I was living in Hollywood. Somehow, I’d found my way back to the city of my birth at forty-one. Each morning, as I rose to consider the wreckage of my life—divorce papers, boxes of books I had brought home from New York, a visitation agreement for my three-year-old daughter—I felt as if I had been lost inside a tiny Bermuda Triangle, one whose points were visible from my apartment window. Across the street was a complex where F. Scott Fitzgerald, my adolescent hero, had been sitting one morning in 1940 when he keeled over and died. Next door was the Director’s Guild of America, where my mother, herself an unhappy, alcoholic screenwriter like Fitzgerald, had once thrown a drunken fit and then peeled off in her Mercedes, leaving me, at the time a sullen and supercilious teenager, to hitchhike home. From where I stood it seemed like I could almost see it: the dark scar my mother had left on the asphalt, the print of her tires where she’d gunned the accelerator and took off in flight from herself.
What makes Iago evil? For some years my mother and I had stopped speaking—throughout most of my adulthood, in fact—but we’d recently resumed after she had at long last gotten sober. My mother’s favorite writer when I was a teenager was Joan Didion, who had been our neighbor growing up. For some years our families had shared a housekeeper, a woman named Maria Camacho. My mother, I suspect, had then wanted to be Joan Didion, her radiant and successful doppelgänger. On my fifteenth birthday, she gave me a copy of Play It as It Lays, a book that exerted a scriptural pressure across the remainder of my adolescence. Years later, at a revival house in San Francisco, I caught a rare screening of the film adaptation, which had remained largely out of circulation since its release in 1972. Its script was written by Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne—their second screen collaboration of what would be many, after 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park—and the film was directed by Frank Perry.
Frank Perry. The name came back to me as that of one of those fabled “New Hollywood” auteurs, albeit one whose career, like my mother’s, had never quite achieved its optimal shape. After a striking commercial success with 1970’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, adapted from Sue Kaufman’s bestseller, there was … not much, a series of lower-key flops and then 1981’s legendarily risible Mommie Dearest, whose most famously absurd line (“No wiiiire haanngerrrs!”) my own mother too had enjoyed mimicking when she was in her cups. My mom’s failure had been decidedly her own: to write her single produced Hollywood feature she’d crossed a picket line and her subsequent blackballing from the Writers Guild of America rendered her unemployable. Still, there is a sense in which ruptured movie careers are all alike.
One afternoon, I found myself at the Iliad Bookshop in the Valley where chance intervened. I was browsing the aisles, lost in the shop’s yellow blur of whirring fans, torpid cats, and parchment smells, when a book fell into my hand. I may have been reaching for something else, but the book I grabbed by mistake was Blue Pages, by one Eleanor Perry. It had a bone white cover, with a bubbled, seventies-style typeface. There were no blurbs, only a taut excerpt on the back that told me a story about divorce. It looked like one of those books that had lived on my parents’ shelves when I was a boy, like Judy Blume’s Wifey or John Irving’s The 158-Pound Marriage: one of those chronicles of mid-70’s conjugal torpor that seemed to bloom on every suburban shelf. I found this consoling. What better way to shake off one’s own postmarital despair than by reading about the incompetence of the previous generation? I tucked the book under my arm, then went to ring it up. It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the bio on the dust flap: “Eleanor Perry is an acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter whose credits include … Diary of a Mad Housewife.” A bit of googling revealed what I immediately suspected: that Frank Perry had worked with a collaborator. The director may have stood out front, as Hollywood auteurs and Hollywood husbands were so often then wont to do, but every movie the director made in his young career’s prime—six films in all—was scripted by his wife. Or rather, from the looks of the novel I’d just brought home, his ex-wife.
Vincent and Lucia Wade are the names of the couple depicted in Blue Pages, a male director and a female screenwriter, the woman much older than the man, the man announcing in the book’s opening scene that he no longer loves the woman. It’s a familiar enough scenario: my father had once left my mother that same way, and my ex, me, likewise. But as Perry began to describe how the screenwriter, Lucia, fell in love with Vincent, I found myself charmed by her depiction of an animated, overweight man who looked like Balzac (“with his plumped-out cheeks and rolls of chin and shaggy hair and beard”), and by Lucia’s cool, gimlet intelligence.
