Meet my aunt, the queen of darkness
An American Werewolf in London star Griffin Dunne talks to about his famous family and his friendship with Carrie Fisher.
Griffin Dunne hadn’t always planned to make a film about his aunt, the celebrated essayist and novelist Joan Didion. But when they collaborated on a trailer for her 2011 memoir, Blue Nights, he realised Didion was long overdue for the documentary treatment.
‘‘I asked her and from the moment she said ‘yes’, I said, ‘Oh, boy, I’m in for it now. This person means a lot to a lot of people’,’’ recalls Dunne. The years-long labour of love, aided by a Kickstarter campaign, has finally resulted in Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which is now screening on Netflix.
The actor-director-producer has created a sometimes surprising portrait of an author known for writing about the cultural disintegration of the 1960s and ‘70s and, more recently, the deaths of her husband and daughter. ‘‘She laughs a lot, she’s really funny — that was always something really important to me to show, rather than ‘the queen of darkness’,’’ he says.
As the film captures, Dunne grew up surrounded by bold-faced names. His father was TV producer turned writer Dominick Dunne, who chronicled highsociety crime in the pages of Vanity Fair. His uncle (and Didion’s husband) was novelist John Gregory Dunne. That carpenter who fixed up Aunt Joan’s Malibu deck one summer? Some guy named Harrison Ford.
Dunne, who rose to fame in An American Werewolf in London and After Hours, has been on a roll of late in a number of other streaming projects. He appeared in I Love Dick for Amazon this year and is filming Gore, about writer Gore Vidal, for Netflix. because they were John and Joan. I rarely saw them separately, it was always like talking to two people. As a teenager, I was too intimidated to have a writing discussion with Joan. ‘‘When you say ‘things fall apart’, what do you mean, Aunt Joan?’’ The White Album. That one I think I read in galleys. At Christmas we’d get first editions of whatever book either of them had out and it would be inscribed. Now I have all those and all the ones written to my sister and parents. Unlike Slouching Towards Bethlehem, where she was talking about the Haight in ‘67, with The White Album, I had the Doors’ and Joplin’s records on my bookshelf, the Sharon Tate murders happened right up the street. Oh, yeah. I showed her a threehour cut. I thought what if she just hates it – or worse, it bores her. I think she allowed me to make it because I was her nephew, but not in a nepotistic way. She also knew I was a director. She watches films, and she knew exactly what she didn’t want – something dry, academic, obsequious. And she knew she wouldn’t get that from me, because if you’re making a movie about somebody you’ve known all your life, you’re going to have a different take. She does. I’ve showed her early cuts of movies I’ve directed, and I will get pages of typewritten notes. So I expected that and was prepared for whatever. But if she said it on camera, she owned it. She’s just as tough on herself as she is on (Dick) Cheney. She doesn’t have any sort of regret. I think she was very moved by the movie. I read all her books in order, not just books, articles too, which start with (the Vogue essay) On Self-Respect, which she wrote maybe when she was 22, 23. What struck me was how little she changed. She arrived in New York fully formed, and formed not as a New Yorker, but as a Californian, as a descendant of homesteaders and with the practicality of being from a family that said, ‘‘no, we’re not going to take the shortcut.‘‘
She’s strong. And not just tough-minded, gimlet-eyed, shrewd. Just formidably strong. (When I was 16), my younger brother, Alex, came home and said, ‘‘I have just met the most amazing girl. Stay away from her.’’ And this girl came in, really beautiful but really funny. We just made each other cry with laughter. It was love at first sight – friendship love. We both were witness to each other’s greatest and worst moments.
We were room-mates in New York for a long time. I was a popcorn concessionaire at Radio City Music Hall while she was off acting in a movie in England. She’d call me in the middle of the night from London. I’d go, ‘‘How’s the movie?’’ She’d say, ‘‘It’s the stupidest piece of crap ever. I’m running around with a big monkey.’’ ‘‘What’s it called again?’’ ‘‘ Star Wars.’’ It is like camp. I think Kevin (Bacon) and I were the oldest people on the set and had certainly been acting longer than everyone by a long shot. We would look at each other with big grins on our faces, this is just like acting school.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is now streaming on Netflix.
Joan Didion is an American author best known for her novels and literary journalism.
The Didion-Dunne’s Malibu deck was fixed up by a carpenter by the name of Harrison Ford.