And though Didion may be a singular kind of celebrity, she has also, the film makes clear, been one in a decidedly conventional manner, as well. In 1977, the television anchor Tom Brokaw interviewed her about her novel A Book of Common Prayer. (To get the interview, Brokaw tells Dunne, he sent a letter “‘To Joan Didion, somewhere on Malibu beach’—and she got it!”) While they lived in L.A., Didion and her husband socialized with, among many other stars, Janis Joplin, and Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese, and Warren Beatty (the latter of whom, we learn in the documentary, had a crush on Joan, a fact that John Gregory Dunne apparently found hilarious).
In 1971, the couple contracted with a team of carpenters to do a remodel of their beachside house in Malibu: a place carved into an oceanside cliff, its backyard the expansive Pacific. In 1974’s Vegas, his “memoir of a dark season,” John Gregory Dunne tells the story of a construction project that ended up taking much too long and costing much too much—so much that, after the two-month project stretched into four and then five and then six months, he fired the contractor. “Jesus, man, I understand,” the contractor said, according to the memoir’s retelling.
The contractor, it turns out, was Harrison Ford. The actor, who would go on to become a friend of the couple, tells Griffin Dunne in The Center Will Not Hold that he spent long days at the house, alternating between working and explaining “why we hadn’t made more progress, and how it was going to cost even more money.”
So the consummate outsider, for all her Sphinxian mystique, was in many ways the consummate insider: another Hollywood power-player, remodeling her kitchen and laughing at the dinner party. A subject of photos as well as an observer of them. And her aura of easy cool, of course, would only expand the older she got. Didion has long been an icon, but in recent years—that viral packing list, that Vogue reprint of “On Self-Respect,” that Céline ad, those face-obscuring sunglasses—she has also become something decidedly more banal: a brand. (In The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s unauthorized 2015 biography of Didion, the author describes his subject as “working her brand.”) Which is also to say that Didion has become a celebrity, in large part, in a thoroughly modern way: commodified, deconstructed, her insights teased from their stories and passed around on Tumblrs and T-shirts and the email signatures of girls who are smart enough to be jaded. She is the subject of ephemeral enthusiasms.
And, yet, at this point: She isn’t fully a celebrity. She isn’t fully an author, in the modern way of it. To be an author, today, is generally to be required, repeatedly, to acquiesce: to give in to demands of omnipresence, of performative relatability. To live-tweet The Bachelor. To write op-eds in the Times. To accept that being part of the zeitgeist requires that one first accept the terms of geistiness: disembodied, environmental, miasmic. To be an author, today, is in some part to sacrifice oneself. “I believe that books,” the writer Elena Ferrante said, “once they are written, have no need of their authors”; this was shortly before the anonymity she attempted to maintain for herself was undone. Harper Lee repeatedly insisted that she did not want to publish a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; there Go Set a Watchman is, nonetheless, for sale on Amazon. To be an author—particularly, perhaps, a female author—is to accede to the demands of a world that wants ever more from you.