Further googling confirmed some biographical correspondence between Lucia and her creator (as well as the fact Frank Perry, too, looked like Balzac). Like Eleanor herself, I discovered, the younger Lucia has been married once before, to a conventional-sounding man in Cleveland; like Eleanor herself, younger Lucia has a thriving life as a New York playwright just as young Vincent, like Frank, works as a theatrical producer’s assistant. Lucia has no real need for a love affair, for this puppyish importunate man, even as she rides alongside him in a taxi uptown, thinking of her childhood, her mother’s disappointing preparations of strawberries and cream: “She is almost a middle-aged woman, neither good nor bad, who doesn’t believe in God, her father and mother have long ago waged their wars and parted, and too many times these days the strawberries taste like damp cardboard.” Reading these lines, homely but intimate, concrete in a way that feels somehow specific to the writer’s own experience, I felt myself touch down in the person of Eleanor Perry. I found myself moved by their modesty, by their specificity and simplicity alike, and by the plainness with which they gaze at loss.
All of their films Eleanor adapted from outside material: five from novels or short stories, and one, 1963’s Ladybug Ladybug, from a McCall’s magazine article. She and Frank were to split on the eve of what would have been their seventh collaboration, Play It as It Lays, a book it appears Eleanor may not have cared for. During the argument that kicks off Blue Pages, Vincent brags about some film rights he’s recently acquired, for what will be his first movie free of Lucia. “You didn’t even like the book!” he snaps, to which she responds, “I admired the writing—I didn’t like the heroine. She seemed so paralyzed, so numb.” Eleanor saw her role as that of an interpreter, whose primary duty was to remain scrupulously true to her source material. In the preface to Trilogy, the published version of the three short scripts she adapted with Truman Capote for a film released in 1969, she wrote, “When we say an adaptation is good we can mean that it is faithful to the book and has all the virtues of the book.” All good. But I cannot help but wonder whether Eleanor’s modesty didn’t work against her, if along with her talent there came a corresponding impulse toward self-erasure.
Diary of a Mad Housewife is the film for which both Perrys are best remembered, adapted from the novel by Sue Kaufman. The story of a Manhattanite named Tina Balser (played with an astonishingly dry wit by Carrie Snodgress) caught between the numbing pomposity of her husband and the even more numbing self-absorption of her lover, the movie nails the New York establishment affluenza of its time. But it also nails something else: the radically destructive nature of habit, the ways in which two people who’ve ceased to listen to each other—if indeed they ever did—can run completely off the rails.
“Why didn’t I pay attention?” My mother and I were talking one afternoon, and I was pouring out my woes, hashing out the question of my divorce. “Shouldn’t I have seen what was going on?”
“Beats me,” she said, almost serenely. “When you were a teenager was I paying attention? You’re talking to someone who’s spent her life overlooking the obvious.”
“Yeah, but I should have seen it.”
“Nobody sees it. Your attention is always somewhere else.”
I laughed. Sobriety agreed with her: my mother had become a great listener. I tried to be, as she told me her shoulder had been bothering her for a few months (“Really?” I asked. “Did you strain it lifting your dog?”), but I couldn’t help but feel I was missing something. When my ex told me she’d been having an affair and wanted to separate, I was flabbergasted. As if what had happened should have occurred right in front of me. Or as if my own blindness was itself the fault.
It’s always there in plain sight: the loss you are about to suffer. It is in plain sight even when you find yourself fixated on other things. In the Perrys’ case, Eleanor and Frank were preparing a follow-up to Diary of a Mad Housewife, a picture called Expensive People based on a Joyce Carol Oates novel. But instead, Frank peeled off to make Play It as It Lays alone. Eleanor found out when she bumped into Joan Didion’s brother-in-law, Dominick Dunne, and he told her Frank was in LA scouting locations. According to her divorce deposition taken in May 1971, Eleanor had thought her husband was out finishing their deal to do Expensive People. She certainly didn’t know he’d already committed to Play It as It Lays, or that he was sleeping with someone else as well. While her deposition doesn’t spell out how she felt, within the context of an industry that wasn’t exactly renowned for its support of women I can guess. Eleanor, well, she surely felt discarded. Like she had climbed a mountain only to find another, more forbidding peak at the top.
