Joan Didion, the Author Hollywood Fears:
O n October 5th, 2017, Hollywood changed. Harvey Weinstein, one of the industry’s most powerful men, was the center of an examination executed by The New York Times. They revealed sexual assault allegations against Mr. Weinstein, spanning nearly three decades.
Mainstream interrogation of power has been the last decade’s theme. These inquiries used to be conspiracy theories, underground murmurs of vituperations. Instead, today, we watched with open eyes how too much privilege creates self-indulgence.
Liberal Hollywood contains a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract where actual and irreconcilable disagreement is taboo, a climate rife with an irony that allowed Harvey Weinstein to thrive unchallenged.
One of my favorite Joan Didion essays, On Self-Respect, contains words I keep posted on my wall:
“Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions.”
Joan Didion told the truth. In the 1960s, women in Hollywood were supposed to comply, but she commented on women’s relationship with subservience through her work. Nearly half a century before today’s rising public outcries against Hollywood’s masculine whiteness, Didion addressed the issue.
Didion’s Hollywood isn’t a slice cut from a mythical California, a land of orange groves, wholesome sunshine, and boundless opportunity. It’s where dreams die.
Her second novel, Play It As It Lays, paints Hollywood as brooding, malicious, and unkind. The book is about Maria, an actress in her thirties. It’s a story that unwinds into fragments, mirroring the main character’s disassociation with reality, spending blocks of time crossing LA’s freeways as if looking for structure.
She left home at 18 to become an actress in New York. While in New York, she meets her husband, Carter Lang, an auteur director who throws her in his two first movies. One of the films is successful, making both her and Carter famous.
In many aspects, Maria is a typical Didion woman — weak, confused, eccentric, and nostalgic for a conventional society with strong and loving paternal figures. None of the men she is sexually entangled with is strong, and none are affectionate or paternal. Indeed, what Didion describes is a kind of gendered struggle that permeates Hollywood’s power structure.
Women in Play It As It Lays become products, men dictating their bodies’ actions, placing women as casualties of an overtly exploitative culture.
The seventh chapter has two central questions that reflect women’s real lives: what are women in control of, and how much does a woman belong to herself?
Next to Maria herself, an essential character in the novel is BZ. He is an example of Hollywood’s decadence at the most superficial level, secretly reveling in sexual vices and ironically caring more for Maria than any other men do.
Hollywood devalues women’s feelings to commodify emotion; the question of power and agency looms large as a result. During a conversation with BZ, Maria asks for the whereabouts of Helene, BZ’s wife. BZ answers: “Helene’s in bed, Helene’s depressed. Helene has very copious menstruations.” His response alludes to Helene being depressed because of her “copious menstruations” and not because of their marriage.
BZ says that his wife’s bedridden depression is a direct representation of her femininity — her menstruations. Maria takes BZ’s word as the absolute truth. In the novel, he has the authority to speak up for his wife’s whereabouts, interpreting her mental health without an ounce of pushback.
Pushback finally arrived in Hollywood. In the wake of the New York Times examination, 80 women came forward with accusations toward Harvey Weinstein, including Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Salma Hayek, Cara Delevigne, Rose McGowan, and Lupita Nyong’o.
Eight women described erratic behavior by Mr. Weinstein. Typically in their early or mid-20s, the women hoped to get beside Harvey to be in proximity to the industry’s most potent force. The closer they got, though, he would switch — business discussions one minute, a severe sexual suggestion the next.
Harvey Weinstein’s reign of terror in Hollywood left many actresses with lasting trauma. On March 11th, 2020, he was found guilty of two sex crimes and sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault — a pivotal moment.
Even after the New York Times’s piece and Weinstein’s indictment, though, the industry is still relatively silent. The floodgates of personal narratives haven’t arrived. Scars from Harvey’s actions contain stories the world hasn’t heard.
The victims or the complicit will never find the courage to tell Weinstein’s exploits in full because even stories don’t do justice to canonize this man’s rabid mania or explain the fear of what some thought would happen to their careers if they stopped enabling such a demonic force.
Hollywood can never be the moral center of America ever again, preaching equality and progress like it performed all these years, while its underbelly had its distinct values. The world saw what Hollywood is, and many recognize that Harvey is hardly the exception.
His behavior is partially the rule, the one big fish who got caught in a net of social justice that forced every other executive to cover up their mess to tighten up their ship. Cultures don’t change in three years; they merely take a new shape, going deeper beneath the soil to avoid sun exposure.
BZ is one of the good men Joan Didion writes to represent Hollywood culture. Though well-intentioned, there are parts about him that still cover the male propensity to control, dictating what Maria will do with her night and dissolving her autonomy.
