Joan Didion’s essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” begins: “The center was not holding.” From there, she paints a picture of America in the 1960s, where young people sought an escape from the status quo. Some found it in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a center for music, drugs and idealism. But the more time Didion spent among them, the more she realized that they formed “a scale model of Vietnam,” plagued by troubles all its own.
Throughout her career, Didion has taken many other lives on the edge, mining them for just as much truth and beauty. These inimitable works changed the face of journalism and placed her among this nation’s greatest writers. However, her life has never been captured on film - until now.
Griffin Dunne, Didion’s nephew, rose to the challenge. On Nov. 8, he joined Sarah Lawrence writing faculty member Jo Ann Beard for a screening and discussion of Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which debuted on Netflix to great acclaim.
“I was really the only person who could do it,” Dunne said. “There were a lot of people out there who I knew would be interested [in seeing it], and she’s getting older now.”
Jo Ann Beard, another member of the SLC faculty has obsessively followed Didion’s career over the years, and is just as fascinated by how critics respond to her unapologetic nature. “Who is this strange bird,” Beard joked, “who talks so gloomily beneath all this California sunshine?” However, she felt that Dunne brought “something meaningful” to her - the kind of “love and understanding” that one can only get from having seen the entirety of someone’s life.
Dunne struggled with this at first. From the beginning, he hoped to portray Didion’s work within the context of her life and era. But their lives have been entwined for as long as he can remember. “When you’re a writer,” he said, “some things just feel so bright in the moment. But you have to go through them to know what you’ll keep.”
Each time Dunne found a new memory to include, he asked himself: did it say something about Didion’s character that absolutely needed to be there? Or was it just a memory of his Aunt Joan? If so, he cut it out.
One thing he did keep, though, was the first time he saw her. The whole family was at the pool together, and her husband told Dunne that he had “something poking out” from his bathing suit. Everyone else laughed at him while Didion “kept on going with a totally straight face.”
Why did he leave this in? Part of it was just how funny it was, and how much he loves to see her laugh. But it also speaks to Didion’s character in a way that nothing else Dunne found did. “She doesn’t write what other people are writing,” he said, “or see what other people are seeing.”
Beard told Dunne that she loves teaching documentaries to her students. From them, she has learned a lot about structure, and how to shape details into a coherent whole. The filmmaker’s task - getting their ideas down, then finding out how to bring them together - “makes what writers do look so easy.” So she asked him whether or not he planned this one beforehand.
Dunne found his structure in Didion’s own writing. As he went through her novels, memoirs, and articles, he thought long and hard about who he would talk to. “I wanted people who could speak about her work,” he said, “but also knew her personally.” Anna Wintour, Vanessa Redgrave and even Harrison Ford are just a few of the luminaries who share their memories.
Much of Didion’s life has been recorded on tape, but very little of Didion herself. “If I hadn’t brought up the doc[umentary],” Dunne said, “I doubt she’d have asked about it.” But she kept “a tremendous amount of personal memorabilia,” from family photos to handwritten notes to some of her earliest publications.
Beard felt that such a project would confront anyone with what might be the most difficult challenge in writing. “It’s hard to tell your own story, but even harder to tell that of people close to you,” she said. “But you do it all the time.” She asked Dunne if he doubted himself in the moment before everything came together.
“I felt terrified,” Dunne said. “Like, what the f--- had I done.” As much as he cared about Didion, he knew he was not the only one who felt the same way. Messing her up would be like messing up “everyone’s favorite book.” Dunne thought that if he had the resources support he needed, he might have the slightest chance of doing his aunt justice. It wasn’t until he showed her what he’d done, and heard what she thought, that he could let his own instinct guide him.
“She cried,” he said. “All these people talking about her, who she knows so well. And all this stuff I found, that she hasn’t seen or thought about in years. It showed me how much love I put into it, and how much everyone loves her.” Once Dunne saw that, he realized that “it was gold.”
Beard then asked Dunne how it feels to know that it worked, and that people liked it. All he could say was, “I don’t take a moment of it for granted.”
Benjamin Willems '21