From behind a veneer of vulnerability, and with a detached, matter-of-fact voice tinctured with melancholy, Joan Didion has crafted a persona that’s routinely been described as “cool,” as well as “cold.” Rather than pouring her heart out on the page, she releases thoughts in controlled rivulets, without a misused comma or uncontemplated thought. If Tom Wolfe popularized a style of exclamation mark-speckled muchness, and Norman Mailer one of masculine solipsism, Didion does the same for emotional precision. In her exacting work, one rarely finds a confession that hasn’t been groomed. The fervor of her writing is rooted in the merciless reporting, the preternatural keenness of her observations and analysis: cultural phenomena, California’s gold-hued vicinages, drug-addled rock bands and Hollywood soirées, sorrow.
This control of public perception, integral to Didion’s writing, stymies Joan Didion: The Center Cannot Hold. It’s an exercise in joviality, unflinching in its love for Didion, and unwilling to be much more. The sentimentality on display is antipodal to the writer at its core. The film takes its title from Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” which served as the epigraph to Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…” The film is directed by Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, who falls victim to the typical ailments of the talking-head documentary, relying on too much archival footage and too many fawning yarns from friends and colleagues. Not much is said about Didion’s years as a political writer, a period frequently elided by those who prefer her early reporting and her later, more wounded memoirs.
In her first book-jacket picture, left arm swaddling her torso and a cigarette gracefully perched in her right hand, Didion seems to swoon and beckon without effort, without care. It’s not easy to appear so nonchalant. Born in Sacramento in 1934 and an icon by 1967, when she published her watershed essay “Goodbye to All That,” she remains something of an enigma, alluring and aloof, a writer of incalculable influence and continued debate, esteemed for her prodigious talents and, in recent years, derided for perceived haughtiness and elitism. At 40 she was five feet two inches, 95 pounds, described in a New York Times profile as appearing frail, a chain-smoker with an affinity for chiffon scarves and sunglasses; now, in her 80s, she’s the same size, and though she no longer smokes, the scarves and glasses remain.
Speaking tersely and with practiced dramatic effect, her hands flailing as if in defiance, the waifish Didion discusses the grief of losing her husband and writing partner, John Gregory Dunne, which inspired her 2005 book The Year of Magical Thinking, a painfully earnest self-vivisection written in three months, as well as her daughter, Quintana, whose death inspired 2011’s Blue Nights, a far more caustic approach to mourning. For those who’ve read the books, The Center Cannot Holds offers little that’s new, and nothing as eloquent.
Didion looms still, the casual lyricism of her writing a staple of college writing courses, though with unimpeachable popularity comes necessary criticism. Writing in Vanity Fair in 2016, Lili Anolik called her “an ingenue, disingenuous,” and Meghan Daum’s Atlantic review of Tracy Daugherty’s 2015 biography of the writer posits that Didion may be now considered “the ultimate white girl.” These criticisms are absent from the documentary, naturally. Because Didion curated public perception of her own life, the home movies and photographs shown in the film, evoking a young woman uncharacteristically caught with her guard down, are fascinating, and feel genuine and unfettered. The interviewees (including Hilton Als, David Hare, Shelley Wanger, the late Robert Silvers, and Harrison Ford, who briefly lived with Didion and her husband during his oft-mentioned time as a carpenter) are enthusiastic, and far more affable than the ones Daugherty conducted for his biography.
But the rampant vigor and unadulterated love for Didion, while pleasant to see, expunges any notion of incisiveness, a decision that feels egregious when considering, say, the scrutiny and angry clarity with which Didion wrote about the Central Park jogger case (in her massive New York Review of Books essay “Sentimental Journeys”) or the media’s reporting on the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal (in “Clinton Agonistes,” also for the New York Review of Books). Scenes of Didion chopping up cucumbers recall Chantal Ackerman in their quotidian specificity, and the revelation that the writer literally puts manuscripts in her freezer when afflicted with creative stagnancy is cute, but the documentary fails to wrangle with its iconoclast subject’s legacy, to challenge or provoke or excavate bizarre details the way Didion did as a journalist. It’s intimate like a dinner party that’s been rehearsed—a loving ode rather than a revealing portrait, light-hearted instead of enlightening.