When you think of Joan Didion, you probably don’t think “funny.” As her nephew Griffin Dunne, who directed the new documentary about her life, put it at a New York Film Festival screening, “There’s a perception of her as being the Mistress of Doom.”
Though dry humor is present in some of her work, the Didion of The Center Will Not Hold is often laugh-out-loud funny; the aforementioned screening was filled with people cracking up. It’s a side of Didion that we get to see precisely because the director is so biased; at one point, the two recall Dunne’s first memory of Didion, in which he, as a five-year-old in ‘60s-era tight swim trunks, inadvertently flashed her. Throughout the documentary, we see Dunne and Didion’s close friends poking gentle fun at each other. Friends joke about Didion's tendency to wear sunglasses at night and drink Coca-Cola in the morning; an editor shares that when Didion was having trouble writing, she would put her manuscript in the freezer — literally.
It’s likely due to Dunne’s involvement, too, that we get to see so many famous talking heads, including Anna Wintour speaking of Didion’s time at Vogue in the early ‘60s, Harrison Ford talking about how he befriended Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne in the ‘70s, and writer Hilton Als talking about Didion’s groundbreaking essay defending the Central Park Five. The highlight, of course, is Didion herself, recalling with frank honesty her early work as a reporter, her love for her late husband, and her perception of herself as a mother to the late Quintana. It’s here that you’ll need tissues: Didion speaks openly about the grief of losing her husband and her daughter in short succession, which led her to write the Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Didion reads from her various essays and books at length, as do others; in this way, Dunne puts Didion’s mastery of language at the center of the film.
The downside of having Didion’s nephew direct a documentary about her life is a reluctance to delve into controversial subjects; fans who hope that Didion might discuss, for example, the difficulties of her marriage Dunne in the ‘70s, or go into detail about daughter’s health, will be disappointed. Didion fans will see also few photos they haven’t seen before; in the section discussing Quintana, Dunne chooses to prominently feature the 1989 Gap ad that Didion and Quintana posed for together rather than a new family photo. Though some may see this as a drawback, it’s extremely unlikely that Didion would be so casual and funny in her interviews with anyone else — or even agree to appear in a documentary at all. For that alone, The Center Will Not Hold is well worth watching, both for Didion fans and for those who want an introduction to her work and her writing.
The Center Will Not Hold is out on Netflix on October 27.
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