Director Frank Perry’s (1930-95 prostate cancer) drama Play it as it Lays (1972) opens in a sanatorium where Tuesday Weld’s character Maria Wyeth is staying. She begins: “If Carter and Helene were to think it happened because I was insane… I say let them…”
We don’t know why but the way Maria talks, she seems to be rather well adjusted as she likes to “live in the now”. Then we flashback to her shooting at road signs with a pistol in her yellow corvette as she drives down a desert highway. Then cut to the fact that: “I got the answer” as she writes ‘Nothing Applies’ on her psychological evaluation forms upon her admission to the sanitorium. And she says that if her husband Carter and her friend Helene aren’t careful, they’ll get the answer too… Do you know that answer? Read on!
This Los Angeles set film is based on the celebrated novel by Joan Didion (1934-) which was rated by Time magazine as one of the Top 100 best English language novels from 1923 to 2005. It was turned into a screenplay by Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne (1932-2003 heart attack). Dunne is the brother of another celebrated author Dominic Dunne (1925-2009 bladder cancer) who served as producer for the film. Dominic Dunne is also the father of actors Griffin Dunne (1955-) and murdered Poltergeist (1982) actress Dominique Dunne (1959-82 strangled).
The movie shows the emptiness and aimlessness of life in Hollywood and the realm of Los Angeles among the beach houses, mansions, pills and California wine. There are also the roads that lead to everywhere but nowhere into the desert a couple of hours outside town.
We go into flashback as Maria meets with her married bisexual friend BZ who is played by real life bisexual Anthony Perkins (1932-92 AIDS), who was about to enter a conventional marriage at the time of the film’s production.
“A little early for a matinee,” says BZ when Maria turns up late to a private studio screening of her director husband Carter’s screen test for his latest actress find.
“I don’t do that anymore,” says Maria as if sexual trysts have become meaningless and a bore. She wonders why BZ shows her the footage.
Maria has made two films for her husband and walked out on the third which is what the screen test for another actress is for. The first film was entitled Maria and is a cinema verite movie starring Maria as herself – of course – and when I say herself, we must wonder about if it really is her acting or just being herself. This is the conundrum for natural actors and actresses.
The cinema verite of this film kind of relates to Play it as it Lays in that it could be described as an epic choppy mess of seemingly unrelated scenes and there is no real narrative except for Maria’s abortion which seems to be central to part of the philosophy of the film.
“Ever since my mother died, I look at a plate of food and see a rattlesnake,” says Maria in the movie Maria. There is a rattlesnake on the movie poster. She has lost both her parents tragically. Her mother in a car accident. So meaningless is a death by car accident that Maria looks at photos of car wrecks with a magnifying glass, so closely that she can see a pair of false teeth a victim lost on the pavement.
Maria inherited from her father who died shortly after from peritonitis “an optimism which didn’t leave me until recently”.
As Maria tells her story in fragmentary fashion as if to us in a movie or possibly to a psychiatrist at the sanitorium, we sometimes become aware that we are watching a movie but this is a rare occasion where suspension of disbelief or alienation of the viewer is deliberately used. Maria could also be telling her story only to herself.
Director Perry has forged something which melds moviemaking and moviemakers with real life and that alienation reminds us that we are just watching a movie but it still in a way makes the experience more ‘real’ as a result… or the pointlessness of that reality… like the people in the movie, they don’t really exist – yet they are there existing despite the fact it is a movie made in 1972. Their pointlessness exudes something… it’s a cult film.
This is especially in BZ’s conversation with Maria about how his grandfather blew his brains out and his father drank himself to death. They were looking for something but they couldn’t find it… and yet that there is nothing – that is everything.
Play it as it Lays is not a movie about Christians in Hollywood!
This ‘nothing’ is perhaps the key to the so-called existentialism in the film as the nihilist human experience or lack of God is summed up in the universe even if it is just by using this word as total summation! While this is at the centre of Play it as it Lays, it all sounds like the hole in a donut… or a discarded wedding ring – there’s simply nothing there! And this nihilism is scary in that it is so depressing! Perhaps the Hollywood lifestyle is nothing but a big black hole!
Maria is pregnant and she wants to have the baby, but her husband almost blackmails her into having an abortion by saying he will keep their young autistic daughter. But this is almost an empty threat as their child is in an institution under neither of their care.
Maria visits her daughter but it is traumatic for her as after she tells the child they will have a life together, the six or seven-year-old strikes out violently against another child.
Weld’s performance is great. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for this film. When she calls the number for the abortionist Carter has left her, she isn’t herself as she is putting on a performance for her husband and the person at the other end of the phone… perhaps the ultimate performance as she arranges the killing of her foetus.
“I was given this number…”
“Who gave you this number?”
“My husband did.”
