In 1977, Joan Didion was 43, and widely admired for a string of artful, semi-journalistic essays. She had just published her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer, and had previously made a considerable splash with Play It as It Lays. She had co-written three screenplays with husband John Gregory Dunne.
In short, Didion was a literary celebrity, so it was high time to feature her in the Paris Review’s prestigious “Writers at Work” series.
I’m sure I read this interview long ago, and probably more than once. But it seems freshly interesting to me now, for two reasons: First, because of the interviewer, and second because I’ve been writing a lot about Play It as It Lays. …
It has suddenly dawned on me that Joan Didion’s second novel, Play It as It Lays, was published in the summer heat of 1970 — half a century ago.
So I looked back at two almost entirely opposite assessments, both published in The New York Times that same summer.
The value of reading these now is that they present immediate and intuitive reactions— uncorrupted by all the commentary that has come after, and all the adulation that’s been heaped on Didion over the past half-century.
She’s now routinely described as an icon, an American treasure, “the writer who changed how we write.” She’s the subject of documentary films, magazine spreads, biographical studies, and any number of blog posts. …
I’ve been writing about Joan Didion’s iconic second novel over the past few months, and the phrase “eye of the beholder” often comes to mind. A good work of literature is always open to more than one interpretation, of course— but Play It as It Lays attracts an especially wide range.
Two reviews of the book when it came out looked like this:
“Simple, restrained, intelligent, well-structured, witty, irresistibly relentless, forthright in diction, and untainted by the sensational, Play It As It Lays is a book of outstanding literary quality.” — Library Journal
“[A] scathing novel, distilling venom in tiny drops, revealing devastation in a sneer and fear in a handful of atomic dust.” …
I didn’t intend to write a trilogy of stories on Medium about Joan Didion and her most memorable novel, Play It as It Lays — it just turned out that way. First I wrote an overview and interpretation of the novel itself, then an account of the under-appreciated film version, and the screenplay written by Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne.
The third story revealed how Didion and Dunne designed their living and working spaces — and explored how that design aesthetic connected with Didion’s approach to writing Play It as It Lays.
But now it seems as if the “trilogy” was not only unintended, but also incomplete. There are some other things that seem worth saying. …
No one really knows why the 1972 film version of Play It as It Lays has been forgotten so completely that it barely survives. While some of the worst movies ever made are readily available on DVD, PIAIL can only be seen at all thanks to a good Samaritan who put it on YouTube a few years ago.
In case you’re already wondering, the YouTube version is still available as of today, and the quality is reasonably good.
The problem is not a legal obstruction — the movie was sold on VHS at one time, but most of those copies have long since decomposed. And it’s certainly not that the movie was bad. Tuesday Weld received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, and many reviewers were complimentary. Some were not — but in most cases they didn’t like the movie for the same reasons they didn’t like the novel: fragmentary, depressing, pointless. …
In 1992, I apparently subscribed to House & Garden Magazine. But I only know that because ever since then I’ve had a file folder containing several pages torn out of one issue. It’s a photo spread of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne’s New York City apartment, with text written by Didion and Dunne themselves.
The famous couple had moved from Southern California to NYC in 1988 (“impulsively,” they said), and because both were so closely connected with West Coast culture, the relocation made news.
Despite a lot of reading early in life, I had never identified with a fictional character in the same way I related to Maria Wyeth, Joan Didion’s unparalleled anti-heroine.
Maria (pronounced Mar-eye-ah, she tells you at once) is the protagonist of Didion’s second novel, Play It as It Lays. If you haven’t read it yet, just imagine T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock set in Hollywood during the late 1960s. And as a matter of fact, if you read both works together, you may wonder whether Didion and Eliot could be twins separated at birth. …