Her reporting, subjective and persuasive as it is, is often categorised alongside names like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Hunter S Thompson
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