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Tuesday 17 September 2019

Documentary: The cult of Joan Didion

The legendary American writer, one of the only women to make it in the world of 'New Journalism', is the subject of a new Netflix documentary. Siobhán Brett reflects on Didion's stellar career which spanned political scandals and her own meditations on grief

Bright memories: Joan Didion at 82
Bright memories: Joan Didion at 82
Happy families: Joan, John and Quintana in their LA home in 1968

In 2014, I contributed to a fundraiser for a documentary about the life of American writer Joan Didion. For $50 I received, as a "reward", a PDF of Didion's favourite recipes (gumbo, corn soufflé, etc). A total of 3,565 people chipped in $221,135 in the space of a month.

The bigger the donation, the bigger the reward. Some people gave sums that entitled them to limited edition T-shirts (also for $50), others to signed copies of Didion's Proust Questionnaire for Vanity Fair ($100).

If you parted with $350 - and 18 people did - Didion's family undertook to read her a two-page letter from you. Two backers received old pairs of her sunglasses ($2,500). "Your opportunity to see the world as Joan," the website suggested.

Three years on, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is about to be released on Netflix. Didion is one of the world's most celebrated living writers of journalism, novels and screenplays. In recent years, as demonstrated by the Kickstarter campaign, Didion adulation has crossed into pop culture.

Bright memories: Joan Didion at 82
Bright memories: Joan Didion at 82

So much so, that in 2015 New York Magazine published galleries dedicated only to Didion's hair clips. That same year, she briefly became the face of French fashion house Céline and her "what-to-pack" for last-minute assignments (spartan - but for insistence on bourbon, cigarettes and a robe) has reached something approaching cult status online. Now photographs of a young Didion leaning on her Corvette in a bias-cut dress flood blogs.

I attended a press screening of the documentary in Manhattan last month. As the film opens, Didion, now 82, is pictured balancing on a couch in her apartment, the barest skim of lipstick visible over her teeth. She is bird-sized, almost impossibly light, with sinewy arms and hands. Throughout, she wears an array of fine knits and tortoiseshell glasses. The face of a watch obscures her forearm.

Initially, the documentary was called We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. The line, taken from the title essay of Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, continues: "See enough and write it down, I tell myself. And then some morning when the world seems strained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write, on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be."

To camera, Didion tells of writing early stories in a 'Big Five' tablets, the American equivalent of an Aisling copybook. While she was still a teenager, her mother told her about a writing contest for students, run by Vogue, called Prix de Paris - the "prix" was a $1,000 in prize money or a week in Paris, plus consideration for entry-level openings at Condé Nast titles.

"You can win this," her mother told her.

"And in my senior year," Didion tells us, in characteristic deadpan, "I did win it."

Happy families: Joan, John and Quintana in their LA home in 1968
Happy families: Joan, John and Quintana in their LA home in 1968

After graduating from Berkeley with a degree in English, she embarked on her "New York years". Didion was just 21. Ably and stylishly accepting assignments flung her way at fashion magazine Vogue, she quickly ascended the ranks.

It was in New York she met her husband, John Gregory Dunne, the grandson of an Irish immigrant - "lace-curtain Irish", per the documentary - and a fellow writer.

But those New York years ended in a strange fug for Didion who, by 28, had grown very tired of and disillusioned with the city. The arc of her relationship with it is set out in the highest possible resolution in her essay 'Goodbye to All That'. "Everything that was said to me, I seemed to have heard before," she wrote.

So Didion quit New York. She and Dunne moved first to Portuguese Bend in California in 1964, then to Hollywood, before finally settling in an idyllic coastal house with a lot of acreage in Malibu.

Her first novel, Run River, was released the year before this final move to somewhat mixed reviews.

California gave the couple an escape from communities of writers, which they savoured. In 1966, they adopted a daughter and named her Quintana Roo, after the Mexican state on the Yucatán Peninsula.

Dunne, a friend reveals in the documentary, was so concerned about the length of the wait before her baptism that he took it upon himself to "baptise" Quintana before the official sacrament.

Their marriage was mostly happy, although in her regular column for Life magazine, Didion once wrote when they were visiting Honolulu, "this island in the middle of the Pacific, in lieu of filing for divorce".

Footage of the family's years in California in the documentary is warm and dappled in sunlight. Quintana was a radiant child, recorded in close proximity to her parents, white-blonde and almost always barefoot. Didion walks on the beach with Dunne, cigarette in hand more than not.

Didion began writing for The New York Review of Books, a periodical that became a happy and long-term home for her considered reporting on political scandals and society, in 1973. In the 1980s she released two meaty works of non-fiction about places in immense flux, Miami, and Salvador.

Her reporting, subjective and persuasive as it is, is often categorised alongside names like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Hunter S Thompson. Didion was one of the only women, if not the only woman, to succeed in "New Journalism".

When it came to weeks spent in the field, her husband was an enabling force. Dunne and Didion also wrote screenplays together, and, sitting in separate offices at home, they would proof and edit one another's work. (Dunne even edited the column from Honolulu.)

The family returned to New York in 1988 after 24 years in California. Fifteen years later, in 2003, Dunne died of cardiac arrest at the dinner table. Eighteen months after that, Quintana, whose youth had been turbulent and intermittently troubled, died in hospital from acute pancreatitis. She was just 39.

The books Didion would go on to release about their deaths - The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights - are penetrating meditations on grief. Both propelled her name into quarters it had not previously reached.

A related sadness pervades the 92-minute film: Didion is captured walking the halls of her apartment alone, or slowly assembling a cucumber and watercress sandwich at the kitchen counter. There is a certain economy of expression and intonation that comes with age.

"The film will be very visual by using her prose," Griffin Dunne, the director, who is Didion's nephew, told Vogue, and this is indisputable. But it is easy to wish there was more of Didion herself to see.

In lieu, bright memories and admiring insights are drawn from colleagues and friends, including Vogue editor Anna Wintour, the actress Vanessa Redgrave (who played Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking as it appeared on Broadway in 2007) and the actor Harrison Ford, a one-time carpenter at the Didion-Dunne home in Malibu who was invited to fabled house parties and holiday lunches.

Each time a segment of Didion's life is embarked on in the film, the camera focuses on a cover of one of her books, resting on a shelf. Though cute, this doesn't get into the breadth of her reporting, or her fiction, or the tartness of her English.

For that, one must just read. The documentary considers Didion's person, her loves, and the places and ways in which she has spent her time. Real enchantment with a write necessarily extends beyond work and into life. Why else would anybody want to buy old sunglasses or digital copies of recipes?

The Center Will Not Hold is released on Netflix on October 27

The best of Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

A collection of Didion's essays and the best of her early magazine journalism. Highlights include 'On Self-Respect', first published in Vogue, and 'Goodbye to All That', on leaving New York City at 29.

Play It as It Lays (1970)

This is a vivid and painful novel that strips back a life lived by a troubled woman in late 1960s America.

A Book of Common Prayer (1977)

Didion's third novel is set in a fictional country in Central America, playing on themes of corruption and revolution. This is a kind of prelude to Salvador (1983), a reported book about the titular country.

The White Album (1979)

Her second collection of non-fiction comprises writing about women, travel, and the products of a unique cultural and political climate in her native California.

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

Written during and about the year after the death of John Dunne, Didion's husband. "Though the material is literally terrible, the writing is exhilarating," was how the book was received by The New York Times. Blue Nights, about the death of her daughter Quintana, followed in 2011.

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