2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Joan Didion, John Wayne and Personal Brands

Photo: Julian Wasser/Getty Images

Photo: Julian Wasser/Getty Images

Joan Didion is not a film critic or even an entertainment reporter. But in the soft wistfulness of “John Wayne: A Love Song,” she nonetheless pulls together a piece that says more about our relationship to the stars than most film critics ever hope for. Reporting on the behind the scenes of The Sons of Katie Elder in the wake of Wayne’s production-delaying cancer scare, Didion integrates herself like a ghost on the testosterone-heavy set. Didion’s prose reminds that writing about the film industry too often falls into the trap of public relations, ego feeding or brand building. 

Focused on the humanity of once unattainable stars, raw observations rise to the surface of Didion’s piece without the gossipy inclinations many have come to expect from more recent reports. While Didion’s identity, and even her presence, have been sewn into the narrative, she never lets that overtake the story. From her childhood love for “The Duke” to a peaceful dinner with the actor (“I lost the sense that the face across the table was in certain ways more familiar than my husband’s”), Wayne remains the central image of the piece. “John Wayne: A Love Song” reaches towards finding an answer to the effortless appeal of the stars we love and unveils, along the way, a vulnerable need to be loved as well. This might not be Didion’s best work on Hollywood, but it might very well be her most relatable, as she conveys stray observations on personal alienation and desire woven onto the screen.

Remembering her youth, Didion reminds of where most critics love for cinema begins as she unravels cinephilic desires. Opening her article with the seduction by a certain actor or film seems familiar to just about anyone who loves to go to the movies, but she doesn’t stop there. In the current climate of film writing, many writers are able to get vulnerable and sell a part of themselves through their writing. Few writers are able to balance this with self-reflection and doubt to make wider observations about the way things are.

The failures to do so effectively rise to the surface and become a warning call for integrating yourself on the page. Earlier this year, Rich Cohen’s pitiful and star-hungry interview with Margot Robbie for Vanity Fair showcased one of the worst recent examples of vacant cognizance. His prose dribbles with disaffected objectification and yearns for recognition. All that was missing to complete the portrait of Cohen’s brand building exercise was a stray nod to the immaculate cocktail hanging off his fingers. In a roundabout way, Cohen’s writing does reveal something about the culture of Hollywood, something that swirls around rather than within his words — that too much film writing has lost its sense of “being” and only serves a self-cannibalizing culture of personal branding.

Didion herself has long been a stereotype for a certain kind of writer. She has her detractors and her own pop cultural moments where she becomes less herself and more of an image of what most believe her to be. No writer of her stature has ever been immune to this kind of cultural skewering. While the sense of intimacy Didion reaches for becomes increasingly an impossibility in an industry carefully guarded by handlers and public relations, too many writers fall into the trap of being guided unilaterally down a predestined path set out by the marketing department.

There are certainly a number of writers who live up to the ideals set forth by writers like Joan Didion, but there are also far too many who dare to break away from the cycle of marketing. Whether they’re indirectly writing copy for the studios or bolstering their own brand of drooling glamour, there clearly needs to be a keener critical eye in upholding the film writing standards to a much higher level. 

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.