Having watched Griffin Dunne’s (Joan’s nephew and actor) brilliant new documentary, Netflix, “The Center Will Not Hold” I began craving salted almonds and ice cold cokes; the magical combo that supposedly got her literary motor running everyday of her life. It was her mother’s wish that she become a writer. She handed her a blue colored notebook with the number 5 written on the cover. The special keepsake reveals the early buds of her distinguished style.
But here forever, thank God, she sits for the length of the filming of this documentary in her cozy apartment reflecting, bright eyed and well coiffed, about finding her center in a universe in which she describes “as if it is no more.” The documentary is compelling, motivational and deeply revealing; it’s an MRI of her entire life as told viscerally with humility for all she has witnessed.
Finding the “Gold” as she relates to the horrific moment confronted by dead bodies in El Salvador, children among them, war torn and distended, made me question could that have been a solitary moment in her life where death lays a hand on her shoulder.
Her life was bluer than most others. Coming to terms with grief in age of much despair and uncertainty was a precursor to what Joan would later experience.
Her beloved husband and co-worker, John Dunne died of a heart attack in 2003. She always relied on his judgement and he the same on hers. The two would spend countless hours editing, rewriting, perfecting their words on a page. It was their non-stop mission to write,vetted for life like intricate ballroom dancers never stepping on each others toes.
It was a sign. Sorrow was meant to follow Joan creating a landscape from which her verbal palate would flow far from the bliss of her earlier life and winning journalistic escapades that today’s journalists would dream to own.
Her moment of unconditional love arrived with the birth of her daughter Quintana. It was truly a gift to be given life from another mother’s womb. She cherished the gift, nurtured and cared for the child who in the end just could not keep surviving due to a series of illnesses before she passed in 2005. These two events did not put her creative inertia on hold. Instead, she dug deeper in the chasm of her own pain and wrote more.
The film speaks wonders from her roots and in her own words. Her vitality abounds creating that feeling that you can’t get enough. Not enough of the entire landscape of her life going back to the humble beginnings before cell phones and social media.
She was the Internet connecting people to places, events, forging style (her own) before there were stilettos.
Young, beautiful with boundless energy and passion the film highlights Joan’s 60’s ambition that transcends and lives on in media moguls like Vogue‘s Anna Wintour and The New Yorker‘s Hilton Als, the film resonates with gratitude for all of Didion’s magical life.
There are two scenes that stand out in my mind. One a Hollywood predator known for his ambitious ways with women, Warren Beatty begs to be seated next to Joan at her dinner party, and the other celebrity who hammered his way to the top with metal and steel, Harrison Ford, who spent months working construction with Didion and Dunne on their house in Malibu before Hollywood would catapult him to stardom.
Home to Didion was always a place she worked. Whether it was a mansion overlooking the Pacific, cigarette lit, and eyes gazing at the site of the man she loved and the daughter she had loved and dreamed would someday nurture her as she aged. Not so lucky.
The film demonstrates that Joan was always at the right place at the right time. She knew every story had to have an angle, a hook. The 60’s brought her a plethora of exotic, strange, sometimes humanly uncomfortable situations that tested her limits but she never lost her gusto or her innate curiosity.
It was her life of magical thinking that made her early work legendary; in the presence of people whose theatrical displays, the acid-washed children in Haight-Ashbury where the aroma of cannabis influenced the masses in their floral power and peace keeping love fests, or delving into the demonic interviewing members of the Manson family, and the harrowing bravery of being a journalist in the middle of a country’s civil war- El Salvador.
At 82 she has reflected and written enough brilliant literature to last more than her own lifetime. Eons to come. If Dunne has given us a gift it is this film and the rare, so precious opportunity, to hear first hand from one of the greatest writers on earth.
From out of the blue comes the depth and tenacity of her soul. Let it linger a while. Fast forward to a universe that has Joan Didion to thank for being the center and to which we can behold.
And thanks to Griffin Dunne for unmasking the beauty and reverence of her soul.