Many Netflix watchers are catching up with actor-director Griffin Dunne’s documentary about his aunt, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” following the news that the prolific writer died December 23 at age 87 from Parkinson’s. When President Barack Obama gave Didion the National Humanities Medal in 2012, he called her “one of our sharpest and most respected observers of American politics and culture.”
Didion not only chronicled the literati scene of New York in the 1950s and early ’60s but astutely dissected her home state of California. After graduating from UC Berkeley, she landed a job at Vogue in New York, where she penned movie reviews — until her pan of “The Sound of Music.” After marrying Time staffer John Gregory Dunne in 1964, the couple moved to Los Angeles and wound up becoming the ultimate Hollywood insiders. When Didion and Dunne later moved to New York City in 1988, they had lived in Los Angeles for 24 years.
Didion’s first novel “Run River” (1963) was set in her hometown of Sacramento, and her 2003 memoir, “Where I Was From,” looked back on her days in California. Didion and Dunne were part of the fabric of ’70s and ’80s Hollywood, writing countless essays and criticism. Didion wrote 19 books and, with Dunne, six screenplays, including the 1976 “A Star is Born” remake starring Barbra Streisand, and Al Pacino vehicle “The Panic in Needle Park.” (Unproduced was their widely admired Norman Mailer adaptation “The Deer Park.”) They adapted two of their novels, Didion’s bestseller “Play It as It Lays” (1970) and Dunne’s “True Confessions” (1977), into Hollywood movies, starring, respectively, Tuesday Weld as a B-movie actress, and Robert De Niro as a Monsignor who clashes with his homicide cop brother (Robert Duvall).
They knew the town better than anyone. “Los Angeles presents a real culture shock when you’ve never lived there,” she told British Vogue in 1993. “The first couple of years you feel this little shift in the way you think about things. The place doesn’t mean anything. Los Angeles strips away the possibility of sentiment. It’s flat. It absorbs all the light. It doesn’t give you a story. Then you start asking what it is to mean something. What does New York mean? Then you start telling yourself what New York means is a sentimental story.”
In her famous 1973 essay in The New York Review of Books, “Hollywood: Having Fun,” Didion skewered film reviewing as a “vaporous occupation” and disdained outsider coverage of Hollywood from the likes of New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. “Discretion is ‘good taste,’ and discretion is also good business,” she wrote, “since there are enough imponderables in the business of Hollywood without handing the dice to players too distracted to concentrate on the action.”
Didion loved explaining how Hollywood works. “The place makes everyone a gambler,” she wrote. “Its spirit is speedy, obsessive, immaterial. The action itself is the art form.” To read David O. Selznick’s memoir is “to get close to the spirit of actually making a picture, a spirit not of collaboration but of armed conflict in which one antagonist has a contract assuring him of nuclear capability.”
Fueling their writing were Didion and Dunne’s enthusiastic participation in the L.A. social scene. At their homes in Broad Beach and Brentwood, the couple threw dinner parties with “an incredible collection of people,” Griffin Dunne told me, “from the cinema world and journalism and cops and homicide detectives and D.A.s and movie stars,” including the likes of Mike Nichols, Candice Bergen, Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand as well as their own young actor-carpenter, Harrison Ford. Didion not only hung out with rock stars Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, but once cooked dinner for one of Charles Manson’s women. Many of these encounters wound up in her lauded collections “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” (1968) and “The White Album” (1979), as well as her descriptions of L.A. freeways and Santa Ana winds: “the wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”