Written by Abby Adamo
For over a decade, Joan Didion’s name has been synonymous with grief. First with A Year of Magical Thinking in 2005 and then in 2011 with Blue Nights, Didion writes of the unthinkable tragedy of losing her husband and then—within the same year—her daughter as well. In the Netflix original documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, created and directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, we see the rest of the story. From her childhood with a severely depressed father to her early days writing for Vogue to her casual dinners with Linda Kasabian from the Manson trial, the documentary covers Didion’s life before grief.
However, whether you’re a fan of her work or a complete stranger to it, you will likely walk away from The Center Will Not Hold with no new insight on Didion’s life or her influence as one of America’s greatest living authors. The portions of the film not spent on interviews are consumed by old photos of Didion with voiceovers where she reads quotes from her work. A fine set-up for a documentary about a literary subject, but the photos chosen are essentially what make up the first page of a Joan Didion Google-Image search, and the quotes are all from published writing. The film is as much the “love letter” intended by Dunne as it is a Wikipedia entry—which is to say, not bad, but maybe not necessary either.
Because most of the information provided in this film could be found by either searching the Internet or opening one of her books, the most interesting parts of the 93-minute documentary are the small insights provided in the interviews. These moments are worth pondering for the different perspectives they offer on Didion’s life and influence, and every once in awhile, they reveal something surprising. For instance: who knew that a diet of Coca Cola, salted almonds, and cigarettes could produce a prolific writer?
One moment that caused the most stir among reviewers of the film occurs during a discussion of her time writing The White Album. Dunne asks about a famous line in which she describes witnessing a five-year-old-girl tripping on LSD. Didion, now 82, impossibly frail and with the mesmerizing quirk of grasping wildly in the air while she speaks, responds, “it was…gold.” This scene—in addition to a later one where she admits surprise as Didion’s daughter tells her that as a mother Didion was “good, but remote”—reveals Didion’s complex relationship with proximity to her subjects, being both physically near so much action, but emotionally distant all the while.
Though the first two-thirds of the movie feel like a chronological summary of “what made her famous, when,” the last third is more reminiscent of the stories of grief that she began with in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. We do learn things about her in the film that were not in those books: about her struggles with maintaining a healthy weight, her experience producing a play, and the friends who continue to look out for her. We are reminded again of the power of writing during periods of total misery. Overall the film fulfills its intention as a “love letter” to an aunt, but there is more love readily found in her own written work.
You can watch the film right now on Netflix.