Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Directed by Griffin Dunne, this documentary reflects on the life and career of Joan Didion, one of the most influential female writers of our time. Running time 1 hour 34 minutes.


Joan Didion is a tiny ( 5 foot, 100 -ish pound) American writer, observer, and commentator of human behavior and emotion. This documentary, by her nephew Griffin Dunne, is made of his interviews with Joan, archived photos and video, and interviews of those who know her.

At age 5-ish, Joan’s mother gave her a notebook to “stop wining and start writing down her thoughts”. As an adolescent, Joan would see movies 3 – 4 afternoons a week with her favorite being John Wayne which would plant an idea of love in her mind she never felt came to pass. Quoting the line of John Wayne’s in War of the Wildcats when he tells the woman he “…will build her a house at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow…”

Her mother could be considered responsible for Joan’s career (my opinion) as not only did she give her the notebook to journal in, she also encouraged Joan’s writing and suggested Joan enter the Prix de Paris writing contest Vogue magazine held every year for the chance to intern at their New York or Paris location. In Joan’s senior year at USC-Berkeley, she entered and won the contest and moved to New York to work or Vogue writing copy and essays. It was during her time at Vogue when she published her first novel, Run River, which focused on a California family much like her own.

While in New York, she meets John Gregory Dunne, also a writer, whom she says she didn’t really know what love meant but she knew she wanted their relationship to continue. And so it did when the couple moved to Portuguese Bend, California where they wrote for magazines while researching John’s book, Delano, which covered the California grape strike.

As they continued to write, they received a call saying a baby girl was available for adoption. They knew at first site, she was to be their daughter whom they named Quintana. Because the beach house was a no-kids rental, they moved into a large Hollywood Hills rental where they became friends with various literary and music people.

Joan smoked profusely (practically every picture of her includes a cigarette), drank super cold cokes, and ate canned almonds her mother sent her every month. She loved The Doors and wrote essays based on the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco. The Center Was Not Holding chronicled the lifestyle and societal disconnect people during that period experienced. How loved ones would “disappear” and though it was peace and love, it was an extremely dark period for people. She remembers going to a house and seeing a five year child high on acid and likening the time as a “horror of disorder”. Time spent with music people was confusing and there were drugs everywhere which she and John did not like in their home.

Joan recalls after the Mansion murders, nothing made sense. Joan would later write essays based on interviews with Linda Kasabien, one of the women involved in the Manson murders, citing one such interview was done while making dinner for Linda and her child. The evening felt “weirdly normal and yet wasn’t normal at all”.

Her marriage with John was rocky; although, they couldn’t imagine life without one another. Joan always felt more comfortable near the beach and after moving to Malibu, their home became a hot-spot of creativity for movie people like Brian de Palma, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford. John and Joan loved talking about movies and writing, so they began writing screenplays together as a fun and easy way to make money while they continued to write essays and novels.

Joan eventually wrote about about U.S. political scenes like Salvador, which she says was “the most terrifying place” she’s even been as well as essays on Dick Cheney and the “Bush war”. John and Joan would eventually move back to New York where Joan would continue to write. Joan would later receive the highest American honor, National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2013 for her written work and impact on American literature and society.

In December of 2003, while Quintana was in the hospital for pancreatitis illness, John passed away from a heart attack in their New York apartment. She wrote about this devastating loss in The Year of Magical Thinking where she explores grief, loss, and their marriage. It would later become a one-woman stage play. Two years later, Quintana would pass away from a head injury after a seemingly minor fall which prompted her to write Blue Nights in 2011 to explore her grief around her daughter’s death.

What I Liked

I liked the non-invasive style her nephew takes with this documentary. Joan is straight-forward with her stories of the past, speaking plainly and truthfully about her relationship with John and Quintana. Often times, when a word doesn’t come to mind, she makes a facial expression or uses a hand gesture which perfectly sums up exactly what she wanted to express. For a women who writes with such lucidity and observational clarity, her manner of speaking is more terse and to the point.

She sees her writing as experiences and opportunities to observe and write about the human condition and experience. While certain moments were terrifying or horrible to witness, they were “gold”, what she lived and wrote for.

I also liked how those interviewed for the documentary spoke of her eccentricities like her drinking cokes and eating almonds and not necessarily of her writing. Some did express how her lens of the world opened their eyes as well as made them feel seen in their ethnicity. (my words, not theirs)

What I Wished Was Better

Well, it’s a documentary, so… All her career highlights were covered, her childhood, her loss, her achievements. But what might be missing a bit is the emotional connection between Joan and her memories. She recalls them with vividness but recounts them more like facts. While she talks about her experiences, she doesn’t get to elaborate on how they made her feel or how she separated her emotions from the experience to write the essay or novel. Her work is more of an external observation of her experiences which, I suppose, made her work appeal to so many; however, in her more personal work, prevented the reader from really getting to know her. This came across in the documentary as her nephew confessed in post interviews that he purposely moved lightly around the deeper emotional topics out of love for her.

Final Thoughts

Joan Didion is fascinating and her work insightful and thought provoking. The Center Will Not Hold scratches the surface of Joan’s life and career, mush like the essays Joan wrote about society and relationships. It inspired me to read her novels as I was only familiar with her stage and screen work. There is a level of emotional detachment within her I found in common with myself. This has caused me to consider writing more of my own observations instead of keeping them to myself to protect the innocent.

Available on Netflix and definitely worth the time. Watch the trailer below:

Fun Fact: Joan Didion’s ancestral family traveled across the U.S. with the Donner party. When they encountered the blizzard, the Donner party took a short cut while her family stayed true to the plan on the map. Well, we all know what happened to the Donners…Knowing this, Didion often recalls that story as a reminder to not take short cuts in life.

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