Videodrome :: In Conversation with Kim Morgan on Play It As It Lays (1972)

(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)

Kim Morgan is a writer whose work has appeared in Sight & SoundFilmmaker MagazinePlayboySalon, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, amongst many other publications. In addition to being a frequent contributor to the New Beverly Cinemashe runs her own blog, Sunset Gun. Morgan also co-wrote Nightmare Alley (2021) alongside Guillermo del Toro.

Outside of being an accomplished film-writer and screenwriter, Morgan is a fervent fan of film and history, and this affection bleeds into her writing. One need only look at her recent piece on Marilyn Monroe for The Criterion Collection to know that Morgan’s sprawling knowledge of cinema transcends the enumeration of filmographies, commenting on a deeper emotional vibration. Whether she’s musing about Frank Sinatra and Sterling Hayden in Suddenly (1954) or Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Morgan’s writing probes the catharsis of cinema — the heart and soul of film as a medium. Like all great film scribes, Morgan makes you excited to watch, discuss, and seek out films. Her intellect and passion are intertwined, making Morgan a potent cinephile to speak with (and someone we knew we had to interview for the Videodrome column). 

For our discussion, Morgan selected Play It As It Lays (1972), Frank Perry’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel. At first blush, one could assume it’s a film about filmmaking, populated by actresses, directors, and producers navigating their careers in 1970s Los Angeles. But Play It As It Lays is far from an inside-baseball look at Hollywood. Instead, the film focuses on the internal condition of its characters: how they choose to relate to the world and people around them. Like the novel, the film unfolds in fragments, mirroring the dissociative quality of its protagonist, Maria (Tuesday Weld), who spends much of her screen time journeying across the endless freeways of LA, seeking some semblance of purpose or place to belong. It’s a film primarily made up of small moments, the in-between moments of life, capturing the ennui of existing in and around Hollywood.

On a Saturday afternoon in late August, we sat down with Morgan via Zoom to discuss Play It As It Lays, Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins, and driving in Los Angeles. The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity. | e hehr

Aquarium Drunkard: Why did you select Play It As It Lays? Or, more specifically, what does this film mean to you?

Kim Morgan: I love this film. I’m really into Frank Perry and Eleanor Perry, although Play It As It Lays was made when Frank and Eleanor were no longer together. The film is a beautiful synthesis of Frank Perry’s understanding of Joan Didion’s novel — portraying this feeling of nothingness, disconnection, multi-connections, experiences, and loneliness in Los Angeles. Living in the past, present, and … what is the future? And it understands depression. And driving. So much driving.

It could play as a Hollywood cliche, you know — these LA industry people searching for meaning in all the emptiness around them. But I feel like there’s so much more going on here — cinematically and thematically — in the way Perry expresses a character’s search for meaning or maybe answers … or the relationship with nothingness. Even what nothingness means — either as a burden or a liberation. Here, with Maria, it’s often done through driving and the geography of Los Angeles. It’s a place where you can feel very aimless but also very connected. I love movies where people drive and almost create their own movies — through their windshields — about what they’re seeing or experiencing. I feel that there can be a transhumanistic fusion of yourself with your car, and Play It As It Lays understands this. There’s all these different places and worlds in Los Angeles that you can go to: the desert, the valley, the ocean. They can feel so different, even chemically, from one place to the next. In Play It As It Lays, you can go to a party in Hollywood, the beach in Malibu, then you can be in Oxnard, then to the desert, and then to another state, as far as Las Vegas. 

I guess I really connected with this film because of how Perry explores everything: the enigmatic, the way we feel when depressed, the mystery and the ghosts; things that I frequently feel in Los Angeles. There is a beauty to that. I’m not sure if Frank Perry thought this was all beautiful in real life, but I think a lot of what is in this film is beautifully expressed and composed, like the snaking freeways. I could get into more specific shots and things like that because that’s important — they fuse with Maria’s search for her narrative. She’s almost like her own editor. Not surprisingly, Didion was fascinated by film editing, and Perry expertly conveys this with his innovative editing. Maria’s an actress and a model, but I feel that this is a woman who maybe really wants to be a writer. She’s trying to write her own life in a sense, and everyone else around her is interpreting her. Her husband is a director inspired by her story. She breaks through it all by telling her own truth, which is really interesting — that she bluntly says things. She cuts through everything.

There’s a great quote from Joan Didion about becoming a writer, and she says (I’ll read this): “I didn’t want to be a writer; I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t realize then that it was the same impulse. It’s make-believe. It’s performance. The only difference is that a writer can do it all alone. I was struck a few years ago when a friend of ours — an actress — was having dinner here with us and a couple of other writers. It suddenly occurred to me that she was the only person in the room who couldn’t plan what she was going to do. She had to wait for someone to ask her, which is a strange way to live.” 

