Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle
Director: Alan Rudolph. Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Campbell Scott, Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Beals, Andrew McCarthy, Gwyneth Paltrow, Martha Plimpton, Wallace Shawn, David Thornton, Rebecca Miller, Stephen Baldwin, Sam Robards, James LeGros, Nick Cassavetes, Heather Graham, Lili Taylor, Matt Malloy, Peter Benchley, Jane Adams. Screenplay: Alan Rudolph and Randy Sue Coburn.

Detractors of Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle tend to discuss it less as an appealing piece of acting than as a sort of perverted misuse of mannerism, an affront to audience sympathy or pleasure. Why do people who resist this performance hate it so much? Perhaps because in its boldness, its stubbornness, and its painful dedication to fact—Leigh based her slurred, clenched-jaw speech on tape-recordings of Parker herself—the actress' work recalls the personality of the woman she plays. Dorothy Parker, so beloved now as a font of wit and purveyor of barbs, was not quite so much fun to remember as she is to quote. Alan Rudolph's film, which falters in its attempts to round out the "vicious circle" of writers and critics with whom Parker ate her famous meals at the Algonquin hotel, at least presents a thorny and interesting portrait of Mrs. Parker herself.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, like most of Rudolph's films (Choose Me, Afterglow), was produced by Robert Altman, and you can see why the two men have struck such a strong professional bond. This picture, like so many of Altman's, settles on a particular niche of American culture—evoked with music, dress, and a cornucopia of smart character actors—and attempts to push out from the particulars toward some larger opportunity for understanding the culture. In the case of Mrs. Parker, the central questions are the degree to which one must suffer for one's art, or in fact, if the tragedy of a life like Dorothy Parker's is that she suffered so artfully that people applauded her instead of saving her. The script, written by Rudolph and Randy Sue Brown, finds Dorothy romantically disappointed, fired from her job, drowned in alcohol, and suicidally depressed. She is the most famous member of the Algonquin Round Table, but she is also its most precarious fixture, and only a few of her cohorts detect the pain and experience behind such famous ditties as "Guns aren't lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful you might as well live."

The "vicious" aspect of Dorothy's circle is that the people involved—including writer/editor Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), playwright George S. Kaufman (High Art's David Thornton), and novelist Edna Ferber (Lili Taylor)—joke and jibe instead of really feeling anything. Cleverness is such an important commodity to them that it often replaces friendly attentiveness, sincerity, even honesty. In Parker's life, only Benchley remained a warm and dedicated friend, but he never reciprocated her sexual interest in him, perhaps because he was already married. Scott and Leigh play this semi-platonic affair so sensitively that Parker's actual liaisons with Matthew Broderick's Charlie MacArthur seems wan and unimportant. Indeed, Rudolph and Brown attempt to include so many patrons of the Round Table in the panorama of their picture that none of the characters except for Leigh's and Scott's come into any real relief. Some recreation can still be had in spotting the up-and-coming talents nestled into the fold; Gwyneth Paltrow has at least one memorable scene, but blink and you miss Heather Graham, In the Company of Men's Matt Malloy, or Happiness' Jane Adams. Unfortuantely, though, the wide-brimmed hats and heavy cosmetics that authenticate Mrs. Parker's period setting make even the familiar faces hard to pick out.

Standing tall above the swampish interchangeability of the other performers, however, is Leigh, so one's response to her work all but dictates one's overall satisfaction with the film. I am always pleased at the lengths to which Leigh will venture in making her characters distinct, in revealing through stylized affect the often-wounded souls beneath. Sometimes her experiments don't quite work, as in The Hudsucker Proxy, but then she astonishes with a performance as fierce as her work in Georgia or as spikily comic as her fuzzed-out hooker in Miami Blues. Those two characters remain Leigh's finest, I think, but her Dorothy Parker is surprisingly accessible through all the gowns, the jokes, the booze, and yes, the accent. It helps that Leigh delivers Parker's limericks and poems with an emphasis on the feelings that produce them; she doesn't just lean on them as pre-fabricated punchlines the way Stephen Fry and Rupert Everett did in their Oscar Wilde projects, though she also has a stronger script to work with than either of those actors were handed.

The most common and deserved complaint from prominent actresses is that they all get shoehorned into the same derivative roles; we are cued to think it a victory when a female lead manages to be neither a sexpot nor an idiot. Leigh is an actress who consistently finds work that accommodates her unique, prickly gifts, and she makes Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle worthy of attention. Dorothy Parker herself wrote upwards of two dozen movie scripts, even though, as this film makes clear, she was less than enamored of the Hollywood machinery. Upon learning that one of her films was receiving Oscar buzz, Parker lamented, "Oh, sh**—now I'll actually have to see the picture." Perhaps if the movie industry made more room for gifted women like Parker and Leigh, Dorothy would have been more eager to buy a ticket. Grade: B

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Jennifer Jason Leigh

Other Awards:
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Leigh)

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