During the film, Maria drives seemingly aimlessly through Los Angeles and there are long distance shots of the arteries and veins of the roads and freeways. Los Angeles could almost be the soon to be murdered foetus…or a womb for the foetus. It is the dreams the foetus is possibly having as well as the dreams of those who live in Hollywood… vain dreams. It comes down to Carter’s aborted third film with his wife as he in turn gets her to abort her baby. Such is the impersonal life is this part of Los Angeles that we see and Maria’s abortion will be just as impersonal. Such is the nature of the beast.
“What do you do with the baby?,” asks Maria after the procedure to the illegal doctor as a bin lid shuts. We are left to wonder if the waste disposal is used once she has departed.
Carter is meanwhile a surgeon of film who has been working on Maria as a kind of abortionist by proxy. They are parallels also in the movie.
And yet Carter’s life is just as empty – but does he know it? – as he talks of existentialism as he discusses his film with film moderators on tv as Maria watches. Is the genius Carter’s film direction or Maria’s performance?
“It wasn’t a performance. It was not a performance…”
“It was her life as it were?,” asks the moderator
“As it were…”
And with that, Maria turns off the television. Even watching her husband talking of the film from the past is shut off, showing the distance from herself back then and her relationship with Carter as it is today… This reverberates when Maria visits the set of Carter’s latest movie and he goes on the same tack with a female reporter… At a highway truck stop later grabbing lunch Maria tells Carter sharply: “Existentially, I’m getting a hamburger.”
Such is the rage in Maria and the emptiness of Carter’s art, who is incidentally played by Adam Roarke (1937-96 heart attack). It is as if Maria outsmarted Carter when he made his first film and that she really directed it herself with Carter only a surgeon with his instruments of camera and editing suite.
BZ alone with Maria tells her he knows how Maria has been looking for The Answer – and it is probably ironic that Maria is picked up under ‘the big T’ for the abortion, but that was not the answer as BZ says there is none.
“I decided I was going to find the answer too…” he continues after explaining his father and grandfather’s deaths… “I looked for it… I looked for it – no more gender, no more ego, just the ten minutes that could take you where nobody’s been…” and he continues with an announcer’s voice: “What we found was incontrovertible evidence that… all of it means zero.”
Maria says she never wants to be where BZ is but he tells her she will…
Screenwriter Didion left her baby of a screenplay in the hands of a great surgeon that is Perry. The novel’s point of view apparently shifts often from Maria to her friend Helene and then in the third person. But there is no doubt screenwriters and director have created a work of genius… Maria too is some sort of genius in that she can think for herself, despite making the mistake of having the abortion. Despite being little more than a model and an actress… it is this mistake which leads her to the dead-end life in Tinseltown… and then the sanatorium. And BZ it would seem is already there.
As an actress, or “self-employed” she is always acting or being herself – ingenious? Well, enough to survive anyway.
In the beginning and throughout the film she walks like a ghost talking flatly especially in the bookended scenes at the sanatorium… Perhaps it’s Valium… and BZ talks just as flatly, defeated by the fact that it all means nothing.
Play it as it Lays is possibly the most nihilist Hollywood film in terms of those who live there. All we win are our screens and what is made that appears on those screens is just as meaningless as the lives of those who help to produce it. It is probably why reality shows are now so popular as people connect on a more immediate level. It is ‘real’ if just as empty.
Add another level of reality and the scenes of Maria walking through the sanitorium gardens were apparently shot at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills where a famed murder/suicide among the elite happened many years ago. More bored rich people with unhappy and empty lives.
But it is the abortion which echoes throughout the film. At the end of the novel Maria tells herself that she “resembles the best surgeon” be it film or possibly an abortion. Maria had been told that the doctor “does clean work”. I’ll underline that later.
And, again the garbage disposal is haunting. In the book, Maria is upset by a backed-up garbage disposal. It is like every garbage disposal in Los Angeles could be haunted by the remains of a dead baby. When Maria goes apartment hunting to find her own space she is told: “There’s a new disposal. No pets. No children.” And it is like he is announcing there is nothing of the remains of either to be found inside.
When Maria meets with who we assume is a former lover and the possible father of the abortion, he tells her: “We could have talked about it” as if it would now help. Maria at this point needs to be taken in the arms of a man who cares but she is forever at arm’s length in a town which prizes sexual activity over gentle intimacy – that and drugs and alcohol over any intimacy!
She goes to a hypnotherapist to take her back to when she was little more than a foetus because: “I need to know if they think” such is her duress over the operation.
Compare this to Carter’s mental wank on tv over his film being the apex of his art… Meanwhile the happier and more content rich and famous in Hollywood are probably playing golf as the title of the movie relates to a golf term. Play it as it Lays means continuing to play without putting the ball in a more favourable position – in other words take what you get and figure it out and make the best of it so you can move forward. It is just a game but it sums up a more positive philosophy in the nihilist world of Play it as it Lays.
