Unravelling the mystery of Joan Didion, one memory at a time

Joan Didion (picture courtesy of Netflix) 

Griffin and Annabelle Dunne have made a documentary about their aunt, Joan Didion. They talk family lore with Lynn Enright

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By Lynn Enright on

“I think people saw that picture of her and the Stingray, found out she was a writer and got her books. I’m not saying that’s how…” Griffin Dunne breaks off. He clearly doesn’t want to suggest that Joan Didion’s fame and repute has anything much to do with a photoshoot that had her pose in a long, plain, loose dress, standing in front of a Corvette Stingray, cigarette on one hand, gaze steely. And yet the writer’s image has become wrapped up in her appeal. After a pause, he says simply, “She’s always been iconic in terms of style.” 

Griffin Dunne, the nephew of Didion’s late husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, is in London with his cousin, Annabelle Dunne (they're a generation apart), to promote The Center Will Not Hold, a documentary about Didion that he has directed and she has produced.

Griffin Dunne with Joan Didion (Getty)

Those interested in the glamorous aspects of Didion’s life – the style, the Hollywood connections – won’t be disappointed: the Dunnes have amassed hundreds of images for their documentary, showing Didion in all her iconic 1960s insouciance, as well as securing soundbites from such luminaries as Harrison Ford, who knew the Didion-Dunne family when he was a carpenter working on their Malibu beach home in the 1970s. (Griffin, who was a teenager when he came across Ford back then, remembers the time fondly, saying: “He was the most charismatic guy I ever saw. And I would just be like a puppy dog.”)

But there’s much more to the documentary than beautiful imagery and hazy Californian memories. There is a powerful punch of a moment when Didion reveals what she was thinking as she came across a small child who had taken LSD when she was writing her era-defining essay, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. What did it feel like to encounter that tripping five-year-old, wonders Griffin. “Let me tell you, it was gold,” Didion answers. It’s an insight into what it means to be a writer, an insight into what it means to be Joan Didion. It feels shocking, almost, and intimate, as well, like a secret. It’s the kind of honesty Didion does best: a discomfiting truth, brutal and strange.  

It’s an insight into what it means to be a writer, an insight into what it means to be Joan Didion. It feels shocking, almost

There are laughs, too, as Didion clearly delights in Griffin’s company. She has always loved the Dunnes, it’s clear, and the notion of family – of the Dunnes as a sort of intellectual Hollwood dynasty; of what it means to be a mother and a wife and an aunt – is key in the piece.  

“The doc was always going to be about her work, but you know if your film is being made by the nephew, how can you not also make it about family?” admits Griffin. “The thing we were always talking about during the editing was finding the right balance, making sure that a family anecdote doesn't overwhelm what the work is and how the work can affect the family and, of course, tragically both things come together with the last two books.”

Griffin is talking about The Year Of Magical Thinking, the book Didion wrote when her beloved husband died of a heart attack, and Blue Nights, which she wrote when her daughter Quintana died not long afterwards. The grief of that period is explored in the documentary although the tone is gentle, rather than aggressively interrogating. Some reviewers point out that The Center Does Not Hold doesn’t shed new light on whether Quintana’s death was a result of alcoholism; they argue that Griffin holds back from asking his aunt difficult questions. So was the reluctance to vigorously investigate Quintana and Joan’s relationship an artistic choice – or a matter of familial squeamishness?

Joan with John and Quintana in Malibu (courtesy of Netflix)


“It was certainly a little of each,” Griffin says. “Quintana’s drinking and emotional side – I shot all that. I had stuff about her being adopted and I talked to other people who had been adopted. But sometimes when you try to explain something, you actually raise more questions.” And so it didn’t make the documentary. But, he says, “It wasn't like, Oh, I have to give Joan her privacy and I'm going to protect her.”

Difficulties are alluded to – Didion’s physical frailty; the ups and downs of a marriage – but Griffin and Annabelle were keen to show another side of Didion, too. “She loves talking about John and she loves talking about people who have memories of John,” explains Griffin. “It's not all gloomy doomy.”

“There are these cliches – more inside New York stuff – that, ‘Oh she's so skinny and sad and depressing’, and we were like, that's so not the story,” Annabelle says. “There's so much more to her tapestry of personal life than those classic Joan Didion cliches.”

In the end, Didion remains inscrutable, perhaps because of how little she says. And that reticence is not a response to being interviewed, Annabelle says. “She's always been an incredibly warm in person, but still really low word count. She doesn't talk a lot. She never has.”

But that inscrutability is part of what makes Joan Didion who she is. You can read thousands and thousands of her words and look at hundreds and hundreds of pictures of her and still have no idea. In fact, it’s that mystery that makes her the perfect subject of a documentary.  

The Center Will Not Hold is on Netflix now


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Joan Didion (picture courtesy of Netflix) 
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