I value good documentary films presenting interesting subjects unfamiliar to me, and Netflix documentary film “Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold” is one of such documentaries. Here is a smart, intelligent woman who has been leading a long, fascinating life and career, and the documentary does a commendable job of giving us an intimate and insightful glimpse into its human subject.
Her name is Joan Didion, and she has been one of the most prominent writers in US since her acclaimed essay book “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” was published in 1968. While she is soon going to be 83 this year and we cannot help but notice how fragile she looks during her interview in the documentary, she is still full of spirit as recollecting many interesting moments in her past, and we are amused as she often makes some big gestures in front of the camera.
Along with her, the documentary examines her life from the beginning. She was born to a family living in Sacramento, California in 1934, and we are told about a rather amusing piece of family history involved with the Donner Party. Her grandparents were the members of the Donner Party, but they decided to separate from the group at a crucial point during that arduous journey to California, and that decision luckily saved them from what would eventually happen to the Donner Party during that terrible winter of 1846-7.
Growing up well under her caring parents, Didion began to show considerable writing talent. When her mother showed her a copy of Vogue magazine, she spotted a section on the annual essay contest sponsored by Vogue, and she quickly set her goal. She later won the first place in that contest when she was studying in University of California, Berkeley, and that led to the beginning of her writing career in New York City.
After seven years at Vogue, Didion published her first book “Run River” in 1963, and then there came another important moment in her life. After becoming close to a fellow writer named John Gregory Dunne, she eventually married him in 1964, and they subsequently moved back to California, which was then the emblem of a cultural change the whole nation went through during the 1960s. As encountering many various cultural figures including Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, Didion acutely observed the approaching end of the era, and then she wrote an article titled “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, which was the basis of her famous essay book of the same title.
As she correctly judged, the end of the era did come, accompanied with a notorious incident which happened August 9th, 1969. Sharon Tate, who was Roman Polanski’s wife, and her four friends were brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family, and not only California but also the whole nation were certainly shocked by this horrific murder case. Didion still remembers when she received the news from Natalie Wood, and she was certainly chilled to learn later that those murderers actually passed by her house at that night.
During the 1970s, Didion and her husband kept moving on with more accomplishments. While Dunne wrote several books including “Vegas”, Didion wrote “Play It As It Lays” and “A Book of Common Prayer”, and she even wrote several screenplays. After reading James Mills’ novel “The Panic in Needle Park”, she decided to adapt the novel along with her husband, and that led to the 1971 film of the same name, which incidentally features the first notable lead performance by a young promising NYC actor named Al Pacino. In the next year, she adapted “Play It As It Lays” for Frank Perry’s 1972 film, but, as shown from an archival interview clip, she was not that satisfied with the final product.
As the nation swung back to conservatism along with Ronald Reagan, Didion decided to do something new for her career. She and her husband went to El Salvador in 1983, and that led to “Salvador”, another impressive essay in her career. While observing how much willing the US government was to do anything for its geopolitical interest, Didion particularly noticed a high-ranking official named Dick Cheney, and many negative things she observed from him turned out to be pretty right as he later became the US vice president.
After leaving California, Didion and Dunne spent their later life in New York City, but a couple of sad incidents happened in 2003. Shortly before Christmas, their adopted daughter Quintana was taken to a hospital due to her sudden serious illness, and then Dunne unexpectedly died several days later. In next August, Quintana also passed away, and that further devastated Didion. While trying to process her immense grief, she wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking” and then “Blue Nights”, and the former was subsequently adapted into a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave, who gives us a poignant moment as she and Didion talk about their dead daughters who left too early from them.
“Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” is directed by Griffin Dunne, who is one of Didion’s nephews and is also known well for his acting/directing career. While appearing in front of the camera at times, he handles the subject of his documentary with affection and respect as expected, and the result is a warm, entertaining, and informative on the whole. I must confess that I did not know much about Didion before reading an article on the documentary a few days ago, but I came to learn many things during my viewing, and I am now willing to check some of her notable books.