This could also be compared to a ball as in a party and of leaving a party but continuing to play or act at the next party or scene in a film… again it is the pointlessness of the game in terms of the Hollywood social scene and maybe even the creation of movies as well. To some, the game of golf is just as pointless.
The Jo Stafford song You Belong to Me also features strongly in the film even though the actual recording is not used itself. Maria sings it to herself in reverie as she almost begins to ruminate or sleep on a bed in front of the camera for the cinema verite film Maria. She is remembering her mother singing it to her.
Carter may have fallen for his actress but this scene sums up Maria before he came along. For all his insistence that Maria is real in his movie, their relationship may have never been and was possibly destroyed by their daughter suffering autism. They cannot be a normal family.
The fragments of the movie are held together thanks to Sidney Katz (1918-2009) who had worked with director Perry on his previous classics The Swimmer (1968) and Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970).
One of the other characters in the movie, that of Helene, is played by Tammy Grimes (1934-2016). She is BZ’s wife who is some upper-class gossip who may be talking about Weld and herself when she tells BZ to guess which pair of dykes she saw eating cheese souffle at a certain well to do restaurant. This sexual reference is used again at the end of the movie when she screams as described in the book after Maria said she knew what BZ was doing when he died in Maria’s arms.
The book: “…But Helene only screamed again. F#*k it, I said to Helene. F#*k it, I said to them all. A radical surgeon of my own life. Never discuss. In that way I resemble the only man in Los Angeles who does clean work.”
In the movie Grimes cries out: “She’s a dyke!” over and over again.
As for the book and the clean work by a man, Maria sums up the philosophy of nothing, the abortion and the editing of the film itself. All meaningless.
This probably had already been summed up by BZ’s suicide. But, hell, lets underline. He goes to Maria’s room one night and takes out a packet of seconal.
Previously he had asked her: “Tell me what matters.” To which she replied; “Nothing.” She has learned her lesson perhaps and it cuts to Maria in the sanatorium saying to herself that her father thought that there was a higher purpose and that it was all a game – albeit not golf!
“I was holding all the aces,” she says, according to her father, but Maria asks: “What was the game?”
But before this as BZ enters the room with the sleeping pills and a bottle of vodka he tells Maria when he tries to talk to her that “You’re still playing…” and he continues: “Someday you’ll wake up and you just won’t feel like playing anymore.”
It’s a beautifully handled scene, if you can describe a suicide in terms of beauty. The two actors had worked together in the movie Pretty Poison (1968) and so were well acquainted.
“You know why,” BZ tells Maria when she asks why he’s there. And the long list of Hollywood, indeed, worldwide suicides after humiliation and defeat is shown almost lovingly as BZ’s tears fall from his eyes as Maria cradles his head in her lap after he has taken the overdose. He asks her what her plans are and they include getting her daughter back and making preserves which she lists as BZ’s life ebbs away.
It’s again the pointlessness and emptiness of these relationships which sometimes are made impossible due to sexuality or the remoteness of the individual perhaps due to addiction or even autism.
As he dies, Maria tells BZ that she is sorry and sings You Belong to Me just as her mother sang to her as she drifted off to sleep. She is replaying the scene just as if BZ were her child, possibly even the one she aborted as he too is about to die. And yet it is like BZ said, she is playing and playing… and by playing out the same scene over, or by watching a film over and over again, do we learn anything? The answer lies in creation and the creation of Play it as it Lays.
What was described as a depressing and not filmable book is an experience even if you learn: “nothing”… And we’re back wandering at the sanatorium where Maria discusses to herself the reason why she let BZ die. She was not insane she reasons: “I knew something that Carter never knew, or Helene or maybe you… I know what nothing means but keep on playing”.
“Why?,” suddenly asks the director from out of nowhere.
And Maria, who has possibly in the past been pondering about those preserves and a life with her daughter, if not the acting possibilities of the present and future, says: “Why not?”
I guess that reply comes from what Shakespeare meant when he wrote in Hamlet: “The readiness is all”. Be prepared and live in the now.
And yet, we are inside a movie again. The alienation technique is used as Maria isn’t giving a performance just like Carter has possibly given her the gift of this movie – if he does exist. Or was she just talking to a roving analyst? Or is it director Frank Perry himself? Watch the movie.
This compulsion to play the game we are reminded in the film by the compulsive gambler Maria meets in Las Vegas who knew her parents… the game goes on and on, even if you are totally outside and have no interest in Hollywood. Perhaps some never really learn that they are compulsive… others do learn they are compulsive and stop. Then there are those like BZ who stop playing altogether for no other reason than – no reason. Others just go on and on. Would you turn over a rock with the chance there is a coiled rattlesnake underneath? It may be suicide, but some people can’t just help but to look. To use another rattlesnake motif.
Play it as it Lays is a troubled child, but it is like Maria, it has the genius and courage of its convictions to go on and gives us the compulsion to watch… and perhaps watch again! Press play!!