Frank Perry: Play It As It Lays (1972) | trailer screengrab
Play It As It Lays | trailer screengrab

The Film Adaptation of Joan Didion’s ‘Play It As It Lays’ Still Slays

There’s a danger to Frank Perry’s 1972 film adaptation of Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays, and that’s why we’ve subdued it for so long. Now 50 years later, it’s time to unleash the beast.

Play It As It Lays
Frank Perry
Grindhouse Releasing
19 October 1972
Play It As It Lays
Joan Didion
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

For my tenth birthday, I asked my parents for the Mommie Dearest “Hollywood Royalty Edition” DVD. (I wasn’t your typical ten-year-old). Bless them, they obliged, and so began my love affairs with Joan Crawford, Faye Dunaway, John Waters, and above all, director Frank Perry.

Mommie Dearest (1981) is probably Perry’s best-known film, largely due to its “campy” reputation. An adaptation of Christina Crawford’s 1978 memoir of the same name, the film chronicles the physically and psychologically abusive relationship between movie star Joan Crawford (Dunaway) and her adopted daughter, Christina (Diana Scarwid). Dunaway and Perry were savaged by critics and earned Razzie nominations for an over-the-top production with an over-the-top lead performance that drag queen Lypsinka characterizes as “operatic… almost experimental.”

In his 2006 commentary for the DVD release, camp filmmaker “extraordinaire” John Waters offers a different perspective: “There are a few moments that give [the film] its reputation for being campy… because Joan Crawford’s life was over the top. But I think it’s a really, really good movie… It’s certainly not like Showgirls, where it’s ‘so bad it’s good.’ It’s not like Frank Perry didn’t know what he was doing.”

For the longest time, I failed to seek out other entries in Perry’s filmography, though I agreed with Waters’ assessment. While some moments in Mommie Dearest are laughably bad – particularly a Grande Dame Guignol-esque scene that sees Dunaway’s Crawford laboriously chop down a tree in her rose garden with an ax while wearing a ball gown and the infamous “no wire hangers!” scene that’s earned the film its designation as a camp classic – I otherwise regarded Mommie Dearest as a gripping exploration of child abuse that boasted impeccable production value and a breathtaking central performance by Dunaway. Indeed, Mommie Dearest is big, it’s loud, it’s glossy, but it’s also harrowing.

In August 2022, I jumped at the opportunity to see Perry’s 1968 surrealist cult classic The Swimmer at New York City’s Metrograph theatre. I first saw (and fell in love with) The Swimmer in November 2021 when the Criterion Channel showcased the film as part of a flashy Frank Perry retrospective entitled “American Psychosis”, alongside Mommie Dearest, 1962’s David and Lisa, 1970’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, and 1974’s Man on a Swing. This noteworthy curation — which saw Criterion staff praise Perry for “his empathetic studies of characters afflicted by mental illness and bourgeois malaise” — coupled with The Swimmer’s return to the big screen this past summer, seemed to indicate that a long-overdue Frank Perry renaissance was finally underway.

There’s no denying Perry’s somewhat elusive presence in 20th-century American cinema. Rarely considered a New Hollywood “great” like contemporaries Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, or Mike Nichols (to name a few), his filmography and public profile proved slight and low-key compared to the prolific and multi-hyphenate careers of those directors (and numerous others). Whereas Altman made a new film every year in the 1970s, and Nichols and Cassavetes benefited from gigs before their directorial stints that made them household names (Cassavetes as a respected stage and screen actor, Nichols as one half of an iconic comedy duo with future filmmaker Elaine May), Perry worked strictly behind the camera. He churned out, on average, five films per decade – with a notable six-year hiatus between Rancho Deluxe in 1975 and Mommie Dearest in 1981.

Only recently have critics and moviegoers begun to appreciate Perry’s films for the little treasures they are, connected (in the words of Notes on a Film’s Matthew Mandarano) by “an interesting level of technical brevity” and a style “influenced by the deep, often complex psychological backgrounds and struggles of his characters.” Wide reappraisal of the director’s work can be attributed largely to expanding film scholarship and the efforts of outspoken fans like John Waters and Criterion’s adventurous curatorial powers-that-be.

But it’s a reappraisal that’s still germinating. To this day, Waters remains among the few to regard Mommie Dearest as a serious work of art. It wasn’t until January 2021 that The Swimmer, which impressed some critics but bewildered most back in 1968, got proper home media treatment via a particularly stunning three-disc “deluxe edition” Blu-Ray with all the bells and whistles from Grindhouse Releasing.

Home video reissues, restorations, and revival screenings over the past few years, coupled with the resurgent powers of the Internet, mean that Perry’s films are making a comeback (albeit an unjustly tardy one) with his talent as a filmmaker riper for recognition and analysis than ever before. So why have his works survived after all these years of neglect? How have his films prevailed despite his low profile? 

I reckon the unique appeal of the subject matters he tackles and the people he collaborates with supersedes his inconspicuous reputation as a director. One can debate whether its alleged “campiness” has helped or hindered its legacy, but there’s no doubt that Mommie Dearest remains a perennial fave because it has a built-in audience: Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway fans. Adoration for both iconic actresses long predates the release of Christina Crawford’s tell-all book. It’s what continues to draw people – like it did ten-year-old me, bitten by the Old Hollywood bug and hooked on Turner Classic Movies – to their television screens, local DVD stores, and streaming services, voracious for a helping of Tinseltown lore and some wire hanger-wielding madness.

