fire, feed the baby breakfast and take her to school. Joan would sleep late, descend from the bedroom wearing sunglasses, and silently drink a cold Coke at the kitchen table. When stuck or blocked she would put her manuscript on ice—not a metaphor. She’d place the pages in a bag in the freezer next to the frozen peas.
Whether this strikes you as charming or affected—the kind of thing someone playing a writer in a movie might do—will depend on how invested a Didion acolyte you are. She is a Pinterest-friendly writer, the writer you want to be seen reading on the subway when you first move to New York City. The literary world’s perennial cool girl, she was the star of a 2015 Céline campaign. Her sentences’ intentional repetitions and abstract locutions are hypnotic, their narrator sphinx-like; but then these are the qualities that some readers thrill to, and one woman’s emotional aridity is another’s neurasthenic truth. One can feel ambivalent about Didion the stylist while nurturing an interest in, even an affection for, Didion the cult figure. This film, Griffin Dunne told The New York Times, was always going to be a love letter.
I kept hoping the love letter would address Quintana more directly. In pictures, Quintana is a startlingly beautiful child with long blond hair, big blue eyes, and golden sun-kissed skin. She grows up into a sturdy young woman about whom we learn next to nothing. Did she attend college? Did she have a job? Who were her boyfriends before she got married, in her thirties, to a widowed barman twenty years her senior? Did her falling ill with avian flu or hematoma or induced coma or pancreatitis have anything to do with vaguely-alluded-to substance abuse? “I couldn’t in any way confront the death of my daughter for a long time,” says Didion in voiceover. “She was much more troubled than I ever recognized or admitted because at the same time that she was very troubled she was infinitely amusing and charming and that’s naturally what I tended to focus on. Most of us go through life trying to focus on what works for us, and her amusing side definitely worked for me.” Is this a brave confession or a dereliction of duty? Is Griffin’s decision not to press her on this point an example of his tact or a dereliction of his duty as a documentarian? This is a clan that exudes elegance even when plumbing very painful family history, which makes such questions, as they occur, seem in poor taste and almost beside the point. It’s only after the documentary is done that they crowd in, leaving you faintly unsatisfied, as when you cobble together a vagabond supper of hors d’oeuvres at a fancy opening and fall asleep feeling air-kissed by the in-crowd and ephemerally hungry.
The film neglects Quintana to protect her (of course it does). It would take a cold-eyed and curious outsider to diagnose her, the way Didion does the neglected hippie babies she encounters in her reportage, writing in The White Album of “Betty Lansdown Fouquet, a 26-year-old woman with faded blond hair who put her five-year-old daughter out to die on the center divider of Interstate 5 some miles south of the last Bakersfield exit. The child, whose fingers had to be pried loose from the Cyclone fence when she was rescued twelve hours later by the California Highway Patrol, reported that she had run after the car carrying her mother and stepfather and brother and sister for ‘a long time.’” Griffin wants to know how Didion felt when she saw that five-year-old girl wearing white lipstick and tripping on acid, who features in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and she answers, Janet Malcolm–like, “It was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”
Lost children haunt this film and the work and lives of the Didion-Dunnes. Another family tragedy, involving Griffin’s sister Dominique, goes totally unmentioned. In 1982, Dominique was strangled by her boyfriend, a chef at the sceney L.A. eatery Ma Maison. The Didion-Dunnes were said to be concerned that Quintana, then 16 years old, might be called to testify, and left with her for Europe. John Gregory Dunne and Griffin’s father, the author and Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne, didn’t speak for decades, due to (it was rumored) Didion’s coming over to her brother-in-law’s place as the family awaited news of Dominique and tying up the phone line going over proofs with her editor in New York. Also, John and Joan supposedly kept eating at Ma Maison because it was the place to be seen. These are unbecoming stories about the beautiful people, happening not in the Haight-Ashbury or El Salvador but close to home. They are not stories she tells or disavows in The Year of Magical Thinking, or Blue Nights, or to Griffin, and so her fragile hauteur never cracks.