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Familiarity breeds respect in the honest, moving 'Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold'

Familiarity breeds respect in the honest, moving 'Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold'
Joan Didion, her husband, John Gregory Didion, and their daughter, Quintana Roo, from the documentary "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold." (Julian Wasser / Netflix)

Access is almost everything for a documentary filmmaker, and the entree Griffin Dunne had to his celebrated subject makes all the difference in "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold."

Dunne is not just an actor and the picture's director but he is also Didion's nephew, the son of her late husband John Gregory Dunne's brother Dominick, and the palpable affection she demonstrates stands him and the film in good stead.

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It's more than that Didion is honest with him, for honesty is a trademark of her more than half a century of writing, as much a characteristic of her work in books like "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "The Year of Magical Thinking" as her piercing insights and exquisite command of language.

And it's not only that, at age 82, Didion rarely gives extended interviews like the one at the heart of things here, or that celebrated people in her life like Harrison Ford, Vanessa Redgrave, David Hare and Anna Wintour might not cooperate without her imprimatur.

It's that the closeness with Dunne, as well as his complete familiarity with the boldface-names life she and her husband led in both Los Angeles and New York, has given this film a quality of personal intimacy that makes it moving and involving.

And it achieves that position of strength despite a few bumps along the way. "The Center Will Not Hold" (named for the Yeats line Didion famously appropriated) opens uncertainly, as if unsure of its footing. Several people in addition to the author read Didion's work in voice-over, but we're rarely told who is reading or what is being read, and even on-camera voices are not always identified. Yet as the film goes on, the strength of Didion's presence makes this less of an issue.

Though she grew up in Sacramento, the descendant of a family that wisely parted company with the Donner Party on its way west, Didion always had the outside world on her mind.

She recounts her mother showing her an issue of Vogue when she was a child, pointing to a notice about the magazine's Prix de Paris for college seniors and telling her, "You could win that when the time comes," which she did.

A childhood fan of films and John Wayne, she laments that no one ever repeated to her his movie offer to build a spouse a house "at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow."

When Dunne points out that in John Gregory Dunne, whom she met when both worked in New York, "you married a protector," she then adds, "also a hothead." But the strength of their decades-long bond is unmistakable.

"I don't know what falling in love means. It's not part of my world," she says of their meeting. "But I wanted this to continue, I liked being a couple, I liked having somebody there."

Didion and Dunne moved to Los Angeles when she was 28, living for a time in an enormous house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. Describing herself as "an observer, not an interrogator," she wrote landmark journalism about her life and times, with nothing off-limits.

Asked by Dunne why she wrote about thoughts of divorcing her husband in an essay later reprinted in "The White Album," Didion does not prevaricate. "You used your material, you wrote what you had," she says. "That was what I had at the moment."

Didion and Dunne moved on to screenwriting, which they claimed they did for fun and money, though a longtime friend, writer Calvin Trillin, offers another reason: "They spoke of the Writers Guild health insurance in almost hushed tones."

Not surprisingly, the most moving parts of "The Center Will Not Hold" involve the two deaths, first of husband John and then of daughter Quintana Roo, that were the subject of "The Year of Magical Thinking" and "Blue Nights." "Grief," she movingly says, "turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it."

Didion says at one point that if one of the sadnesses of death is those left, "I'm not leaving anybody behind." She will be leaving her readers, however, and this personal documentary shows what a hard gap that will be to fill.

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'Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills; streaming on Netflix

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