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

My love of Perry, Didion, and all things the ’70s aside, my connection to Play It As It Lays is a personal one. As a gay man who’s experienced my fair share of trauma and self-loathing, I feel a certain closeness to (and sadness towards) B.Z., the unhappy gay best friend of Didion’s equally unhappy protagonist Maria Wyeth.

Maria, a one-time actress and model who’s married (contentiously) to Hollywood director Carter Lang, yearns for her mentally-ill daughter Kate – whom Carter has placed in an institution – and has an affair that results in an unwanted pregnancy. With her daughter away, her parents dead, and her career and marriage floundering in a city (and country) succumbing to the sociopolitical turmoil of the times, chronically depressed Maria passes through her life like a ghost — filling her days with drinking, reckless sexual pursuits, and directionless drives in her convertible on the freeways of Southern California.

Carter’s producer (and Maria’s one true friend) B.Z. shares Maria’s discontent thanks to an intolerant mother who pays for him to stay in a lavender marriage with Helene, a comrade of Maria and Carter’s. At the end of the novel, when B.Z. commits suicide by way of a pill overdose, a hopeless Maria abstains from calling the paramedics and comforts her friend as he dies… an act that leads to her institutionalization.

Play It As It Lays is a bleak work, and while I enjoy it and revisit it often, the common criticism that Didion’s writing is “cold” or “aloof” certainly applies. Her prose is blunt and acidic, and the narrative in question lacks any shred of redemption or optimism. It’s a novel about people “going to pieces”, as noted by Roger Ebert in his January 1973 review of Perry’s film adaptation. Yet, in that same review, Ebert admits that we somehow still “care about [these] characters who have given up caring for themselves.”

Maria and B.Z. may be self-destructive empty vessels, but I’m flooded with sorrow every time I reach the penultimate chapter of Didion’s novel when B.Z. – having ingested a lethal amount of Seconal capsules – tells Maria, “Hold onto me”, and sometime later, Didion informs us, “the room was blazing with light and Carter was shaking [Maria] and Helene was screaming.” While watching that same scene in Perry’s adaptation – featuring a nightmarish wide shot of Anthony Perkins’ (as B.Z.) dead body in Tuesday Weld’s (as Maria) lap under yellowish motel room light and a slightly distorted reverse angle of Adam Roarke (as Carter) and Tammy Grimes (as Helene) in hysterics above them – I cried.

Perry’s film so precisely and assuredly reifies the characters, themes, and atmosphere of Didion’s novel that one wonders how Play It As It Lays was a literary work and not a film in the first place. It’s not a stretch to entertain the possibility that Didion wrote her book with a cinematic inclination. The L.A.-set story concerns a failed actress and her director husband, after all.

It was also around the time Didion wrote Play It As It Lays that she and John Gregory Dunne were hired to pen the script for Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 drug abuse film, The Panic In Needle Park, featuring Al Pacino and Kitty Winn in star-making performances. The striking visuals, rapid-fire pace, and paucity of overt emotionality in Play It As It Lays feel rather screenplay-like, so much so that, after a while, the only indicators Didion’s novel is just that — a novel — are its 200-plus page count and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux imprint.

Simply put, the story of Play It As It Lays achieves its truest and most complete expression on film. “Didion’s mordant lucidity… like L.A. sunlight”, in the words of TIME Magazine critic Richard Lacayo, is fully realized by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s crisp, sun-tinged lens and Sidney Katz’s confident editing, the latter of which so deftly exemplifies Didion’s swift and cutting prose – hurtling us from one scene, character, line, to the next – that it almost threatens a kind of cinematic whiplash.

If Ebert’s thesis that films are “empathy machines” is to be believed, then it’s plausible Didion’s alluring yet chilly narrative finds its heart and soul in Perry’s living, breathing, big-screen incarnation. Here Maria’s humanity comes alive in Tuesday Weld’s sugary voice and tiniest facial gestures, while Anthony Perkins’ witty line delivery and almost brother-sister dynamic with Weld (his former co-star in 1968’s Pretty Poison) wholly articulates B.Z.’s capacity for humor and tenderness despite his nihilist outlook and tragic fate. The filmic medium turns Didion’s once-distant characters into real, textured beings without sacrificing the author’s cool style. Maria and B.Z. no longer disappear into the page, their voices and visages alienating or inscrutable because Weld and Perkins have rendered them utterly alive and nuanced in Perry’s vision.

Several moments and details in the leads’ consistently excellent portrayals linger in the brain long after Perry’s Play It As It Lays ends. One cannot forget the gently pleading look in Weld’s eyes, for example, when Maria tries to tell a nurse at Kate’s facility that her daughter is prone to nightmares. Or, while laying in bed in a red jumpsuit, the abrupt shift in her voice and facial expression – from sarcasm to solemnity – when Carter threatens to permanently remove Maria’s access to Kate if she refuses to terminate her pregnancy.

Perhaps most memorable is Perkins’ monologue around the halfway point, spoken while lounging in Maria and Carter’s living room, about trying to find “the answer” – the true meaning of life. “What we all found was incontrovertible evidence that… all of it means zero,” B.Z. tells his friend, his words delivered by Perkins in a stinging vocal cocktail of devastation and dark wit. When Maria responds, “I don’t ever want to be where you are,” B.Z. hurls back, “You don’t want to be… but you will,” and Perkins’ throat stifles a sob.

Of course, the tension between the humanity with which Weld and Perkins imbue these once “empty” characters, and Perry’s ability to maintain Didion’s bleak and detached approach through his visual and aural style, is what makes Play It As It Lays so tragic and effective as a film. The director enlists his lead actors to elevate the warmth and humanity of Maria and B.Z. without elevating the environment in which they reside. In turn, we’re presented with real human beings with real (if deeply bruised or buried) lives and emotions operating within a cold and impassive hellscape that spells their doom from the get-go.

