Film Review: Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

A seemingly charmed life goes seriously awry for a tiny yet enormously gifted woman, Joan Didion. Her story is told in this deep and rewarding bio-doc.
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Joan Didion has always occupied a very special place in the world of American literature, for years the “it girl” of the intelligentsia (along with the only slightly more dour and less fun Susan Sontag). Despite her celebrated novels (Play It as It Lays, etc.), it really was her elegantly spare yet febrile prose in essays covering tough subjects like  the dark side of 1960s counterculture, the Charles Manson murders and El Salvador in the 1980s with its terrifying civil wars that made her name and kept it in public consciousness.

But I venture to say that nothing in her wide and deep experience was tougher for her to tackle than the combined deaths of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and beloved adopted daughter, Quintana Roo. These two tragedies followed close upon each other, devastatingly, in 2003 and 2005, respectively. Didion then took her living hell and poured it into the book The Year of Magical Thinking, which became a staggering international success and was turned into an acclaimed one-woman play for Vanessa Redgrave.

Her nephew, Griffin Dunne, the son of her husband’s brother, Dominick, has created a loving portrait of Didion, marked by shattering honesty in the interviews he managed to get. Once a delicate California—though not blonde—beauty, seemingly all that remains are her enormous eyes and generously articulated mouth, which both emit vast amounts of intelligence and sensitivity for Dunne’s thoughtful camera. As Didion expresses herself, you almost feel as if her sorrows have physically pulverized her, with her thin arms and veined hands effortfully gesticulating, almost summoning up her verbiage from within. She’s both painful and yet uplifting to watch, as she recounts her growing up in Southern California with a seriously depressed, clearly undiagnosed father, and a mother who encouraged her early on to enter a literary competition offered by Vogue magazine.

Didion won it and found herself in New York, contributing then uncommon think pieces amidst the fashion layouts. As her star rose as a Vogue editor, she met Dunne, who after their wedding quit his job at Time magazine. The two then moved to California, a place which constantly figures in Didion’s psyche and work. In the then less chichi environ of Malibu Beach, they worked hard daily on magazine articles, novels and film scripts (Panic in Needle Park, the StreisandA Star is Born), which they truly enjoyed doing, and also threw some great parties, attended by all the swinging rock and movie-star notables of the era. This idyllic period came to an abrupt, bloody stop with the Manson killings in 1969. Didion remarks on the random coincidence of life: Having a dress ruined by Roman Polanski when he accidentally spilled wine on it, she later bought a dress for one of the killers of Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, Linda Kasabian—her journalistic subject—to wear for her appearance in court.

Quintana obviously brought joy into her life, despite some very rocky times with the complex, heavy-drinking, rage-prone Dunne, whom she nearly divorced. (The only photographs in which you see the hint of a smile from Didion are those with her beautiful blonde daughter.) Perhaps no one but a close, well-regarded family member like director Dunne could have pulled off having Didion relive those double deaths for a third time, after having already put those experiences to paper. Of the numerous friends and colleagues of Didion interviewed (Calvin Trillin, David Hare, editor Shelley Wanger, Harrison Ford, her one-time Malibu carpenter), none is more eloquent than writer Hilton Als, who says that she looked at Magical Thinking the way she would any assignment, in the process providing a welcome, empathic and extremely rare kind of guidebook to anyone suffering the awful loss of loved ones.

Although brief, Dunne scored a major “get,” to put it vulgarly, with the appearance of Vanessa Redgrave, looking over photographs of past happy times spent together and talking about “Tash”—i.e., Natasha Richardson—her daughter who died following a skiing accident in 2009. The grief these women—ultimate survivors in their way—share is unimaginable, but the admiration they bestir in the viewer is very real.

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