As lost and depressed as she seems, I feel like Maria is rebelling from that type of life and trying to make some kind of sense of it. She’s also researching her own family, her parents — who are both dead — and trying to “play,” as she says. But she’s often talking about nothingness. It sounds almost like she’s nihilistic, but she’s also searching for something to make sense of her life. I think when she’s driving — all of her interactions on the freeways — she’s trying to make connections — something — even if she’s not sure. So, it’s not just an escape, it’s not just a depressive act, and it’s not just a way to zone out — even though it certainly can be. On certain days — yes, it can be. But it also gives her a sense of direction, even if it’s directionless. Does that make any sense? I’m going all over the place with this! But I think the film captures feeling almost naturally altered — good and bad — by Los Angeles. Some people may think the movie is too grim of a representation, but I think Maria does have a kind of grim determination. It’s a depressed rebellion. 

AD: It definitely captures an unspoken existentialism about existing in Los Angeles. Have you read The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis?

Kim Morgan: No, I haven’t read that one yet. I need to.

AD: It came out recently. It’s a very LA novel. In the interviews from the book tour, Ellis talks about the idea of “numbness as an aesthetic.” He was chasing that tone in writing The Shards and all of his LA-based novels dating back to Less Than Zero. This “numbness as an aesthetic” idea came to Ellis from reading Didion’s LA-centric prose, and it was something he was trying to emulate as a writer: this terse, detached narrative voice that seeks to capture a particular state of being in Los Angeles. “I know what nothing means.” “Numbness as an aesthetic.” I think a literary through-line can be traced from a recent novel like The Shards back to something like Play It As It Lays and Joan Didion’s writing style.

Do you remember seeing this film for the first time? Did you instantly like it, or did it grow on you?

Kim Morgan: I saw it for the first time at The Egyptian in Hollywood. I think it was about 2006. It’s a very “hard-to-see” film. Was it ever released on VHS? I’m not even sure about that. As far as I know, it’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray.

AD: Yeah, it’s been out of circulation forever. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Someone uploaded a full version of the film to YouTube, which is the only place I could find it.

Kim Morgan: I’ve always been a big admirer of Tuesday Weld, so I wanted to see it for her, and I was so intrigued by Frank Perry. It really affected me the first time I saw it. It just stuck with me. Later on, I really dug into the greatness of Frank Perry and the films he worked on with Eleanor. There’s so many great films: David and Lisa (1962), Ladybug Ladybug (1963), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), The Swimmer (1968) … and then later films like Doc (1971) Rancho Deluxe (1975), Mommie Dearest (1981) — which I love and Faye Dunaway is brilliant in it — and the outstanding Man on a Swing (1974). 

In 2017, the New Beverly did a Frank Perry retrospective, and I wrote about Last Summer (1969) — which I love — and Play It As It Lays. The more I watched Play It As It Lays, the more I realized it’s a film that reveals something different about itself every time you watch it. Every time I go back to it, I catch something new, and it gets better each time. It’s a film you need to see more than once. How many times have you seen it?

AD: I watched it for the first time years ago, and to be honest, I didn’t remember too much. I watched it again last week and then for a third time last night. On the third watch, I caught so many details I’d never noticed before, both the way the film functions as a narrative piece and the technical craft of it. The pacing and editing is somewhat jarring the first time through, but the more I rewatched it, the more hypnotic it became. Once you fall into the groove and rhythm, it becomes almost meditative. 

Going back to what you said about the film being hard to come across — I wonder why that is. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel, with Didion penning the screenplay herself, and the novel is still revered. It’s one of those books you can find in any bookstore in America. But the film adaptation has largely been forgotten. Why do you think the film is not remembered or discussed as much as the book?

Kim Morgan: I don’t know. I mean, Joan Didion is so popular with each generation and so famous — she’s canonical and so important. She’s more well-known than Frank Perry, though cineastes love Perry. The film got some negative reviews when it was released, and there really hasn’t been enough of a reappraisal; though, again, there are currently big defenders and a series devoted to Perry. Thank goodness! I know Roger Ebert loved it when it came out. Pauline Kael kind of famously hated it. She didn’t like Joan Didion’s writing either. At the time, the film went to the Venice Film Festival, and Tuesday Weld won best actress, and she was also nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance. But I don’t know … it’s baffling, given the talent involved in making the film.

AD: As an adaptation, where do you think Perry’s film exceeds or improves upon Didion’s novel? Or does it? Does the film capture something the book doesn’t, or vice versa?

