'Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold': Film Review | NYFF 2017

A movingly personal if frustratingly fragmented portrait.

The famed writer Joan Didion is profiled in this documentary directed by her nephew, actor Griffin Dunne.

There's a distinctly intimate vibe to the new documentary about writer Joan Didion. It's hardly surprising, considering that the film is directed by actor Griffin Dunne, who happens to be Didion's nephew by marriage. The result is a disarming portrait of the octogenarian writer whose intellectual powers have clearly not dimmed even as she's become physically frail. The filmmaker's closeness to his subject makes his film more interesting for its personal than informational aspects. The result is that Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold may be of most interest to those already familiar with the writer's life and career.

The film, which received its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, features extensive interviews with Didion, who speaks with refreshing candor. Her career began at Vogue magazine, the result of having won an essay writing contest when she was in her final year at the U.C. Berkeley. While working at the magazine, Didion wrote her first novel, Run, River, which even she admits wasn't very good. "That was sort of what you did," she says about having written a novel shortly after arriving in New York.

Not long afterward, she married writer John Gregory Dunne and moved to California, where they lived for many years and where she produced much of her best work. It was there that she met Griffin when he was just a child; he reminds her that he felt an immediate fondness for her when she didn't join in the family laughter that ensued when they spotted his testicle hanging out of his swim trunks. (It's safe to say that's an anecdote you wouldn't get to hear if the film had been made for, let’s say, American Masters.)

Didion quickly became a leading figure of the so-called "New Journalism" movement, producing a series of magazine pieces about California's counter-culture lifestyle that would be collected in her breakout book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. One of the film's most revealing moments comes when Didion describes an incident that occurred during her research in which she encountered a 2-year-old child who was high on acid.

"It was gold," Didion dispassionately recalls. "You live for moments like that when you're doing a piece."

It's also such moments that are of the most interest in the documentary. Harrison Ford talks about how, as a young carpenter, he lived for months with the Didions while he was working on their house and felt intellectually inferior to everyone who congregated there. Talking about the cinematic adaptation of her novel Play It as It Lays, Didion comments, "I wish it had been a better movie." Didion's editor says that the writer, when she was creatively stuck, would put the manuscript she was working on in the freezer.

"That's not a metaphor?" Dunne asks incredulously.

Not surprisingly, the documentary becomes deeply moving as it delves into the circumstances involving John Gregory Dunne's sudden death of a heart attack while their adopted daughter Quintana was in intensive care and then Quintana's own death two years later. Didion wrote about the events in her acclaimed books The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, the former of which was adapted by David Hare into a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave. The playwright recalls how concerned he was for Didion's health during the show's run, to the point where he had a mock "cafe" installed at the theater so that he could make sure she was getting enough to eat.

Also featuring commentary by such figures as Redgrave, Calvin Trillin, critic Hilton Als, novelist Susanna Moore and Anna Wintour (who indicates that she took the assignment seriously by not wearing her trademark sunglasses), Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold feels scattershot and rough-hewn, marred by such stylistic missteps as a distracting overreliance on stock footage. But while the film proves a less than definitive portrait of its subject, it certainly delivers a plethora of fascinating and amusing moments along the way. 

Production: Didion Doc
Distributor: Netflix
Director: Griffin Dunne
Producers: Annabelle Dunne, Griffin Dunne, Mary Recine, Susanne Rostock
Executive producers: Ben Cotner, Lisa Nishimura, Jason Spingarn-Koff
Directors of photography: Tom Hurwitz, Reed Morano, William Rexer
Editor: Ann Collins
Composer: Nathan Halpern
Venue: New York Film Festival

92 min.