Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Play It As It Lays (1972)

by on September 15, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Sept 21 at 8:30 & Sat Sept 24 at 6:15 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


The Film Society pays long overdue tribute to the incomparable Tuesday Weld, from Sept 21 to 25. Stay tuned for Dan Callahan’s feature for Alt Screen, and consider catching some of the series- most notably George Axelrod’s “undefinable masterpiece” Lord Love a Duck, and cult fave Pretty Poison, starring Weld and Anthony Perkins.


The most difficult of the lot to actually see, Joan Didion’s adaptation (along with husband John Gregory Dunne) of her novel Play It As It Lays recapitalizes on Weld and Perkins’ unique chemistry. Wildly divisive at the time (panned by Pauline Kael, but pronounced by novelist Ann Birstein as “one of the best movies I’ve ever seen” in the Times), Play is a haunting modernist work by the eclectic and increasingly fascinating Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Mommie Dearest). It is also an invaluable showcase for Weld’s expressive face. (Fun fact: Joel Schumacher got his Hollywood start as the film’s costume designer!)


Most commendable champion of the film Melissa Anderson, for Film Comment:

If you were to imagine a celluloid ancestor to Mulholland Drive‘s Diane Selwyn, she’d probably look a lot like Maria Wyeth, the heroine of Frank Perry’s acerbic Play It As It Lays, a 1972 film based on Joan Didion’s merciless second novel, published two years earlier. Brilliantly played by Tuesday Weld, Maria is rapidly unraveling, as is her marriage to her director husband, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke). Carter has previously directed her in both a vérité short, barking bullying off-camera questions (“Did you ever want to ball your father?”), and an acid-rock biker movie called Angel Beach. As Carter prepares to shoot his next movie in the desert, Maria drifts through a succession of ghoulish Hollywood parties and hotel-room with producers from the East Coast, always returning to the driver’s seat of her banana-yellow Corvette. Speeding along the freeway provides Maria with her only moments of pleasure. She hasn’t worked for at least a year.


In interviews, Joan Didion has remarked that one profession that’s always interested her is the film editor, or, to use her preferred term, “cutter.” Cuts play a major part in both the film Play It As It Lays and its source novel. Didion wrote the screenplay with her husband, John Gregory Dunne; it was their second script collaboration, after 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park. Didion’s book is extremely fragmented, with some chapters no longer than a paragraph and the point of view shifting abruptly between the third and first person. Perry’s film, edited by Sidney Katz, expertly translates this disjointed sense of time. Some shots last only a second; chronological sequences aren’t always clear; sound and image are jarringly juxtaposed. Nowhere are these cuts more horrifically displayed dian at the film’s literal moment of incision: Maria’s visit to an illegal abortionist (Roe v. Wade would be decided the year after the film’s release). The doctor’s “slicing” is chillingly conveyed as a rapid series of images: a hand encased in a surgical glove switching on an air conditioner, something tossed into a waste can, blood washed down a sink drain. This short sharp shock of a montage will haunt Maria throughout the film-as it will the viewer.


Anderson continues:

In dreams-or in Maria’s case, nightmares-begin responsibility. Maria’s bleakest moments are mitigated by the one true-yet deeply flawed-friend she has: B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), Carter’s bisexual producer. The relationship between Maria and B.Z. is far more developed, not to mention tender, in Perry’s film than in Didion’s book, yet it never compromises thesting of Didion’s original prose. Rather, the expanded scenes between Maria and B.Z. provide a showcase for two actors of tremendous compatibility, further exploring the rapport they shared four years earlier in Pretty Poison. “I know what nothing means, and keep on playing,” Maria says near the film’s end. Perry would keep on playing, too, making Mommie Dearest (81), an assessment of Hollywood that’s as grotesquely garish as Play It As It Lays is coolly austere. But what about this haunting film from 1972?


David Thomson on Weld in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

So little of Tuesday Weld has been ordinary or expected. Is there any richer subject for Hollywood biography, or autobiography – for she is plainly smart and articulate enough, and she has survived all the craziness of being a mass media nymphet in the age of Eisenhower, as well as a girl burdened by the name Tuesday, while managing to show that she can be an extraordinary actress as well as a great beauty, who was somehow woeful and ravaged by the age of twenty-five.


