Review: Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Joan Didion

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is anchored by a warm and loving conversation between Joan Didion and her nephew Griffin Dunne. It wanders from the present back through the decades of her life and work.

As she talks with Griffin Dunne, who produced and directed the documentary, Joan Didion measures her words carefully. Words matter.

Didion is 82. She doesn’t look like she weighs more than 82 pounds. But she still possesses a seering intellect. She’s worked as a journalist, a novelist, an essayist, and a screenwriter. Her words have created a commentary on the last 60 years of American history.

Didion wrote about external things like the cultural revolution in Haight Ashbury, the Manson murders, the war in El Salvador. She wrote about intensely personal things like the death of her husband and her daughter. Her way of dealing with life was to write about it.

I’ve read many of her books and articles over the years and consider her one of the best American writers of all time. As the film looks back through her life, it shows what was happening in the world as each of her major works was produced.

Didion was born in California and lived most of her life in either southern California or New York City. In California she knew people like Harrison Ford, who was her carpenter at the time. Many actors and directors hung out at her home. We see her with Tom Brokaw, Vanessa Redgrave and many other iconic figures throughout the film.

Her husband John Gregory Dunne, also a well-known writer, and her daughter Quintana were the mainstays of her personal life.

It’s hard to tell the story of a person’s life, especially when the person is an intellectual giant who put everything around her into compelling words for public consumption. With the help of old photos and old film clips, Griffin Dunne has done an excellent job giving us a window into the life  of his famous aunt. It’s more interesting because Joan Didion’s life story is partly about her recording the story of America over many decades.

For a complete list of her published books, check this Wikipedia article. The article doesn’t list magazine articles published, one of which is where the title The Center Will Not Hold came from.

The documentary is currently streaming on Netflix.

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