The Swimmer coasts on similar showbiz magnetism with a particularly hunky-looking Burt Lancaster playing fascinatingly against type as a deluded man who swims through late ‘60s American suburbia – specifically, the backyard pools of white collar neighbors who know more about the dark secrets of his personal life than he does. An unforgettable cameo by a particularly chic Joan Rivers (in her film debut) adds to the allure, as does the distinction of the film’s source material: a 1964 short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning “Chekhov of the suburbs” John Cheever.

In a nutshell, Perry’s talents as a writer and director no doubt account for much of the greatness of his films, but Perry himself isn’t usually the reason people see them. Often, it’s the authors from whom he adapts, the actors he directs, and the zeitgeist (specifically, the creatively fertile late ’60s–early ’80s “New Hollywood” period) in which he operates. These factors engender the most intrigue from budding artists, bibliophiles, cinephiles, and pop culture aficionados. This is especially true in the nostalgia “boom” of the digital age, where the fads and celebrities of yesteryear reside perpetually at our hashtag-hungry fingertips.

No cultural figure of the 20th century is more ubiquitous in that nostalgia “boom” than Joan Didion. The chief chronicler of Los Angeles life and (counter)culture during the 1960s and ‘70s (and later a noted memoirist with journalistic meditations on loss and grief like 2007’s The Year of Magical Thinking), Didion remains, a year after her death (and the release of her final essay collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean), one of America’s most influential and distinctive scribes.

Her image (as with most celebrities) looms larger than her personhood. Scroll through any major “vintage” account on Instagram, and you’ll no doubt find it saturated with Julian Wasser’s iconic 1968 photographs of the writer posed coolly in a dress and sandals in front of her Corvette Stingray and puffing on a cigarette. Equally cool and omnipresent is Didion’s prose, which, in large part due to its reportorial froideur and sometimes nihilistic approach, proves eerily appropriate for our current milieu, marred by sociopolitical disorder (be it police brutality or the COVID-19 pandemic) and in general, an unshakable tenor of hopelessness.

As Daphne Merkin notes in her 2022 New York Times essay, The Cult of Saint Joan”:

For the social media generation, arguably, the coolness and terseness of her style, suited as it is to a certain kind of inchoate emotional pain, is a beacon leading them away from the chaos of their own distress… Didion’s work tragically… anticipates our bewildered, agitated and insolubly divided culture, where the void she stared into so unflinchingly has become the climate in which we live.

In other words, the “Cult of Saint Joan” endures – her writing and persona are more relevant and revered than ever.

It’s surprising, then, that Didion’s 1972 collaboration with Frank Perry remains vastly overlooked, considering not only the author’s continued popularity in the new millennium but also that Didion and Perry crossed paths – to make a film version of her 1970 novel Play It As It Lays – at the peak of their respective creative powers. Following the success of her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion was heralded as one of the country’s finest writers. Simultaneously, Perry and his wife — screenwriter and stalwart feminist Eleanor Perry — had made something of a “comeback” in the wake of The Swimmer’s challenging production and lukewarm reception with the Oscar-nominated back-to-back successes of 1969’s Last Summer and 1970’s Diary of a Mad Housewife.

To this day — and despite the seeming Perry “renaissance” now upon us — the big-screen adaptation of Didion’s novel remains virtually unknown. Never released on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, or any major streamers, Play It As It Lays (1972) is only available thanks to a (not too shabby) bootleg recording, posted on YouTube in 2015, from a Sundance Channel broadcast in the mid-2000s.

The film’s obscurity would be understandable had it performed poorly upon release or had Perry made the film without “name” actors. But Play It As It Lays had – and has – everything going for it. Universal Pictures funded and distributed the film, with a screenplay by Didion herself (co-written with husband John Gregory Dunne) and Oscar nominees Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins in the lead roles. Play It As It Lays opened to warm reviews in the US and even earned Weld a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress following a Best Actress win at the Venice Film Festival. Not to mention, Didion’s novel was a best-seller when it first hit shelves 52 years ago and has remained one of her most popular works. (It was notably included in TIME Magazine’s list of the Best English-language books from 1923 to 2005). Why, then, the obscurity?

A few coinciding occurrences recently compelled me to seek out Play It As It Lays on YouTube and, in the hopes of better understanding how and why this film has fallen by the wayside, watch it in its entirety. I love Didion’s novel and make it a point to read it every summer – usually around early August, when the heat index reaches an all-time high and my spirits an all-time low. My reading of Play It As It Lays this year preceded the Metrograph screening of The Swimmer by a week or two and was followed a month later by the announcement of two major events.

First, a public memorial would be held on 21 September 2022 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to celebrate Didion’s life (with everyone from Patti Smith to Vanessa Redgrave in attendance). Then, on 25 October 2022, UCLA would screen a rare 35mm print of Frank Perry’s adaptation of Play It As It Lays as part of an eight-film retrospective entitled “Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind: Joan Didion and Cinema”, curated by Thomas Beard. In other words, it seemed the universe was telling me it was time to sit down and finally watch Perry’s adaptation — a task I’d long neglected and perhaps for reasons that hit close to home.