Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle: Rudolph’s Attempt toCapture the Witty Dorothy Parker, Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh

Filming stories about writers has always presented problems and challenges for directors, even talented ones, like Alan Rudolph (Choose Me). Writing is a solitary activity and not a very dramatic one. Which is why we get so many clichd portrayals in Hollywood movies about the literati. It’s not terribly exciting to watch a person writing his manuscript while using a typewriter, or nowadays computers.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Rudolph’s attempt at dramatizing the life of Dorothy Parker, the noted acerbic writer, is a valiant and at times an absorbing effort. Ultimately, though, it’s not a very satisfying movie as the script, co-written by Rudolph and journalist Randy Sue Coburn, offers only a sketchy look at the rich life that the legendary Parker must have lived.

To Rudolph’s credit, Mrs. Parker is not as clichd or pretentious as it could have been in the hands of other directors. But it never gets inside the mind or psyche of this fascinating woman, as one would expect.

Parker left behind her a body of dramatic and literary reviews, piquant poetry and several screenplays, the most famous of which is her 1937 script, A Star is Born (which William Wyler directed with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor). Unlike other literary figures of her time, people still talk–and quote–Parker’s witticisms. In fact, The Portable Dorothy Parker has never been out of print since it was first published in l944.

The film begins in 1937, with the weary, disenchanted Parker in Hollywood. Encouraged by a young admirer to contemplate on her life, the story goes back to 1919, when Parker’s husband, Eddie (Andrew McCarthy) returns from the War. It soon becomes clear that Eddie is a drug addict and that the marriage is a disappointment.

Parker writes for Vanity Fair, where she befriends Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), the famous editor and theater critic. Their platonic, emotionally rewarding friendship provides the center of the too fractured, essentially non-dramatic movie.

According to the film, Mrs. Parker’s personal life was sad and unfulfilling. A passionate affair with ace reporter Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick), an irresponsible womanizer who gets her pregnant, ends badly with her abortion–and depression. Spanning some three decades, the story ends with Parker as a lonely, frustrated woman.

Occasionally, the film captures Parker’s sharp tongue, one that allegedly outshone her male colleagues. But it never fully conveys the fact Parker was one of the first American female writers to develop a critical, distinctive voice that was equal, if not superior, to that of her illustrious male peers, all members of New York’s intellectual elite.

The film’s original title, Mrs. Parker and the Round Table, was more accurate but less catchy than the current one. Director Rudolph amusingly reconstructs the formation of this notorious table at the Algonquin Hotel. It begins as a small gathering at a tiny table, but as the number of participants increases, the table gets too cramped and eventually a resourceful waiter (Wallace Shawn) installs a larger table around which they can sit comfortably and exchange they nasty remarks.

As is often the case of bio-pictures of famous people, Mrs. Parker can’t avoid the temptation of showcasing a large gallery of celebrities, each appearing for a few minutes or seconds. The thus engages in a spotting game–there’s Harpo Marx, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Harold Ross, Will Rogers, and others. And the fact that they are played by recognizable actors, like Martha Plimpton, Lili Taylor, and Keith Carradine, makes it even worse.

In the lead role, Jennifer Jason Leigh is commanding–except for her arch, artificial-sounding accent–reportedly, it was modeled after recordings of Parker’s own voice. The dialect may be authentic, but I found it distracting and unappealing.

Leigh is one of our best character actresses and here she shows again her almost limitless range. She actually gets stronger as Mrs, Parker becomes older; her delivery of the writer’s acid, stinging remarks is one of the film’s delights.

Of the men around her, Campbell Scott gives a distinguished performance as Benchley. In one of the film’s highlights, he performs as a stand-up comic, delivering assorted remarks on various political issues. However, Matthew Broderick lacks the charisma and stature that the role of MacArthur calls for.

Like the director’s other period films (The Moderns), Mrs. Parker is handsomely mounted. Shot in Montreal, the picture is a real visual treat, marked by an inventive production design by Francois Seguin, which conveys a good feel for the time and place.

Special kudos should go to Jan Kiesser’s outstanding cinematography (on wide-screen), which contrasts intense black-and-white sequences for the framing devices (in which Parker recites her poetry in revealing close-ups) with lush, bright colors, used for the main story.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is a richer and more rewarding movie than Julia (l977), which starred Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman, a contemporary of Dorothy Parker, but it’s far from a satisfying one.