To take just one out-of-the-way example, she has scenes as Zelda in the TV movie F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood that are as good as any American actress has done on screen. Her best work is often that hidden, or that little proclaimed. Whereas she seldom got the roles her talent and nerve cried out for – Lolita, say, or Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde, a part she missed because of pregnancy. It is hard to follow a line through her career. But I have never found a Weld performance not worth study. She never departs from her own tough standards of what is human and interesting.



Acquarello for Strictly Film School:

Something of a prelude to David Lynch’s explorations into the dark side of tinsel town (and in particular, the intersecting alternate realities of his sprawling metafilm Inland Empire), Frank Perry’s Play It As It Lays is a stark, fragmented, and disjointed, but instinctually cohesive, occasionally luminous (and humorous), and inevitably heartbreaking adaptation of Joan Didion’s acclaimed novel on Hollywood starlet, Maria Wyeth’s (Tuesday Weld) gradual descent into madness and self-destruction following the dissolution of her marriage to influential filmmaker (and erstwhile Svengali), Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) – an emotional rupture that was perhaps catalyzed by their daughter’s commitment to a sanitarium for behavioral problems near the completion of their latest collaboration, a highly controversial autofiction film in which he elicited a raw and soul-baring performance from his increasingly vulnerable and fragile wife by incorporating autobiographical elements culled from her tumultuous and impoverished childhood. The film opens to an angular shot of Maria leisurely walking through the footpath of a meticulously manicured garden, symmetrically – and diminutively – framed by a pair of tall, majestic evergreens. This double entendred image of nature and construction, openness and constriction serves as a recurring metaphor into the unsustainable paradox of Maria’s vacuous life of excess and profound isolation – a sense of pervasive estrangement and entrenched hopelessness that she has learned to subsume through a string of meaningless affairs, aimless road trips to nowhere, and intimate philosophical conversations (that inevitably lead to the unarticulated silence of mutual resignation) with Carter’s closeted producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), whose transparent double life reflects his own irreconcilable spiritual ambiguity. Evoking the demoralizing ennui of industrialized dehumanization (or, in this case, the manufactured dream world of Hollywood) of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Red Desert fused with the asequential, fractured recursion of inescapable, haunted memories that pervade Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime, Play It As It Lays is a caustic, disorienting, and ultimately bracing exposition into the profoundly isolating process of role rejection, the human search for meaning, and self-discovery.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Maria prowls up and down the Los Angeles freeways, and through the casinos in Vegas, looking for nothing. Her husband, of course, is involved in his ego trip, and does not understand that a million times zero is still… It’s not so much that Maria is sick and could get well with professional help. It’s more that she really does understand how futile her life has become, and she’s cracking up under the realization. She’s a person born bleak and raised on skepticism, and at the end of the movie she comes up with a pretty cheerless reason for continuing to live: “Why not?” Why not. I have an Irish friend who says those two words are the handiest in the language and will help you to avoid bar fights for the rest of your life. Anybody says anything, just answer “Why not?” Doesn’t even matter what was said: The words are all-purpose, circular, appropriate for every situation, and meaningless. And they do something else that my friend didn’t mention: When you address them to another person, you cause him suddenly to turn his observation, whatever it was, back upon himself.


Apply these words to life itself, and you get an approximation of Maria’s state of mind. “Play It as It Lays” is an astringent, cynical movie that ultimately manages to spin one single timid thread of hope. Its happiest moment – the moment of deepest human understanding and mutual love – comes during a suicide.


Joan Didion’s book has been recruited by the feminists to illustrate various, no doubt cogent, points. But it isn’t a feminist novel; it’s a novel about going to pieces. It’s about a woman who is confronted with her own lack of worthwhile identity in much the same way Scott Fitzgerald faced his, in “The Crack-Up.” What makes the movie work so well on this difficult ground is, happily, easy to say: It has been well-written and directed, and Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins are perfectly cast as Maria and her friend B.Z. The material is so thin (and has to be) that the actors have to bring the human texture along with them. They do, and they make us care about characters who have given up caring for themselves.


