From across the crowded theater, she was unmistakable. Dressed in all-black Armani, Joan Didion let the wave of applause wash over her. Her nephew, actor and director Griffin Dunne, stood proudly by her side as the credits rolled on The Center Will Not Hold, his documentary about her life that debuted at the New York Film Festival Wednesday night. At 82 years old, the writer appeared calm, cool, and collected, despite all the fuss—and her signature black sunglasses stayed firmly positioned.
Annabelle Dunne, the film’s producer and its subject’s grandniece, stood outside of Alice Tully Hall afterward, practically glowing. “There was a lot of love in that room. It was palpable,” Dunne told Vanity Fair.
Rich with rare archival footage, book excerpts, and appearances from the likes of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour; New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als; David Hare, who directed the 2007 Broadway adaptation of Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking; Didion’s longtime book editor, Shelley Wanger; and the late New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, the film lovingly traces Didion’s life and work in all their glamorous—and tragic—circumstances. Significant time is devoted to chronicling the sudden death of Didion’s husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, in 2003, as well as the premature passing of their daughter, Quintana Roo, just two years later, both of which left an indelible mark on Didion.
The portrait also extends beyond the personal, illustrating the depths of Didion’s influence in American culture over the past several decades—particularly her reporting on the hippie drug scene in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Manson murders, and civil war-ridden El Salvador. It also covers the famous essay collections that emerged as a result, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem to The White Album. (As Griffin Dunne reminded Vanity Fair contributing editor Sloane Crosley in a recent interview, his Aunt Joan’s work is, in a word, “evergreen.”)
Still, the most memorable scenes center on the woman of the hour herself, especially when she is engaged in quotidian domestic life in her New York City apartment: carefully cutting a cucumber sandwich, working diligently in her home office, letting out an unself-conscious laugh, or parsing old photo albums filled with weddings and beach days and peaceful afternoons spent among her family. In her one-on-one conversations with Griffin, she sits on a sofa as he pries ever so delicately into her memory bank, her elegant arms and hands always midair, as if to conjure thoughts as precise as those she achieves on the page.
For actress and Mozart in the Jungle star Lola Kirke, who calls Hannah Dunne (the daughter of Griffin and Carey Lowell) one of her oldest friends and grew up attending Easter parties at Didion’s house (when she was “just a Jewish kid with nothing else to do on Easter,”) the screening proved particularly meaningful. “When I was in college, like any self-respecting liberal arts girl, I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and had no idea that that’s what I had been looking at,” she told V.F. ”You fall in love with her vision of things. And I think that kind of personal nonfiction is aspirational. You want to write like that. You want to see things like that. You want to be that sophisticated and smart.”
Kirke recalled an eighth-grade assignment in which she was asked to interview someone who had lived through a turning point in American history. Naturally, she called up Hannah’s grandfather—former V.F. contributing editor Dominick Dunne—and asked if she could speak to him about Charles Manson. “You could,” he told her, “but you’d be better off interviewing Joan.”
Years later, says Kirke, “I had no idea what majesty I was encountering.” Joan generously told her about “an amazing encounter of interviewing Linda Kasabian”—a member of Manson’s “family”—as well as a stack of first-edition pulp books on Manson from the era.
With such a prolific source at her fingertips, did she earn an automatic A on the assignment?
“Probably not,” Kirke said. “I was not a very good writer at the time.”
During the post-screening Q&A, Griffin reflected on what he learned throughout the six years it took to turn the documentary from pipe dream to Kickstarter campaign to Netflix-backed reality. He had not known, for instance, that Didion used to stick her manuscripts in the freezer upon encountering a bad case of writer’s block.
In all seriousness, though: “The more I worked on the film and would interview her, the more I understood why she has outlived so many people,” Griffin said, citing his aunt’s “frontier, homestead” ethics as the source of her remarkable inner strength.
Meanwhile, what most surprised Didion about the documentary process? There, Griffin’s answer was straightforward: “That she liked the movie.”
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