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. Read More