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Director Griffin Dunne on Joan Didion's extraordinary life, and why she won't write about Trump

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Writer Joan Didion, left, with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and daughter, Quintana. Her life and work are the subject of Griffin Dunne’s new documentary  Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. (Photo: Netflix)

From a young age, Griffin Dunne knew what the rest of the world would eventually figure out: His aunt Joan Didion was “the epicenter of cool.” Although actor and director Griffin grew up in a glamorous Beverly Hills family (his father was film producer and Vanity Fair contributor Dominick Dunne), he was always in awe of the brilliant, beautiful journalist who married his uncle the writer John Gregory Dunne.  “We always knew she was hot s***. There was no way around it,” Griffin Dunne told Yahoo Entertainment, describing how Didion “drove a banana-yellow Stingray along the Pacific Coast Highway” and “gave parties where Janis Joplin would show up.” Those little details are just a part of Didion’s enduring appeal, orbiting her legacy as one of the greatest writers of our time.

Dunne’s documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (premiering Friday on Netflix) is a loving tribute to the life and work of his 82-year-old aunt, told through extensive interviews with friends, family, admirers, and, of course, Didion herself. The idea for the film came to Dunne six years ago, after he and Didion made a short film to promote her memoir Blue Nights. “I became aware of the fact that there wasn’t a documentary about her and was stunned by that,” said Dunne. “And I thought, if I ask and she says yes, I would be the only one she would say yes to. I would be the only one in the position to actually make this film that I suspected people were really hungry to see.”

Watch a trailer for Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold illuminates the contradictions that made Didion such a compelling, influential writer. In the film’s most remarkable interview, Dunne asks about her reaction to seeing a small child on LSD, which she famously described in her Summer of Love takedown Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Rather than being horrified, Didion is giddy at the memory, calling it “gold” and saying that journalists “live for moments like that.”

“It blew my mind,” Dunne said. “It also, I thought, captured exactly who Joan is and why she is such an important journalist. Because moments earlier, she talked about having to go on location to San Francisco and leave her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Quintana, behind and how much she missed her. And then you have that same mother look at somebody else’s child and going, ‘Oh my God, this moment is gold.’”

Among the intimate details revealed in the film is Didion’s unusual habit of putting her manuscripts in the freezer when she has writer’s block. “That’s very much how she navigates life,” said Dunne. “She gets to a thing that she’s ready for, then she’ll write about it; if she’s not ready, she’ll put it in the proverbial freezer.” The most notable example is The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s memoir about life after husband John’s sudden death in 2003. Though her daughter, Quintana, died just months later, Didion wrote only about John in the book, leaving the subject of Quintana’s death largely untouched until 2011’s Blue Nights.

Filmmaker Griffin Dunne. (Image: AOL Build)

Didion’s work is both personal and political, and much of it resonates deeply in this age of cultural upheaval and anxiety. According to Dunne, Didion is “worried about the future like everybody else,” but the current president is simply “not a compelling-enough figure” to make her take up the pen again. “There’s no subtext, there’s no hidden agenda [with Donald Trump],” Dunne said. “What she excelled in as a writer of American politics was to dissect the evil geniuses’ message and what it really meant, and what the New York Times was saying about the message, and seeing what the New York Amsterdam News in Harlem was all saying about the same thing, and come up with what people are really saying. The Twitter sound bites, they just don’t hold her interest.”

Dunne’s aunt is not one to dwell on her own legacy — “You’re never going to get a thing out of her on that,” he told Yahoo — but the documentary gave her a rare chance to appreciate how much her work has meant to the world. At the film’s New York Film Festival premiere, Dunne said: “She had this opportunity to see the entire theater stand up and give her a 10-minute standing ovation.  And that was the accrued interest on the love that had been building. They were friends, fans, family, everybody standing up looking at Joan in that box when the spotlight hit. People were giving it back. And so she got to see it, right in front of her face: Look what’s come my way. That was a moment I don’t think she took lightly.”

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold begins streaming Friday on Netflix.

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