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On the big screen: 'Play It as It Lays' [Updated]

August 17, 2010 |  8:51 am

Playitasitlays_weld Joan Didion is an acknowledged master of nonfiction, from her breakthrough 1968 essay collection "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" to "The Year of Magical Thinking," which won the 2005 National Book Award. Her fiction, however, has always been more problematic: same brilliant sentences, same brain behind the words, but somehow, more of an awkward fit.

Didion's first book was the quiet novel "Run River"; after the success of "Slouching," she turned back to fiction with "Play It as It Lays." The story focuses on Maria, a model spun by Hollywood into an existential Southern California malaise. The book was a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

"In all her work -- fiction, reporting, or soul-searching essays -- it's as if the characters, the whole unnatural 20th century world and the author herself were falling over a precipice into...nothingness," Gloria Steinam wrote in her 1970 review of the book. "Ultimately the problem with the novel is not observation or execution, but something nearer its core. Miss Didion has taken a doomed woman, a sort of spiritual, thin-bosomed Marilyn Monroe, and endowed her with many of the author's sensibilities. 'Why then,' we find ourselves wondering, 'doesn't Maria find the will to rescue herself?'"

If "Play It as It Lays" provided a heroine not capable of much action, it also delivered her in achronological sections, as unmoored from her timeline as Maria had become unmoored. Put the two together and it seems like a very unlikely book-to-movie candidate: no beautiful indulgences, no clear three-act structure, no Javier Bardem waiting in the final act.

But it was the '70s, and Frank Perry, who had successfully directed the film adaptation of John Cheever's story "The Swimmer," was up to the task. The film came out in 1972, starring Tuesday Weld, who was known at the time for being precocious and wild; she earned a Golden Globe nomination.

But the film had some problems. Reviewing it for the L.A. Times, Charles Champlin wrote, "Stylistically, the movie, like the novel, is fragmented and often baffling, leaping around in time, place and condition of mind, leaving pieces of dialog half-heard, relationships half understood if at all, significances less than half revealed."

All that said, it sounds like one truly interesting film: Didion's novel on screen, problematic and baffling. But it's rarely seen, because it's not available on DVD.

This Friday, "Play It as It Lays" shows on the big screen in Los Angeles at Cinefamily, the curated theater at 611 N. Fairfax Ave. It's the second half of a double feature that begins with Jacques Demy's 1969 Hollywood movie, "Model Shop." Tickets are $10.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

[Updated at 11:40 a.m.: An earlier version of this post said that Joan Didion's first novel was "Red River" -- it is "Run River" -- and Gloria Steinem's name was misspelled "Steinam."]

Photo: Tuesday Weld in "Play It as It Lays." Credit: American Cinematheque

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