Filmic Joan Didion: On the Writer and ‘The Center Will Not Hold’

Joan Didion/Photo © Vintage 2017

Almost a decade ago, I entered Broadway’s Booth Theatre for Vanessa Redgrave’s one-woman, tour de force The Year of Magical Thinking. In stealth mode, I whispered to my date, “Look, there’s Joan Didion!” She followed my gaze to the standing room rail along the back of the house and promptly shouted, “Joan!”

To my surprise, Didion, who’d penned the grief memoir about the loss of husband John Gregory Dunne two years ago, along with the theatrical iteration we were about to witness, shouted back, “Sylvia!” The two women, both septuagenarians at the time, bounded toward one another, singing out, “Cartagena!” as they embraced.

Unbeknownst to me, the pair had become fast friends holed up in a Colombian hotel as the lone speakers of English on a South American film festival jury. In the few minutes of chit-chat that followed, I was able to observe Didion’s darting, squirrel-like movements offset by her laconic drawl.

It was the perfect primer for what Redgrave was about to put over on stage and I’ve often felt like everyone should be able to have a quick chat with the writer before curtain to appreciate the verisimilitude of Redgrave’s Tony-nominated portrayal.

In the new documentary “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” which aptly had its world premiere at the 55th New York Film Festival, playwright and “Magical Thinking” director David Hare posits the project as almost solely a means of fattening up the 75-pound author while the film cuts to a photograph of her gamely tucking into dinner at a bistro table the crew set up backstage, along with the helpful signage “Café Didion.”

“The man who cuts my hair, Didion wrote in the essay “In Hollywood” included in her 1979 collection The White Album, “like everyone else in the community, is looking for the action, the game, a few chips to lay down. Here in the grand casino no one needs capital. One needs only this truly beautiful story. Or maybe if no truly beautiful story comes to mind one needs $500 to go halves on a $1,000 option payment for some else’s truly beautiful but (face it) three-year-old property.”

She pauses her Hollywood as a casino analogy long enough to explain that a “property” is a book or story before the deal, “the basic material” thereafter. She goes onto explain that Hollywood when she was writing “was narcotized by ‘Easy Rider,’ and all that was needed to get a picture off the ground was less than a million dollars and “this terrific 22-year-old kid director.” Many of these projects “ended up unreleased, shelved” leading to what she calls “the hangover summer of 1970, when nobody could get past the gate without a commitment from Barbra Streisand.”

Three years after that hangover summer, Barbra Streisand gets a new hairdresser, who in quick order becomes her lover, and then her producing partner. Suddenly Didion, along with husband John Gregory Dunne, has that deal that can get them past the gate as two of a handful of writers who shift the Pygmalion monster “A Star is Born” from the movie business to the music business for this perennial’s most financially successful, but artistically bankrupt iteration.

The author had perhaps earned the right to put her feet up. She’d already penned her unflinching account of 1960s counter-culture entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem, married Dunne and banged out the gritty adaptation of James Mills’ Panic in Needle Park, which they’d pitched around as “Romeo and Juliet but with junkies.”

The following year, her astounding novel Play It As It Lays is made into a big-screen vehicle for Tuesday Weld. “I wish it had been a better movie,” Didion, who adapted the script herself, deadpans. Likewise, she shrugs off her first novel, Run, River, written just after she’d moved to New York with a day-job at Vogue, as “that was sort of what you did.”

But if constructing a novelistic, idyllic rural California is “what you did” upon moving to New York, documenting a gritty, drug-addled New York seemed to be “what you did” upon moving to Hollywood. The couple quickly found themselves the epicenter of New Hollywood, and had to find a way to pay a hunky, young carpenter named Harrison Ford for renovations to their Malibu beach house. And the film script work became more practical, a way to pay for all It all, along with the occasional trips to Hawaii.

This slide into the work-a-day and a concern with preserving their Writers’ Guild health insurance over creating great art coincides with Didion’s “In Hollywood” essay appearing in July of 1973, the same year Streisand and her hairdresser took the bait on “A Star Is Born.” Didion emphasizes that in Hollywood “one needs to look not particularly at the script but at the deal memo,” and they go onto minister to ailing scripts and those that will never be produced: a respectable “Doctor and Mrs.” couple of the Malibu colony.

In a shocking moment in the new documentary, Didion sizes up a five-year-old high on acid she encounters researching her “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” essay. “Let me tell you,” she says cooly, “it was gold.” This sniper’s tenacity is again employed on the dross they are attempting to spin into precious metal when they begin an almost decade-long engagement with what would become the innocuous Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer-anchored 1996 rom-com “Up Close and Personal.”

The film began its life as an adaption of Alana K. Nash’s biography Golden Girl, chronicling the tragic death of NBC’s first anchorwoman Jessica Savitch. Dunne wrings their eight-year struggle into a book entitled Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, and though their journey is peopled by many monsters, nightmare producers from Don Simpson to Scott Rudin, Dunne arrives at the same conclusion his wife did years prior in her “In Hollywood” essay: the real monster is the money.

Which is why it is so nice to see Didion return as a playwright to New York, a town in which the writer sits confidently atop the food chain. The fact that the charmed Didion turned it into a gig that included dinner is just gravy.