In realizing that hellscape for the big screen, most of Perry’s aesthetic choices in Play It As It Lays come right out of the “New Hollywood” playbook, emphasizing visual and aural symbolism and discordance over cohesion and linearity. While the film bears no traditional score, its sound design is one of its most memorable aspects. Maria’s surreal and often disjointed phone calls with Carter and an abortion care doctor (among other people in her life) play over woozy, grandiose shots of her yellow convertible blazing aimlessly through steel-gray stretches of California highway. To similarly disorienting effect, Maria’s abortion is delineated through the blast of an air conditioner, the shriek of running tap water, the squelching sound of latex gloves being removed, and the repeated slam of a metal trashcan lid.

Weld’s subtle and humane choices as an actor pull us into Maria’s plight, but Perry counterbalances her natural charisma with visual barriers that separate the audience from Maria’s countenance. Be it a car windshield, a wire fence on the side of the highway, rows of hedges in a hospital courtyard, the bars of an iron gate in a motel parking lot, or even a grainy and high-contrast screen-within-a-screen (during scenes where Carter’s pseudo-documentary about his wife – aptly titled Maria – plays in a dark theatre), something always stands between the protagonist and us. An object constantly obfuscates or fractures her image.

Ultimately, Perry mines for the poignancy in his characters while giving them an utterly isolating and pointless world to live in. There’s no real hope on the other side of B.Z.’s death, of Maria’s institutionalization. Only the wry, cynical reality that our lives are empty and meaningless, that our connections with one another are futile, and that human suffering and casualty are inevitable. On the page, in Didion’s deft and icy words, the effect is harsh, even numbing. In the moving image, where her characters are made of flesh and blood, where her story and its settings (“the moral limbos of Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert” as they’re described in the official synopsis of the novel) become an immersive and often bewildering sensory experience, the effect is gutting.

Play It As It Lays, in book and film form, offers no catharsis. That lack of release, of closure, becomes animated, magnified, and intensified in an audiovisual modality. Many “New Hollywood” films eschewed trite and convenient “happy” endings typical of films of the studio system era. Think of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) running away from Elaine’s wedding ceremony and catching a bus to nowhere in the final moments of The Graduate (1967). Or Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) meeting a gruesome and fiery fate on a two-lane country road at the end of Easy Rider (1969). Such denouements offered raw, real expressions of human life and struggle while acutely reflecting the chaos and fatalism of Nixon-era America.

Of them all, Play It As It Lays may be the rawest and most real. It’s a “New Hollywood” film so grim and dispiriting that it practically threatens to “out-New-Hollywood” itself. This fact might explain its current obscurity, especially when compared with the rest of Perry’s filmography.

In Perry’s other major films, there’s typically a way out for his anguished protagonists, or at the very least, they get what they deserve, and we, as viewers, are satisfied because of it. The final moments of The Swimmer reveal that Burt Lancaster’s Ned Merrill has lost his wife and daughters and the comfort of his luxurious home due to his rampant elitism, financial irresponsibility, and extramarital affairs. The Swimmer may not boast a “happy” ending – which shows a far-gone Merrill crying and crumpled on the front steps of his abandoned house in the middle of a thunderstorm – but its ending isn’t tragic either. Merrill has made his bed, now, he must lie in it. If audience members are persuaded to resent Merrill enough, his fate in The Swimmer might not only feel deserved but, for some viewers, gratifying.

Likewise, the ending of Mommie Dearest – featuring Joan Crawford’s death – isn’t all that “happy”. But at the very least, Christina is set free from her mother’s abuse, and even the news that Joan cut Christina and her brother Christopher out of her will doesn’t deter her. When Christopher notes that their mother always has “the last word”, Christina smartly asks: “Does she?”

Play It As It Lays offers its viewers no such satisfaction. There’s no way out from its bleakness. No way to spin the narrative. It’s a film that gripped me from its opening frames, yet one I probably won’t watch again for many years. I reckon it’s Frank Perry’s magnum opus and one of the greatest films of the “New Hollywood” era – so great that it threatens to swallow “New Hollywood” whole.

There’s a danger to Play It As It Lays, and that’s why we’ve subdued it for so long. Fifty years later, I think it’s time to unleash the beast.

Works Cited

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Beard, Thomas. “Can’t Get That Monster Out Of My Mind: Joan Didion and Cinema“. UCLA Film & Television Archive. 2022.

Bernstein, Jacob. “A Star-Studded Goodbye to All That“. New York Times, 22 September 2022.

Carlozo, Louis R. “‘Mommie Dearest’ meets John Waters“. Chicago Tribune. 6 June 2006.

Carroll, Marisa. “Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty Edition (1981)“. PopMatters. 5 June 2006.

Didion, Joan. “Play It As It Lays“. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1970.

Ebert, Roger. “Ebert’s Walk of Fame remarks“. 24 June 2005.

Ebert, Roger. “Play It as It Lays movie review (1973)“. Chicago Sun-Times, 22 January 1973.

Lacayo, Richard. “Play It As It Lays (1970), by Joan Didion | All-TIME 100 Novels“. TIME Magazine. 8 January 2010.

Mandarano, Matthew. “Along the Bridge: The Films of Frank Perry“. Notes on a Film. 11 Mar 2011.

Merkin, Daphne. “The Cult of Saint Joan“. New York Times. 20 January 2022.

Play It As It Lays (1972) – Awards“. IMDb. 2022.

Play It As It Lays (1972) Full Movie“. YouTube. 8 August 2015.

The Criterion Channel’s November 2021 Lineup“. 27 October 2021.

The Swimmer Blu-Ray“. 26 January 2021.