Ebert interviews Perry upon the film’s release:

“It’s not a Hollywood movie,” Perry said. It’s about people. It’s really more about Silver Wells, Nevada where the girl grows up, than it is about Hollywood. The movie world is just the impetus for her search for whatever happened to that young girl who came out of Silver Wells.”


“I knew we had to have Tuesday, and so I resisted the idea of Tony. I thought they, were terrific in ‘Pretty Poison,’ but I’m not into using other people’s casting combinations. That lacks theatricality. But Perkins wanted the role. He called me up and asked to read for me. I resisted him. But at last I saw him, and I knew he had to play B.Z. I didn’t see the Anthony Perkins of ‘Psycho’ or ‘Fear Strikes Out.’ I didn’t see the gaunt kid of ‘Friendly Persuasion.’ I saw a man of 40 who has lived very hard, and who has a phenomenal intelligence. Perkins is certainly the most intelligent actor I’ve ever worked with.”


The screenplay was written by Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne and produced by her brother-in-law, Nicholas Dunne. (Their earlier
collaboration, “Panic in Needle Park,” provided the year’s catchiest credit line: “A Dunne-Didion-Dunne Production.”) “The four of us locked ourselves into a hotel suite.” Perry said. “We had this enormous, bulletin board and all these stick-pins and colored file cards. It’s the old writer’s trick: To avoid writing, you go to the stationery store and freak out. Anyway, we broke the novel down into every one of its fragments and arranged them in order, and then rearranged them into our order and kept a master key so we knew how every shot was related and when every pay-off came. Then Joan and John wrote the screenplay.”



Jeffrey Wells reposts an interview he did with producer Dominick Dunne, and assembles some of the original critical response to the film at his blog Hollywood Elsewhere:

It stood out for its unusually dark and nihilistic portrait of some very skewed souls in the employ of the film industry, and for Perry’s fragmented, back-and-forth cutting that was not only in keeping with the style in which Didion’s book was written, but with the randomness of thoughts flicking around inside the head of its main character, Maria Wyeth (Weld). It was gloomy, ambitious, ‘different’ (even by unconventional ’70s standards), and Persona-like. It had a chilly, almost spooky fascination with downer attitudes among the moneyed elite. Some of the big gun critics bashed it, but others were admiring and spoke of Oscar-level achievement.


I caught Play It As It Lays sometime in the late ’70s at a Manhattan repertory house, and I remember being struck by the total absence of a musical score. Not a damn note. The most persistent aural effect is the sound of traffic. That’s the ’70s for you, baby. All I can say is that this stylish mood piece is too heady and distinctive and was too well-reviewed during its time (by a good percentage of the critics at least, some of whom really went apeshit over it) to warrant invisibility today.


David Cairns for his blog Shadowplay:

“There’s no there, there.” That line about LA is echoed in Anthony Perkins’ line about where he and Weld have both been — “out there where nothing is.” But that’s a state of mind, not a place. The film is agnostic about whether any of the characters are mentally ill. Whatever malaise is eating at Weld and Perkins, it doesn’t have the outward hallmarks of clinical depression — they’re too warm and smiley. Maybe that’s Californian depression. Everyone lying there, smiling. Is this so-called Paradise Syndrome? I think to call it that would be overly cynical. But with the need to struggle to survive excised from their lives, Weld and Perkins’ characters are floundering in a world of pointless luxury. I guess that’s better than pointless poverty. But it does kind of spotlight what’s missing. This is more spiritual or existential (a word the characters throw around but don’t show much sign of understanding). The down-to-earth motelkeeper urges Weld to keep busy, but as she’s sweeping a porch in the desert, the Sisyphean pointlessness of busy-ness is glaring.


None of these characters have what poor people would call “real problems.” But it doesn’t seem like their suffering is self-indulgent. Although if they felt connected to the world outside Hollywood maybe they’d see it that way. But this is life in a bubble.


The film really wrestles with the idea of adapting an interior novel without copping out. It takes a while just to get the relationships sorted out in your head, and then issues of motivation can go unresolved for the longest time. Feels like I’ll get more out of this each time I see it.



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