Kim Morgan: I think Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld are so moving as BZ and Maria. I can only think of them when I read the novel. The performances of those characters are something specific to the film. You really feel the emotional outsider quality of those two. They work so well together, and they have so much in common. And not just because they were in Pretty Poison (1968) together — which is also incredible, another film I love, by Noel Black — but because they share this unique beauty and singularity as misfits. As actors, they both took on a lot of offbeat and fearless roles, particularly something like Pretty Poison

Weld famously turned down a lot of parts in big films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). She is such a unique, complex, magnificent actress — there’s no one like her. She has such an interesting career of not making movies — what she could have done. And she was something of a rebel. She went from being a young star and everyone’s crush on Dobie Gillis to a kind of cult star. I think Sam Shepard famously wrote that Tuesday Weld was the “Marlon Brando of women.” He thought she was one of the coolest girls he’d ever seen. 

Anthony Perkins had such an elegant and haunted quality, especially in Play It As It Lays — a vulnerability, a mystery. He’s such a beautiful, profound actor. Their chemistry in the film is so moving. It’s a platonic relationship, but they share such a loving connection. There’s so much warmth in the way they communicate, even when being biting, bitingly funny, and, at times, nihilistic. They understand one another, even though he ultimately decides he doesn’t want to “play” any longer, and she continues to do so. 

AD: Yeah, I agree. The chemistry between Perkins and Weld feels very lived in. Their scenes are like watching two old friends hang out. And they both have so much restraint. Numerous scenes could’ve been played more operatically — more emotionally explosive — but they dial it back and play it quiet. 

I was thinking about Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), and that scene where he’s being questioned by Detective Arbogast (Marin Balsam) and eating candy. He’s clearly so nervous and on edge, but Perkins plays the scene with so much reserve. He never goes big with it. Do you have other Tuesday Weld or Anthony Perkins roles that you’re a fan of outside of Play It As It Lays? They’re both great actors you don’t hear enough about.

Kim Morgan: Obviously Psycho, but he’s so great in Psycho II (1983), and I love him in Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962). Weld is incredible in George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck (1966) … there’s also Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)…

AD: I just saw Looking for Mr. Goodbar for the first time at the New Beverly. It’s been on my watchlist forever. Similar to Play It As It Lays, it’s another one of those seventies films that’s hard to find. And yeah, Weld is great in it. 

Kim Morgan: I also love her in Thief (1981). She’s great in Who’ll Stop The Rain (1978).

AD: I’m not familiar with that one. I’m adding it to my watchlist now!

Kim Morgan: It’s such a great movie. What am I forgetting? She’s in this curious John Frankenheimer film called I Walk The Line (1970). And there’s this excellent, brutal episode of Naked City called “The Case Study of Two Savages,” which she stars in with Rip Torn — worth checking out.

AD: Besides Frank Perry, all these other anti-establishment auteurs like Sam Peckinpah and Mike Nichols wanted to direct Play It As It Lays. What do you think it is about Perry’s handling of the material that sets it apart from, say, how Peckinpah or Nichols would’ve directed it? 

Kim Morgan: I have to say — as much as I love Frank Perry — I think a Sam Peckinpah version would have been really interesting. I love Peckinpah. I would love to have seen that. There’s that moment at the end of Play It As It Lays where Maria faces the camera and says, “Why not?” which makes me think of that scene in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) when William Holden says, “Let’s go!” and Warren Oates says, “Why not?” 

Frank Perry was really in tune with the novel and the literary aspect of it. He’s perfect for it. He worked with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to make sure that the film felt like the novel and flowed the same way it was written. He was a very novelistic filmmaker in that way, even though he’s also highly visual, and the camera work is incredible. 

I’m thinking of that sequence where Maria goes to get her abortion. We see her driving on the freeway, and then she pulls off into that parking lot to meet with the man in white who takes her to get the abortion. There’s that beautiful shot from the big red “T” sign on top of the shopping center, and below, you see Maria’s yellow Corvette pull into the parking lot. It looks like a William Eggleston photograph – it’s so incredible. And then you go from this highly visual moment to the two of them in the car having a conversation. The man in white is asking Maria about her gas mileage, and he’s talking about the car he wants to buy and whether or not he should lease. I mean, they’re having this very typical Los Angeles conversation on her way to get an abortion! And then, directly after she has the procedure, he says to Maria, “Oh, you really missed a pretty fair movie, Maria,” and he points to the little TV he’s watching, and on the screen there’s this Earl Schwab commercial. Watching that whole sequence — the dialogue, the visuals — to me, it’s an authentic expression of both Los Angeles and this woman who’s in a really unsure, vulnerable position.  I keep bringing up driving; I just keep returning to it! But it’s so prominent here. All these freeways connect you to other places, and you meet all these people along the way.