He says to Maria: “I’ll take you to Anita Garson’s tonight if you’re not doing anything, all right?” Harmless on the surface, his proposition is not contingent upon whether Maria wants to go. BZ isn’t even asking Maria — BZ tells Maria, letting her know where she’ll be going. The question of whether the bodies of women belong to themselves continues in Anita Garson’s party.
Hollywood’s underbelly is evident in the party’s finite space. For starters, Didion does not allow Anita Garson in her party. A party acknowledged as belonging to a woman sees her own body erased from the chapter. It makes a person ask why Didion wrote that this party is Anita’s if the reader doesn’t see her?
This party thrown by a woman becomes a hub where Larry Kulik’s character dominates the scene as he creeps on a young female attendee. Maria’s existence at the party is a microcosm for her relationship to the film industry, a ghost, paralleling the absentee host Anita Garson.
At the party, Maria is unheard and hardly seen, and even then, Maria fights to remain in control of her body but stands beside a man to do it. “She tried to keep her eyes bright and her lips slightly parted, and she stayed close to BZ.” Didion emphasizes Maria’s body parts, her eyes and mouth, seeking to control her presentation.
It is also imperative Maria remains next to BZ, a man she trusts to traverse this Hollywood microcosm. The film industry works the same way in real life, where women have to find a man in a position of power she can trust, a man who doesn’t want to exploit her sexually.
The party introduces Larry Kulik, a character who feels like a lower-level Harvey Weinstein type, lurking around parties to find victims. Kulik finds a young woman at the party, knowing her before he has spoken a word to her. “I had her researched,” he says, “Six. He patted Maria’s arm absently. ‘How’s it going, baby? How’s Carter?’”. Kulik knows how many men in the industry the young woman has had sex with, learning about her body from research.
The absent-minded manner in which he pats Maria’s arm after the mention of his “research” represents the transference of subjects. His motion and following statement are empty, without care for Maria or the discussion. He doesn’t even address Maria by her name.
He merely addresses her as “baby” as he asks about her husband’s whereabouts.
Joan Didion worked closely in Hollywood with her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne.
Friends have explained the 28-year marriage between the reserved Joan Didion and the rowdy John Gregory Dunne as “made in heaven,” forming a perfect symbiosis. Typically, John would protect and promote her interests while she sat quiet, rarely attempting to circumscribe his personality. Joan was soft-spoken and recoiling, while John was her spokesman.
“In LA,” Joan Didion admits, “When we were invited to a party, we always went because we didn’t know anybody.”
Didion and Dunne played against Hollywood: participants who were also onlookers, studying it like journalists; sponsored by the industry yet not controlled by it; in the thick of it but above the fray.
Didion is genuinely introverted, but she’s also somebody who, by her confirmation, can consume most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single new paragraph. Her social life became so vibrant, so vivid, so potent, and to our benefit, her storytelling became vulnerable to it.
Play It As It Lays calls Hollywood’s morality into question, asking what women in the industry are to men. The novel questions what is actually in feminine control in Hollywood’s culture. The women in Play It As It Lays can be found having men dictating the past and future of their bodies. Joan Didion writes Hollywood as a culture that is writhing with gendered inequities, some of which are subtle and overt. Women exist as the men in the narrative create them to be.
Julian Wasser took the photo on the classic dusk jacket of Play It As It Lays. The photo shows Didion, always sly, pretty and slight, and troubled-looking as a young woman. Between her fingers is a cigarette, angled, lit — all unquestionably Maria-ish.
“I like Maria a lot. Maria was very strong, very tough. The only thing Maria and I have in common is an occasional inflection, which I picked up from her — not vice versa.” — Didion
It is a Hollywood book, not just because it’s about Hollywood people, but because it’s a book that’s also a film with Didion as the lead.
Joan Didion does for us what all great authors manage to do: tell the truth. Weinstein’s arrest was a watershed moment. Hollywood was under a microscope, the public able to view the industry as an apathetic home that possibly spent decades affirming patently bad behavior. The shocker was how complicit the rest of the entertainment business was in keeping the secrets of this powerfully destructive soul.
At different stages of your life, you might have been one of the characters in Play it As It Lays. You might be an apathetic person who ignores someone who is abused or abusing someone. Maybe you were a Harvey Weinstein in the past. Perhaps you still are. And if you’re a woman struggling to find your way to full personhood, here and now in 2021, you may find yourself in an uncomfortable state.
Oh, you want to know my second favorite quote in Joan Didion’s On Self-Respect? Well, I’ll tell you. Didion summed up Hollywood’s temperament decades ago, saying,
“The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with others’ approval — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation — which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something that people with courage can do without.”