The work of Joan Didion hasn’t been a natural fit for film-makers, even if her dramatic re-write of A Star is Born proved a major hit in 1976, and inspired the 2018 reboot. This ultra-rare 1972 film by Frank Perry is an early teaming with her A Star Is Born co-writer John Gregory Dunne, and feels like a distant cousin of the Streisand/Kristofferson film, except that the LA Hollywood milieu captured here is cinema rather than music. Perry’s film is well suited to Didion’s frank, sometimes abrasively honest style, and it’s something of a cult item.
Reteaming the leads from 1968’s Pretty Poison, Play It As It Lays stars Tuesday Weld as Maria Wyeth Lang, a young mother whose life is fragmenting; the narrative flips back and forward in a confusing, often impenetrable style. We stars with her in a sanatorium then examine her relationships; her estranged husband Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) is an industry fixture, but her own career is sinking as a result. Her best friend is film director BZ (Anthony Perkins), but his support isn’t enough to stop her spiralling into a series of painful one-night stands and an abortion that only exasperates her feelings toward her daughter, who is also in an institution receiving shock treatment.
Lang drives her yellow Stingray around the desert, shooting signs with a hand-gun; Didion, adapting her own novel gives us a powerful female lead whose vulnerability makes her interesting, even if the film hasn’t got a second for sentiment. Perry was a great, underrated director (The Swimmer, Diary of a Mad Housewife) and he’s fully tuned into how to translate Didion’s strikingly opaque prose. Between them, they conjure up a searing portrait of a world that drives a person to madness; it’s not a film for the faint-hearted, but rewarding for those who seek adult drama.
Weld and Perkins have a remarkable bond here, and while Perkins would later descend into self-parody, he’s at his best here in a role that’s very ahead of its time in terms of LBGTQ. Play It As It Lays has been almost impossible to see since 1972, other than a couple of screenings on the Sundance channel, but maybe it’s time has come now that women’s and LBGTQ rights are at least more recognised than they were in 72. It’s a troubling, serious film that requires multiple viewing, but is firmly recommended to those who take their cinema seriously. And if you need a further reason to watch, the cinematography is by Blade Runner lenser Jordan Cronenweth, and his trip to LA provides some incredible shots, including a few that pave the way for his astonishing work on Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic. like the one screen-grabbed above…