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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024