“Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” is a documentary that’s incisive and haunting, like Didion’s best writing. It includes interviews with Joan Didion culled from over the decades, but it’s centered on one conducted by the film’s director, Griffin Dunne (who’s her nephew), in which Didion, in her early 80s, appears before us as a kind of wizened elfin patrician soothsayer. The skin on her hands is like parchment, with purplish veins bursting through, and her face — still beautiful, now timeless — is so creased with experience that even in repose, she looks as if she’s laughing and crying at the same time. Yet with just a few words, Didion’s diamond clarity of mind can cut the air.
The writers who became the celebrated literary sensations of the 1960s look, if anything, even more glamorous today than they did then; one now gazes back with a touch of awe on an era that found this central a place for the glorification of ideas. Yet Didion was launched by a trajectory that might have happened yesterday.
In her senior year of college at U.C. Berkeley, she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine and was offered a job there as a research assistant. At 20, she moved to New York and learned to write in the quippy refined style of a hip fashion monthly; at night, she toiled away on a novel. But it was her 1961 Vogue essay “Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power” that catapulted her. Published when she was 27, it read like a self-help manifesto composed by Edith Wharton, written with the kind of morally tough old-world common sense that would make Didion such a singular chronicler of the new world.
“The Center Will Not Hold” opens with grainy 16mm footage of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Haight-Ashbury scene in 1967, but Dunne, as a director, takes the familiar images and does something striking with them. Instead of the usual flower-power vibe, the slightly sinister blues rock of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” lends the footage an ominous undertone. We hear Didion describing how she arrived in San Francisco because she wanted to write about the scene, but where everyone else saw the Summer of Love as a world coming together, she saw the hippie generation as the expression of a society falling apart — as a sign of “anatomization,” of people fragmenting away from each other.
It’s striking, now, to hear passages from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” her revelatory reported piece on the counterculture, which came off at the time as a defiantly unromantic essay. It now sounds like the ’60s viewed with the purest of vision, stripped of all its rainbow illusions. She did a piece on the Doors, and was deeply attracted to them (her terse description of why: “Bad boys”), but at the same time there’s a powerfully revealing — and disturbing — moment in which Didion describes what it was like to come upon a five-year-old kid tripping on acid. We expect to hear her shock and horror at what is undeniably an act of child abuse, but instead she grins and says, “Let me tell you, it was gold.” Didion already had the amoral eye of a journalist addicted to the merciless power of truths that could enlighten and terrify.
The movie is also, of course, a portrait of Didion’s marriage to the prickly Irish-American journalist and raconteur John Gregory Dunne, who quit Time magazine to be closer to her when she was having a career meltdown. Without sugarcoating their relationship (Dunne was a drinker with a temper; according to Didion, “Everything would set him off”), it presents us with the complex vision of that rare thing: the marriage of two writers, both of whom overflowed with temperament and ego, that sustained itself over decades as a happy and nurturing union. “I don’t know what falling in love means,” says Didion. “That’s not part of my world.” But she knew that living with this man felt right.
The two shuttled between coasts, edited each other’s articles, doted on their adopted daughter, Quintana, and went to Hollywood together, where they wrote the gritty 1971 Al Pacino drama “Panic in Needle Park” (which they pitched as “Romeo and Juliet, but with junkies”), followed by a succession of not terribly good movies. (Didion scripted the 1972 film version of her novel “Play It As It Lays,” but she admits that the movie missed the book entirely.) In their Malibu beach house, renovated by a handsome young carpenter named Harrison Ford (who says that he felt out of his depth but flattered to be treated as their friend), they became an epicenter of the New Hollywood, hosting parties where Spielberg and Scorsese mingled with Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, who developed a major crush on Joan.
At that point, she’d completed her evolution into the waif in sunglasses (imagine the world’s most elegant grad student played by Audrey Hepburn), with a cigarette held just so, gripped by a hand so gamine yet severe that it was already in the early stages of turning into that aged claw. This was a highly cultivated image, but no mere act. Didion, as much as Susan Sontag or Norman Mailer, proved a master of the media-age art of elevating her idiosyncrasies into a persona, making herself the secret star of whatever story she was telling. It didn’t matter whether she writing about the Manson family, the anomie of life on the L.A. freeway, or (later on) the Cuban culture of Miami or the political travesties of Dick Cheney. Confronting events that were large enough to be seen by all, she saw more inside them than anyone else.
The death of Dunne, in 2003, in conjunction with the health woes — and then death — of her daughter, left her in a state she describes as beyond grief. She felt metaphysically alone. It was as if the meaning had drained out of the universe — and for a writer invested in finding hidden meaning in everything she saw, that disrupted her identity. Out of this cataclysm she wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking,” in which she recorded how reality was a luxury that her soul could no longer afford. She melted down to 75 pounds — but more than that, she believed that Dunne, after his death, was coming back. He just had to be. The New Yorker critic Hilton Als sums up Didion’s achievement in “The Year of Magical Thinking” by observing that grief is “the hardest thing to write about. She did it as a reporter.” She was now a reporter of the spirit.
“Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” is, in its way, the story of a gratified existence. Didion’s famously dry style can appear detached, but it’s really an Olympian form of engagement. It expresses, in every phrase, her passion for reporting, observing, dissecting, knowing. The New York stage version of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which she conceived with David Hare and which starred her friend Vanessa Redgrave, healed her more than the book did. It gave her closure, and Hare appears serious when he says that his main ambition during the run of it was to put some meat back on her bones (which he did). It’s been Didion’s karma to lead a charmed life in which she could write about American darkness. But then the darkness hit her, personally, all at once. For a while, her own center didn’t hold. But she became something more than a great writer — she became a sage.