At 82 years old, author Joan Didion has guided several generations through complicated cultural touchstones, from California’s drug-laced coming-of-age in the ’60s to the dark politics of the 1988 presidential election. She’s written emotionally naked books on losing both her husband, John Dunne, and only daughter, Quintana Roo, within the space of two years, and wrote the 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That,” which sparked a thousand pieces on leaving New York. Yet the born-again New Yorker (she’s lived on the Upper East Side for almost 30 years) has never been a documentary subject—until now. We spoke to Griffin Dunne, actor (I Love Dick) and Didion’s nephew, about his new documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold—in theaters and on Netflix Friday 27—which charts Didion’s private family life through her venerated works.
What was it like working on something so personal?
It was an awesome responsibility to document this woman’s life. She means so much to so many people and it’s such a personal connection, like the way people feel about J.D. Salinger or Bob Dylan.
Was it a lot of pressure knowing she’d see it?
It was sort of appalling, you know? I wanted to make something that would be there long after she’s not, and let people see Joan the way I see her. Her reputation on the page is one of the queen of darkness and the despair of culture and society and family falling apart. Her subjects are all pretty dark but her personality and her character is not.
When you watch the film you realize just how wide her scope of work is.
She loves the process of working. Even when she’s writing a play [based on The Year of Magical Thinking] and having to incorporate Quintana’s death into it and the subject matter was very powerful and tragic, she loved getting up and going to rehearsal and watching runthroughs and having lunch with the crew. She loved the process and community of it. She's always been able to sort of separate her personal feelings from the process. [In the film] she [talks about seeing] a kid on acid [when she researched Slouching Towards Bethlehem], and you think she’s going to talk about her daughter, or what a sick thing she’s witnessing, but she’s saying, What a golden opportunity to be a journalist in the room with this.
What kind of aunt was she when you were growing up?
Our two families were interlinked all my life. From the time I was a teenager, John and Joan included me in their social life and invited me to sit at the table with all kinds of extraordinary filmmakers and journalists and cops and district attorneys. When I was 12, Joan asked my mother to bring me along to a party she gave for Tom Wolfe and the Janis Joplin set. I got my hippie beads and a little vest and made sure I looked great for Janis. It was a party I’ll never forget—I made my first movie about it.
In the documentary Joan speaks about meeting your uncle and getting married. She says the concept of falling in love wasn’t part of her world. What do you think she meant by that?
People talk about love at first sight and the passion and the blood rushing through your body. I think that she probably felt all those things about John, but she also saw a life partner who would understand better than anyone that you write about what you know. And [who would know] that her priorities would be, even when her daughter is two years old, to go to San Francisco and do research for Slouching Towards Bethlehem. They had an agreement that not only could she write about when their marriage was in turmoil, he would edit it.
She also describes John as being “between the world and me.”
They were one word. John did most of the talking and she did most of the laughing. But he was also her protector. If anyone spoke or wrote about Joan he went after them. When he died, he was one half of a partnership and it was an adjustment. She says she doesn’t know what she’s thinking until she writes it. You knew how she felt about it [by reading] The Year of Magical Thinking. It wasn’t just John, it was Quintana. She got the shit kicked out of her with those two losses back to back. But she’s pretty tough. Her character on the inside is why she’s sort of outliving everyone.