The writer Joan Didion has long been, to use her late husband’s words, “a figure”. She reached that position all the way back in 1968, when her first essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was released to fervent acclaim. But in early 2015, the extent of her status as an icon for a certain kind of educated, middle-class, fashionable woman, was solidified. Didion was made the face of Céline – a revered minimalist fashion brand – on January 6th, soon after you could buy a $1,200 leather jacket emblazoned with her face.
The Guardian ran a piece on Didion as “lifestyle brand”, Elle asked “Who Owns Joan Didion?” By September, Vulture was debating the debates with their piece “Toward a Unified Theory of Joan Didion”. “Joan Didion is a living stereotype,” Haley Mlotek wrote in the Awl, “and I only mean that in the most literal definition of the term.”
It was just before the Céline advert ran that Didion’s nephew Griffin Dunne began a crowdfunding campaign to make a documentary about his aunt. Fans pledged over $200,000 to get the project off the ground, which was eventually picked up by Netflix (its streaming on the service now with the title Joan Didion: The Center Cannot Hold). But how do you find fresh ways to document someone who has reached the status of stereotype, who has become a myth by their own making?
You don’t. Dunne leans into the stories we already know about Joan Didion: the parties with Janis Joplin, the prison meetings with Manson family member Linda Kasabian, the ritual of an early morning Coca-Cola. The film shows never shies away from closing in on glamorous black and white photos of a younger Didion leaning on a car, cigarette in hand. It includes readings of some of her most well-known, often-quoted passages.
But there are flashes of something more revealing, too – the tubs of ice cream in her freezer (a symptom of her struggle to maintain a healthy weight) or her surprisingly emphatic hand gestures, punctuating every sentence of a famously reticent writer. The New Yorker rightly pegs the most riveting moment in the film as when Didion describes discovering a 5-year-old on acid as “gold”, explaining, “You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece.” I was similarly struck by her recalling getting engaged to her husband. “I don’t know what ‘fall in love’ means,” she says. “It’s not part of my world.” If you’re at all interested in Didion’s life and work, those flashes are worth watching.
This article appears in the 08 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship