Play It As It Lays – dir. Frank Perry – 1972 – USA
When Sony Pictures Classics re-released Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger in theatres back in October of 2005, Los Angeles Times writer Carina Chocano remarked that its release was “a stark indictment of what film culture has become.” Stating that The Passenger was “a night at the movies, in 1975,” the film stood as a sad reminder of the last great period of Hollywood cinema. Technically, The Passenger wasn’t a Hollywood movie (it was co-produced by Italy, France and Spain), but for all intensive purposes, it at least recalled the period when Hollywood made challenging films for adults. Frank Perry’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays wasn’t a rousing success for audiences or critics when it came out in 1972, but watching it now, it wasn’t just a case of missed connections but of a sad elegy of what used to be.
It would seem fitting that Play It As It Lays was, on the surface, an exposé of glamorous disillusionment through the story of Maria Wyeth (the wonderful Tuesday Weld), an actress with an existential crisis. My friend Bradford described the certain shock of going into a film like Play It As It Lays with contemporary Hollywood on the mind. “’They expect me to discern?!’ you catch yourself thinking, and then chide yourself for doing so.” Perry never allows for easiness in his vision just as Didion never allows for it in her material. The elliptical editing, reminiscent of some of Nicolas Roeg’s finer work, feels so alarming and so fresh, transporting the viewer into situations in medias res.
Universal, notorious for either holding onto films or unaware of their holding of rights, has yet to release Play It As It Lays on DVD, and I wouldn’t expect it any time soon. If it’s hard to imagine a film like this being financed and released by Hollywood today, it’s probably harder for the studios to understand why a film like this is so important and so tragically missed in the hearts of true film lovers.