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Review: Joan Didion's life under the magnifying glass

"Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold," a new documentary having its world premiere today at the New York Film Festival, is a doting love letter to the noted essayist and novelist. And no wonder -- it's directed by her nephew, actor-director Griffin Dunne ("After Hours").

A photo of author Joan Didion at home in Hollywood, 1968. Julian Wasser/Netflix

Which explains why the film is less about Didion's considerable gifts as a writer and more about her powers of observation, empathy and ironic humor -- attributes which her readers have relished through her work, but which those who were closest to her could appreciate most of all.

Born in Sacramento, Calif., in 1934, Didion moved constantly as a child, which may explain why books were constant companions for her.  A voracious reader and writer, she won an essay contest while a student at UC Berkeley. The prize: A job at Vogue magazine in New York City. She would spend several years at the magazine, while also stretching her wings with her first novel, "Run, River."

Though she would write a handful of novels and screenplays over the course of her career (including "Play It As It Lays" and the film adaptation of "The Panic in Needle Park"), Didion is best known for her non-fiction, as a leading proponent of the "New Journalism," conveying true life with the colorful literary panache of a novelist. Her 1968 book, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," a collection of pieces published by the New York Times Magazine, Saturday Evening Post and others, captured the incongruities of life in counter-culture California.

The filmmakers take it on faith that their audience is familiar with most of her work, sifting little of it into the film, instead focusing on interviews with Didion, family members, colleagues and fans to recreate her life's journey. That includes her nearly-40-year marriage to fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. His death in 2003, and the long hospitalization of their daughter, Quintana (who died in 2005), led to Didion's fiercely revelatory tome about grief and mourning, "The Year of Magical Thinking" (which received the National Book Award for Nonfiction) and her follow-up, "Blue Nights."

But because we primarily see and hear Didion through the lens of an observant interviewer, rather than through the product of her own observations, we are left wanting for her literary gifts.  We hear the raconteur, the celebrity charmer, the feminist balancing motherhood with a trailblazing journalism career, and the glamorous aunt who stood slightly apart, with a wry smile, from other members of the Dunne clan. 

It's an enticing subject nonetheless, and Didion, though appearing physically frail at age 82, is still sharp as a tack.

So, go read her stuff now.

"Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold" (distributed by Netflix) screens at the New York Film Festival on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, before opening in select theatres on October 27, the day it debuts on Netflix. 92 mins. The film is not rated.

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