I didn’t feel this way. But then, I was a man. My mother’s injuries in Hollywood may have been self-inflicted—like that little problem with her shoulder she kept complaining about, I thought, for which she’d agreed to see a doctor—but I know she felt the same: that being a woman made her career an uphill climb besides. Eleanor had plans for features—an adaptation of Alix Kates Shulman’s novel Memoirs of an Ex-prom Queen; a take on Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case—but nothing came to fruition. The problem was always the same: men, or more specifically, the way men failed to understand stories about women. Memoirs of an Ex-prom Queen? Forget about it, she was told, over and over. No one wants to see that. She began to gain a reputation as a troublemaker, simply by virtue of being a feminist. In a gesture that would come to define her career almost as much as anything she ever wrote, she was arrested at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival for defacing a billboard. She’d glanced up at the advertisement for Federico Fellini’s Roma—which depicted a three-breasted she-wolf—and decided it was demeaning, so she climbed up a ladder with a bucket of red paint.
“To hold a pen is to be at war.” Eleanor had these words, from Voltaire, typed out on a card that hung above her desk. But, of course, merely to be alive is to be at war as well. As I finalized the terms of my divorce, an adversarial process even at its most polite, and as I tried to repair my fractious relationship with an abusive parent, I found myself at war, most often, with myself. I read and reread Blue Pages, scouring its portrait of a marital wreck for clues. The novel was well-received upon its publication in 1979, though there were those who imagined it was merely an exercise in score-settling. Eleanor anticipated this (“If Saul Bellow or Philip Roth complains about his relations with women, that’s OK—they’re writing a novel,” she said. “If a woman does it, it’s ‘hell hath no fury.’ ”), but it must have abraded her to pick up People magazine and see another fawning profile of Frank, another picture of him beaming beside his new bride. Still, the book was a success. Eleanor was into writing another—according to the fragment that survives, it would have been called “An Old Wife’s Tale”—when disaster struck. On her way to vacation in Italy with her daughter, Eleanor reached Montecatini Terme only to turn around and fly home. She’d fallen ill. A lifetime of smoking—those fifty thousand cigarettes she’d once estimated it had taken her to get through the writing of Blue Pages alone—had caught up with her. In March of 1981, a year and a half after her novel’s publication, Eleanor died of cancer.
I was on my couch one afternoon, staring at the photo of Eleanor that gazed back from Blue Pages’s dust flap: a cool, concentrated portrait of a woman in her sixties, half smiling in a way that seemed to let me know that she could see me, too, that the keen prow of her intelligence ran steeply into the future. She looked a little like my mother, in fact: fine-featured, amused, her dark hair shot through with silver.
Sun splashed on my hardwood floor. The light was spiking at the end of the day. Did Eleanor get what she wanted out of Hollywood, I wondered? Was her career, truncated as it may have been, fulfilling? There were those who may have felt she was a minor talent, but to me she seemed, on evidence of her novel and her screenplay, the equal of her generational peers: Hollywood legends like Polly Platt, Barbara Loden, and Elaine May; novelists like Rita Mae Brown and Sue Kaufman. Gifted women whose lives had at times been occluded by egomaniacal men.
My telephone rang. I leaned over to my desk to grab it. I might have gone on raging over the decline of my marriage, just as my mother might have had a career as long as Eleanor’s if she’d been able to stay out of her own way. I picked up my flip phone. Outside the day was fading: the light had a bronze, autumnal cast.
“Hi, Mom.” My forehead pressed against the window’s glass. I gazed out at the skeleton of a condominium complex rising on the opposite corner, beyond it those landmarks of a Hollywood boyhood: Greenblatt’s Delicatessen; the Chateau Marmont; other places long vanished, or transformed beyond recognition. (Nothing is real. And yet time winds away, our attention everywhere except where it ought to be.) “What did the oncologist say?”
Matthew Specktor’s books include the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, and the memoir The Golden Hour, forthcoming from Ecco Press. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Adapted from the book Always Crashing in The Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, by Matthew Specktor. Copyright © 2021 by Matthew Specktor. Published by Tin House. All rights reserved.