There’s that other part where Maria’s talking to the woman who works at the desert diner, and the woman is sweeping all the dirt off the porch. Maria asks her something like, “Why are you doing that? It’s just gonna get dirty again.” There are all these moments that are very visual but also very literary, and they’re all great choices by Perry as a director. 

There’s also that scene where Maria pulls over on the side of the highway to change her tire. Right beforehand, you hear the conversation about how she walked off her last movie and how she’s basically in a bad place as an actress, and that she needs help with this. A police officer approaches her, offering to help with the tire, and she says, “I don’t need any help.” There’s this idea that … well, this is a troubled woman or a woman in distress. But at the same time, she can take care of herself and seems happy to take care of herself at that moment. She can change her own tire. It isn’t just this listless activity of depression, where she’s roaming about and going nowhere. She’s going nowhere, and she’s going everywhere, somehow. I mean, you can read it in different ways, I guess. I really sound in circles here. Didion had written about driving in Los Angeles, and she said, “There is about these hours spent in transit a seductive unconnectedness.” 

I think that’s one aspect that’s so interesting about Play It As It Lays: that cars are so cinematic. There are other films I love like Model Shop (1969), which has so much driving around Los Angeles, and so much of it seems to be about trying to seek something or discover something as you drive. 

AD: Yeah, I think that’s something that Play It As It Lays captures that is as true today as it was in 1972: the experience of driving around LA and encountering all these different people and places but still feeling removed from them.

On that note, Play It As It Lays falls into this pantheon of early-seventies American films that are very dark, cynical, and existential. Tonally, I’m thinking of films like Lenny (1974), The Sporting Club (1971), The Hunting Party (1971), Panic In Needle Park (1971).

Kim Morgan: Another great screenplay written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne!

AD: Regarding its general outlook and worldview, do you think Play It As It Lays is a product of its time? If it were to come out today, how would its portrayal of Los Angeles and Hollywood folk stay the same, or what would be different about it? Is there anything about the film that you feel is dated?

Kim Morgan: No, I don’t like to use that word — “dated.” I don’t know what that means. It’s of its time, you know — it’s 1972. It can’t help but be of its time. And I think the themes and characters still translate today. Of course, if it were made today, I think there’d be minor differences, mainly in how people drive. There are so many distractions nowadays with devices and things. And as a city, Los Angeles has changed so much since then, so it would obviously look different. But no, I don’t think it’s dated as a film. 

AD: Both the film and novel end with Maria institutionalized, continuing to withdraw from the outside world. What do you think happens to Maria after the film ends? What does the rest of her life look like?

Kim Morgan: Well, she wants to see her daughter again. I mean, that’s what she really wants to do. The fact that she continues to have that aspiration does give her something to live for. But it’s hard to say what the rest of her life will be because I see her as someone trying to make sense of things but also at the same time saying, “Fuck it.” She says she knows what nothing means, but she’s going to keep on “playing.”

AD: I read that in 1971, right before Play It As It Lays, Tuesday Weld’s home in Malibu caught on fire. Everything she owned was destroyed. There’s a quote from that time where she recounts the incident by saying, “I went to look at the ashes, but I didn’t cry. Aside from my journals, none of it mattered … I’m suspended, floating. I’m not happy, and I’m not sad.” This kind of deadpan apathy sounds very similar to the character of Maria. How much of Tuesday Weld do you think is in Maria?

Kim Morgan: Probably a lot. I’m sure Weld could relate to Maria and what she’s going through as a woman and actress in Hollywood, but I don’t want to impose anything on Tuesday Weld. 

How do we control our own story? Well, we can’t. People create their own “mind-movies” of us; memories or half-memories of what they interpret through their eyes. There’s something in Maria that understands this, is probably frustrated by it, cuts through it, but also says … fuck it

There’s a scene where her husband, Carter, played by Adam Roarke — a great actor, so perfect in this — asks her why she’s living in a furnished apartment on Fountain and not the fifteen-hundred-dollar-a-month house in Beverly Hills. He says she’s choosing catatonia as a lifestyle — something like that. She’s lying on the bed, watching a small black and white TV with the sound off. There’s a woman’s house being destroyed on the news, and Maria asks Carter, “You want to know what she’s saying? She’s saying, ‘You boys are doing a really outstanding camera job.’” Carter asks her how she knows what the woman on screen is saying, and Maria answers, “Because I saw it at five, and it’s heaven.” I really love that moment.

Aquarium Drunkard is powered by its patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support via our Patreon page. For heads, by heads