Double Feature: Female Anxiety, Tinseltown Edition (Play It As It Lays & Ingrid Goes West)
Who doesn’t love L.A. and Hollywood. City of dreams, right? Since the dawn of talkies we’ve had plenty of movies that poke fun at the strangeness that is a town built on fakeness. That’s not a disparaging remark to the actually city of Los Angeles, but rather an observation about movies. Movies are, by nature, artificial. Characters are invented, interactions are scripted, fights are choreographed, women die with their makeup still perfectly applied. People drawn to such a place are either looking for glamour and fame, excitement and creativity, or some combination of all of them. What often happens, as is the case with most romanticized cities, is that the wannabes get burnt out on the very aspects that drew them there in the first place. At some point, the sunny world of Hollywood and all the potential it offers is just as terrible as anywhere else. Which the leads in these two movies come to realize a little too late:
Leading Feature: Play It As It Lays (1972)
Based on a novel by Joan Didion, Play It As it Lays follows a successful actress named Maria Wyeth (pronounced like “Mar-EYE-ah” and played by Tuesday Weld) who suffers from chronic depression and has been institutionalized. The story is told in fluid flashbacks, with Maria discussing her issues with an unseen male doctor who occasionally asks her questions. Most of the time we’re watching her pre-hospital life with interspersed moments of her wandering around a garden that is in the institution, though that’s never explicitly explained.
Maria is divorced from her director husband Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) and their daughter Katie is being kept in a hospital for what seems like Borderline Personality Disorder mixed with violent outbursts. Maria spends more time than she should visiting Katie, driving aimlessly around L.A., and hanging around her friend B.Z. Mendenhall (played with nihilistic manic energy by the great, late Anthony Hopkins). As the relationships Maria has with the people around her unfold, we learn more about the sadness and struggles in their lives as well. B.Z. is a semi-closeted gay man who remains married despite this fact. Carter has granted Maria the divorce she wanted and is starting to fall in love with someone new, but still trying to maintain a healthy, working relationship with his ex-wife. His concern for her is obvious, even if it is sometimes paternalistic and invasive.
Maria’s condition continues to get worse. She discusses the hollow, helpless feeling she has with B.Z, and he talks of all the time he spent experimenting with sex and drugs just to find out that the answer to it all was “nothing.” Nothingness is the end goal of existing, and he encourages her to “keep playing” because the best we can ever hope to be is nothing. We initially believe his optimistic nihilism, that is until a scene towards the end of the movie. He comes into Maria’s hotel room with a bottle of Seconal and vodka, explaining that at some point you just get tired of playing. In an honestly beautiful moment, B.Z. asks Maria if she wants to commit suicide with him (not so explicitly, but the message is understood). When she declines, he playfully asks if she’s going to try to stop him, to which she replies no. He swallows down the pills, and Maria cradles him in her lap, speaking gently to him as he drifts off.
The smash cut to the next scene reveals B.Z.’s wife hysterically screaming directly at Maria as Carter tries to calm her down, insisting that Maria didn’t know what B.Z. was doing. In an assured voice, Maria tells them both that she knew exactly what was going on but saw no reason to stop it. This turns out to be the catalyst that got Maria hospitalized. In the final scene, we hear her tell the doctor that she knows what nothing is but she continues to keep playing. When the doctor asks her why, Maria sagely looks directly into the camera, smiles softly, and asks, “why not?”
Frank Perry’s Play It As It Lays is not a well-known movie, despite being excellent with some real talent behind it. My guess is that over the years the gentle, effective suicide scene was deemed to be too romantic as opposed to honest. Its depiction of mental illness is intense and real, often with no easy answer in sight. Maria is an engaging character who vacillates between caustic and melancholy, whose actions you can never really pin down. She drives through the desert firing a gun at the “Welcome to California” sign in one scene, then tries endlessly to understand the sad story of her family in the next. No one, not even the tertiary characters, seem particularly happy in this film. Maria is the only character aside from B.Z. that really leans into sadness, explores it, and eventually accepts that she’ll always be considered mentally unwell. She has an oddly clear-eyed view of sentimental issues, which goes against the grain no matter how sane her thinking seems to some of us.
Second billed: Ingrid Goes West (2017)
A bit zanier but a similar yarn is the acidic comedy Ingrid Goes West. Aubrey Plaza stars as the titular Ingrid, an Instagram-addicted and socially awkward young woman who finds herself alone with an inheritance following her mother’s death. After an incident where she maces a bride during her wedding, Ingrid spends some time in a psych ward before deciding it’s time for a change. She decides to move to L.A. after becoming obsessed with a curated, Instagram “taste-maker” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). What could go wrong?
Once in L.A., Ingrid finds a way into Taylor’s life by dognapping her beloved pet then returning it as if she found it. The two become fast friends, with Ingrid increasingly morphing into a carbon copy of the blonde, blithe Taylor. We as the audience get to watch all the action play out with the knowledge of how sad and unsettling this relationship really is. When Taylor’s brother Nicky (played by the rock hard abs of Billy Magnussen) comes to town, he pretty quickly pegs Ingrid as someone to watch out for. But–being the vacuous, arrogant, opportunist that he is–instead of warning his sister about his suspicions, he tries to blackmail Ingrid into giving him money.
Things quickly spiral out of control and Ingrid is unmasked. Now spurned by Taylor, who already has a new “BFF,” Ingrid finds herself alone once again. She uploads a final video intended to be a suicide letter as she overdoses on pills. But the suicide attempt is thwarted; Ingrid wakes up in the hospital to find that her online presence has exploded with people really connecting to what she was feeling. The final shot of the film is Ingrid scrolling through her phone with the spark of crazy-eyes and a strange smile as we realize she learned nothing and now thinks she has what she wants.
Ingrid Goes West can be seen as a story about the dangers of social media but it actually speaks to the sadder, more timeless problem of not knowing how to make friends. Ingrid does have a connection with her landlord turned boyfriend Dan Pinto (O’shea Jackson Jr), but she’s more interested in the glamorous surface Taylor and her husband present. (No matter how insufferable they seem to the rest of us.) They’re the quintessential L.A. hipster couple, and with a few scratches, the fractures they’re trying to hide become obvious. Taylor quotes books she hasn’t read, claims everything is “the best,” and cares more about her image than she does about anyone in her life. In many ways, Ingrid is an interesting person with loads of potential but she wastes the better parts of herself on people who are all style and no substance because that’s the world she sees rewarded.
Thematic similarities: Female-driven stories, fame, marital issues, loneliness, suicide
Aesthetic similarities: Bright colors, Southern California