There aren’t many documentaries about writers, past or present, but actor and filmmaker Griffin Dunne had unique access to author Joan Didion because she is his aunt. The result is a highly personal and revealing film that chronicles Didion and the times she chronicled from the 1960s to the present. Like the late Nora Ephron, Didion believes that everything is fodder, whether it’s the zeitgeist of a particular period like the hippie era in San Francisco or more personal matters like grieving for the loss of her husband and daughter. This has led to a series of acclaimed books including Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It as It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, and The Year of Magical Thinking (which earned her the National Book Award).
Didion also had the knack of being in the right place at the right time during the latter part of the 20th century, giving her an ideal perch to observe life in Los Angeles and New York. Her stories involve everyone from Janis Joplin to Charles Manson. She often worked alongside (and sometimes with) her husband John Gregory Dunne. They wrote screenplays together like The Panic in Needle Park, an adaptation of Play It As It Lays, Up Close & Personal, and the Barbra Streisand version of A Star is Born.
Dunne makes ample use of archival footage to evoke the times and places that inspired his aunt’s perceptive prose. She is disarmingly forthcoming in conversation with him, and we also hear from such friends and collaborators as Calvin Trillin, Anna Wintour, David Hare, Vanessa Redgrave, and Harrison Ford. Dunne wisely avoids the temptation to embark on detours about Didion’s husband and equally famous brother-in-law Dominick Dunne. His focus is on Joan.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is thoroughly absorbing, whether you have read the author’s work or not. In fact, Griffin Dunne’s exemplary film has made me want to dive into Joan Didion’s work; that’s the highest compliment I could pay any documentary.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold debuts on Netflix today and is also playing at the Metrograph in Manhattan and the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles.