DOUBLE FEATURE

Fake Smiles  

On Diary of a Mad Housewife Play It As It Lays
  

MARCH 24, 2022  

diary-mad-housewife-2.jpg

Carrie Snodgress in Diary of a Mad Housewife.

H

er dreams are the only place in her life she can safely claim for just herself. But even those are vulnerable to unwelcome intrusion. Tina Balser (a fantastic Carrie Snodgress) is dead asleep when her hotshot lawyer husband, Jonathan (Richard Benjamin), decides to let his

morning routine fill out the sleepy hush of the bedroom, proudly letting the nonsense hums accompanying his face-washing and teeth-brushing radiate from the adjoining bathroom. He knows Tina is asleep, and when his noisiness wakes her up you understand this premature alarm is meant as an oblique punishment. Then, as if he were a mean-spirited inner voice personified, Jonathan relays Tina’s crimes before she can rub the sleep from her eyes. “I wish I could understand what’s the matter with you these days,” he sighs, droning on about how she looks exhausted all the time, is too skinny (what happened to that terrific figure!), has lost her color, and has a bad haircut. “My wife is a reflection of me,” he says without deeper inspection. 

 

And without any protesting from Tina, whom Jonathan treats more like hired help than a spouse. Maybe there was a time a few years ago when Tina had a few choice words to throw back at her husband. But those days are gone. You sense a woman too worn to raise her voice. Now she just silently suffers, putting on a happy face that would hardly betray discontentment to someone as self-involved and frantically social-climbing as Jonathan. The days for this housewife blend together as one big blob of agony, thickening lately because now her and Jonathan’s eldest daughter is starting to speak to Tina with such chest-puffed-out ugliness (learned from her father) you expect a never-to-come smack in the face. 
 

Tina eventually finds some escape in a writer, George (Frank Langella); their affair begins after some on-edge flirting at one of Jonathan’s vacuous social outings. But George turns out not to be much better. His affection at first gives Tina some of her confidence back: she gets progressively more willing to snap back at Jonathan as the movie goes along and the affair amasses emotional seriousness. But George is overridingly a narcissistic misogynist with a shocking cold streak. It reaches its icy apex when Tina shows off some new lingerie one afternoon and he responds, with a straight face, that she doesn’t look “at all sexy.” 
 

Directed by Frank Perry from a screenplay by his wife, Eleanor, Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) doesn’t plant into this narrative any easy escapes for this young woman so henpecked by the imbalances and cruelties of her era’s gender mores. (The movie was the Perrys’ sixth and last collaboration before their 1971 divorce.) The film works over you like a haze. You step into it and immediately feel trapped and anxious, overwhelmed by the understanding that Tina could technically leave this terrible husband — and he’s so awful that that’s all you want her to do — but that in that period and with her resources, alternatives are scant and even less stable. Diary of a Mad Housewife can sometimes itself feel like an exhale or a step forward, frank about domestic frustration following decades of Hollywood filmmaking that tended either to approach the topic allusively or with a soap-operatic bent that rarely centered the wife’s experience with such unnerving intimacy and emotional viciousness. 
 

Living up to its title, Diary of a Mad Housewife at once dynamically realizes Tina’s interior world while appropriately underlining (or so it seems to be doing) her life’s most painful aspects. They’re rendered slightly heightened — as they might exist through her increasingly embittered eyes and put down on the page. An early montage compiling Tina’s crushingly repetitive daily routine is dominated by sights of her frenziedly cleaning the apartment and the intersecting, oppressive sounds of a sewing machine, a mixer, and dog barks. Social functions, all about appearance-keeping and upward mobility, feel psychologically blacklit from Tina’s perspective. All you can see are the artificial gestures, how badly and small they make you feel. And Benjamin’s pitch-perfectly irksome performance can make your inner anger flare up as if you were Tina herself, sitting across from him and chewing on whether you’re going to swallow an offhanded insult for now or repurpose it as the basis of an incoming blowup. Few films convey that feeling — of internalizing mistreatment until it practically starts throbbing — as vividly as Diary of a Mad Housewife

I

read Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970) a few years ago. I don’t remember most of its finer narrative points, but I’ll never forget the glacial spareness of its prose or the unsettling nihilism of its worldview. Something tells me its subsequent 1972 movie adaptation, whose screenplay Didion

wrote with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and which was directed by Perry (it was the first movie he made following his and Eleanor’s divorce) will do something similar in my head with time. Only the bladed edge of Didion’s prose here is traded for Perry’s stark, sometimes cannily impressionistic filmmaking. And now there are actors — Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins, both great — who give faces to the haunting feelings the movie imprints. If Diary of a Mad Housewife is in large part about the innumerable frustration coming from the routine suppression of feeling, Play It As It Lays is about the frost that settles when you notice a lack of it — at least the lack of anything besides chronic hopelessness giving way for numbness. 

 

One may instinctively look at the film being a little gauzy, a little remote, as negatives before noticing how well both “deficiencies” work to its overall alienating effect. Play It As It Lays follows a 28-year-old named Maria (Weld) who, when the action starts, is living in a mental institution. The film mosaically pieces together her life shortly before she got there. She was a somewhat successful, but on the wane, model turned actress living in Los Angeles. She was straying from an unhappy marriage with a producer (Adam Roarke) and feeling so burned out by coldly commodifying Hollywood life that all she could do was self-destruct and have empty affairs when not roaming the highways pursuing destination nowhere in a canary-yellow sports car. She couldn’t stop dwelling on life’s inherent pointlessness. Her only solace is her friend B.Z. (Perkins), a producer who thinks he understands exactly her emotional lethargy though appears to be spiraling downward faster than she is. “Someday you’ll wake up and just not feel like playing anymore,” he flatly muses. 
 

The movie isn’t so much a character study as it is a mood piece evocatively loitering in unshakable despair. It’s indeed unshakable itself — the kind of film likely only to aggravate things if you’re feeling a similar kind of anguish yourself at the time you cross paths. “Tell me what matters,” B.Z. pleads to Maria near the end of the movie. When she responds with a defeated “nothing,” it’s like a Rorschach test for the viewer.

Diary of a Mad Housewife: A

Play It As It Lays: A