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Interview with Frank Perry

During the earlier days of the Venice Film Festival, the face of Frank Perry had worn a slightly distracted look. He was there, he was listening, he was talking, but somehow his mind seemed to be on a slightly different frequency than anybody else's. This is a common state and not unique with Perry; all movie directors have it as the day for the first public showing of their newest movie grows near.

In Perry's case, there was a long time to wait because "Play It as It Lays" had been scheduled for the last day of the festival. The initial critical reaction - from the Italians, the visiting overseas critics, and the opinion-mongers in the sidewalk cafes - would have a lot to do with the film's eventual success. It helps to be able to add a line to an ad saying you were the hit of the Venice Film Festival.

So anyway, Perry was looking a mile distracted but he began to loosen up when the Critics Jury came in with their awards. They'd seen an advance screening of Perry's film and had voted to honor Tuesday Weld with the Lion at St. Mark for the festival's best performance. The movie itself placed second in the balloting (10-7) after a Swedish film named "Foreigners."

So Perry could begin to relax, because now it looked like he had a success on his hands and that the months of work had added up to something. "How about lunch," he began saying to people. "You feel like lunch tomorrow?" He was staying at the Cipriani Hotel, which is owned by the man who owns Harry's Bar, and let it be said that the man who runs the best bar in Venice is no slouch in the hotel department.

So it came to pass that on the day after the festival ended, I had lunch with Frank Perry. It was an occasion of celebration for him, an anniversary: 10 years earlier his "David and Lisa" had won the grand award at Venice and started him on his career as a director.

For him, it was a celebration: for me it was nearly a disaster. For reasons too complicated to go into (and, besides, they make me look pretty dumb) I took the wrong boat and wound up on the island of Torcello, miles from the Cipriani Hotel.

"Not to worry," Frank Perry told me over the telephone. "We'll send a boat for you.

It must be a wonderful thing indeed to be a rich and famous director and to be able to dispatch boats about the Venetian lagoon as if they were taxi rides between here and home. And it was a good thing to race about the lagoon in the boat, because my previous experience in these matters had been limited to a nodding acquaintance with the skipper of the Mercury Boat Rides, Inc., who drinks in Billy Goat's.

The boat deposited me at the dock of the Cipriani Hotel, and there was, a bellboy dressed like Johnny, the Philip Morris midget, to guide me to Signore Perry's table. The only hotel that can top that is the Beverly Hills Hotel, which employs Johnny himself.

I'm putting in all this detail because it's fun to think of how good Frank Perry must have been feeling on this day after the festival was over. I found him sitting in the sun at a table by the side of the hotel pool, sipping something that looked like strawberry pop but was probably (in these circles) Cinzano.

"It must be a good thing to sit in the sun and know that your movie is a success, and dispatch boats to Torcello with a wave of your hand," I said.

"It was nothing," Perry said with a wave of his hand. I checked it with the studio and it's in the budget for the Italian end of the promotion."

"All the same... " I said.

"I hear Torcello is really beautiful," Perry said with a sigh, as it he wished he'd taken the boat out to meet me. "I think we'll go out tomorrow for lunch. What do you say, Barbara?"

"Wonderful," said Barbara Goldsmith, who is senior editor of Harper's Bazaar and is what Harper's Bazaar might describe as a good friend of Perry's.

All about us people were eating crabmeat cocktails and proscuitto-and-melon and watching the activity at poolside. The topless bikini had not yet traveled from St. Tropez to Venice, alas, but it very nearly had...

Perry said he had made "Play It as It Lays" because he has long been a fan of Joan Didion, who wrote the novel of the same name. "I read her articles in magazines and I became a Didion freak," he said. "I think I've read her book, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, three times. When I heard she was writing a novel I knew I had to film it. I wrote to her publisher for the galley proofs."

The novel and the movie are about some memories and days in the lives of four friends in Hollywood's younger set. There is an actress, adrift and self-questioning, and her hot director husband, and his friend B.Z., who is a producer, and B.Z.'s wife, who is the actress' close friend. The relationships among these people are labyrinthine in complexity and painfulness, and Didion's story is cynical and sad, astringent and yet holding out a desperate hope that there ought to be more to life than this.

"It's not a Hollywood movie," Perry said. It's about people. It's really more about Silver Wells, Nevada where the girl grows up, than it is about Hollywood. The movie world is just the impetus for her search for whatever happened to that young girl who came out of Silver Wells."

Tuesday Weld, that delicate blend of toughness and insecurity, plays the lead in Play It as It Lays." Anthony Perkins plays B.Z., the producer. Weld and Perkins costarred a couple of years ago in "Pretty Poison," a fine but commercially unsuccessful movie, and I asked if that was where Perry had got the idea for teaming them up again.

"Just the opposite," he said. "I knew we had to have Tuesday, and so I resisted the idea of Tony. I thought they, were terrific in 'Pretty Poison,' but I'm not into using other people's casting combinations. That lacks theatricality.

"But Perkins wanted the role. He called me up and asked to read for me. I resisted him. But at last I saw him, and I knew he had to play B.Z. I didn't see the Anthony Perkins of 'Psycho' or 'Fear Strikes Out.' I didn't see the gaunt kid of 'Friendly Persuasion.' I saw a man of 40 who has lived very hard, and who has a phenomenal intelligence. Perkins is certainly the most intelligent actor I've ever worked with."

The screenplay was written by Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne and produced by her brother-in-law, Nicholas Dunne. (Their earlier collaboration, "Panic in Needle Park," provided the year's catchiest credit line: "A Dunne-Didion-Dunne Production.")

"The four of us locked ourselves into a hotel suite.'' Perry said. "We had this enormous, bulletin board and all these stick-pins and colored file cards. It's the old writer's trick: To avoid writing, you go to the stationery store and freak out. Anyway, we broke the novel down into every one of its fragments and arranged them in order, and then rearranged them into our order and kept a master key so we knew how every shot was related and when every pay-off came. Then Joan and John wrote the screenplay."

The result is a movie in which time and space are jumbled, but never seem confused. "Play It as It Lays" moves backward and forward in time and memory and uses no less than 87 locations, but the structure has such architectural clarity one is never confused.

While we were talking about these things, a sudden stir went through the crowd around the pool. People stopped eating, and a diver paused on a diving board, and everyone looked toward the door. We looked too.

There was an old man standing there, dressed in an overcoat even though the day was warm. He was supported on one side by his wife and on the other side by the director of the Venice Film Festival, and of course he was Charlie Chaplin.

He paused for a second, enjoying the bright sight of the pool, and then everyone started to applaud him. Several men stood up and faced the doorway, applauding, and after a moment Charlie took off his hat and bowed. Then his party continued on its way.

"It must be a terrible thing to be applauded every time you walk past a restaurant," I said.

"Not when that's all that's left," Perry said.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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