To Griffin Dunne, she is Aunt Joan. He received first editions of her books as Christmas presents and, as a teenager, went to her parties where you would find “homicide detectives next to Warren Beatty next to Christopher Isherwood.” She let him drive her banana-yellow Corvette Stingray.
“It was pretty easy to pick up chicks in that thing,” Dunne, 62, tells The Post.
To everyone else, she is Joan Didion, the celebrated author whose memoir of grief, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” won a National Book Award in 2005 and whose essays on California culture, in particular “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” an account of the destructively aimless San Francisco hippie scene, made her a celebrity. Born in Sacramento, the descendant of pioneers who crossed the Donner Pass in the 19th century, she helped redefine journalism in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Dunne, who is also an actor (“After Hours”) and the son of novelist Dominick Dunne (“The Two Mrs. Grenvilles”), convinced his aunt to sit down in her Manhattan apartment and talk about her early successes and devastating late-life tragedies. The result is a moving documentary “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” that debuts Friday on Netflix and will also play at the Metrograph theater.
Harrison Ford helped build this deck at Joan Didion’s home. Also in the photo are Didion’s daughter, Quintana, and husband, John Gregory Dunne.John Bryson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Didion’s penchant for the cool observation that cuts to the quick may make her seem like a intimidating subject, but Dunne says she was cooperative.
“Her response to my asking was, ‘Oh, sure, go ahead.’ There was no real arm-twisting,” he says. “Then, I had [this] awesome responsibility: I can’t screw this up.”
As Didion’s nephew (she was married to Dominick’s brother), Dunne had access to everybody who really knows her. Anna Wintour talks about Didion’s tenure at Vogue, where she went to work after winning the magazine’s Prix de Paris writing contest in 1956, during her senior year at UC Berkeley. Didion’s 1961 essay, “On Self-Respect,” first appeared in the fashion magazine and was later included in her “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” collection, published to great acclaim in 1968.
“I was struck at the outpouring of character that came out from this 23-year-old girl, who was a woman in formation,” Dunne says, “and all of the personal choices that she talks about, of being a person you can live with.”
Harrison Ford talks about working as a carpenter for Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, whom she married in 1964 and with whom she wrote five screenplays. They wanted a deck built on their home in a remote part of Malibu, where they moved in 1971 with their adopted daughter Quintana.
“I had a young family, and I became their carpenter for the same reason I became their friend,” Ford says. “I was out of my depth. I didn’t know where I was going. But they always made me feel welcome.”
Griffin Dunne with Didion earlier this month.Getty Images
For Dunne, there was no question that Ford was destined for something much greater than building bookshelves. “I met him when I was 16. He was smoking Marlboro cigarettes. He was the most charismatic guy I ever met,” he says.
Didion and her husband’s early success as the screenwriters of 1971’s “Panic in Needle Park,” created a lucrative revenue stream beyond magazine writing and attracted the likes of Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese to their home.
“They had great dinner parties,” Dunne says. “People would get stoned and drink and that was a harrowing drive home.”
Of all parties Dunne, who grew up in Beverly Hills, was invited to, the one he remembers best was the one for the publication of Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in 1968 at the Didion-Dunne house in Hollywood. Janis Joplin was on the guest list.
“I was 12 years old and obsessed. I didn’t want Janis to find out I was there with my mother,” he says. “She was doing a concert at the Palladium. I left just before she arrived.”
It was pretty easy for Didion and her nephew to discuss the good times in California, where she lived with her family for 24 years, but she had the wind knocked out of her in 2003, when her husband died of a fatal heart attack at the dinner table in their Upper East Side apartment. At the same time, Quintana was in a medically induced coma after suffering from septic shock during a bout of pneumonia.
Didion receives the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2012.Getty Images
“One of the disadvantages, as her relative, was asking her to relive those moments,” says Dunne, who was at his house upstate when it happened. “I got a call in the middle of the night. It was the last thing I saw coming.”
The only way Didion, now 82, survived that experience was to write the book that became her masterpiece, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Quintana recovered and was well enough to fly to LA in 2004, but fell on the pavement at the airport and suffered a massive hematoma that required a six-hour operation at UCLA hospital and another long recovery. In August 2005, while Didion was on a book tour for “Magical Thinking,” Quintana died at age 39 of acute pancreatitis.
“That was a situation that went from bad to worse,” says Dunne, who was 10 years older than his cousin. “It was a long decline and very sad to see.”
These days, Dunne says, Didion, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2012, is “doing very well” with a core group of friends with whom she has dinner several nights a week. “She just got a dog,” Dunne says.
To what does he attribute her strength of character? “She’s made of tough, homesteading stock,” he says. “It’s why she outlived so many of her friends.”
And her husband and daughter.