Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle

1994, Movie, R, 125 mins

Review

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Director Alan Rudolph and producer Robert Altman combine forces to create a quiet, intelligent film about Dorothy Parker, remembered equally as a writer of mordant short stories and as a permanent fixture of the legendary Algonquin Round Table--the luncheon locus of New York literati for more than a decade.

Opening (in B&W) in Hollywood in 1937, the film segues smoothly from Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott) filming one of his classic shorts to a studio lot encounter between Benchley and Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with husband and fellow screenwriter Alan Campbell (Peter Gallagher) in tow. Invited to recall the "more colorful" twenties, we flash back (in color) to Parker's days as a drama critic at Vanity Fair, where Benchley is her editor. When she's fired for her acerbic reviews, Benchley resigns in sympathy, announcing his decision at a lunch with other New York writers, including Alexander Woollcott (Tom McGowan) and Harold Ross (Sam Robards); they are soon joined by the likes of George Kaufman, Marc Connelly, and Heywood Broun, and thus is born the Algonquin Round Table. By the time Will Rogers (a cameo by Keith Carradine, who played Rogers on Broadway) stops by for a chat, the Table is an institution and a tourist attraction.

Benchley is Parker's emotional anchor--a straight-laced family man who negotiates between his creative career and the demands of his wife Gertrude (Jennifer Beals). They freelance together from a small office, aiding each other in procrastination. When he debuts his famous "Treasurer's Report" sketch in a revue, their careers begin to diverge, Benchley becoming an increasingly famous wit, Parker suffocating herself in writing "doodads" and puff pieces. Against a backdrop of bathtub gin parties and raid-prone speakeasies, Parker's life is depicted as a series of failed romances. Her first husband, Eddie (Andrew McCarthy) returns from WWI military service hooked on morphine, and declines rapidly. She falls in love with married writer Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick), until she finds him in bed with actress Paula Hunt (Gwyneth Paltrow). After an abortion, she seeks solace in booze and isolation, eventually making the first of several suicide attempts.

She returns to drunken partying with Benchley and "singing for her supper" at garden parties with the rich and famous. Lonely and broke after her first play flops and her dog Woodrow dies, she runs into Eddie, now healthy and flush, who buys her a new pet. Skipping ahead to 1940s Hollywood, script-doctor Dorothy is crushed by news of Benchley's death from cirrhosis of the liver. The final years of her life are presented as a series of brief moments capturing her isolation, bitterness, and irreverence.

The narrative is punctuated by sequences of Dorothy reciting some of her pungent verse, which help to smooth over the chronological leaps. Parker's chaste love affair with Benchley provides a sturdy narrative structure, but unfortunately necessitates glossing over 30 years of her life. It's instructive to learn, during the closing credits, that Parker was avidly opposed to segregation (leaving her estate to Martin Luther King in 1967), a proud participant in the Spanish Civil War, and an outspoken critic of McCarthy. (Indeed, the left-wing views shared by most of the Algonquin circle are barely evident in the movie.) Had some of this information found its way into the body of the film, it might have tempered the portrait of Parker as a self-obsessed alcoholic. Also given short shrift is Campbell, with whom she collaborated on many film scripts, notably A STAR IS BORN.

The film suffers more from Altman's usual weaknesses than from Rudolph's: it's overlong and the cast is far too large. A few cameos stand out, such as Lili Taylor's startling Edna Ferber, but most of the Algonquin bunch are vaguely defined. Rudolph and production designer Francois Seguin create a richly detailed backdrop that fairly envelops the cast--Parker's poetry is always bathed in gin and smoke. The script is delightful, particularly where it quotes the Algonquin wits verbatim, but original dialogue is true both to context and character. While Scott's attempt to impersonate the inimitable Benchley is creditable, the film rests on Leigh's visceral and uncannily persuasive performance. Besides aptly simulating Parker's finishing-school drawl, she exudes a simmering sexuality, while undercutting her sarcasm with telling moments of profound pain. Under Rudolph's sensitive direction, she succeeds in capturing Parker's sense of failure and isolation, and her courageous willfulness in spite of herself. (Nudity, profanity, adult situations.) leave a comment

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