That Alan Rudolph’s 1994 film Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle vanished from theaters in what seemed a matter of seconds rather than days should come as no surprise; it’s a literate biopic that celebrates the dead art of true wit as delivered from one of the saddest figures in American literary history â€“ Dorothy Parker. Parker was the queen of the bon mot, a razor-edged wit whose often sardonic poetry and fiction masked an enormous amount of pain and insecurity.
Rudolph’s lovely film begins in Hollywood in the 1940s where Parker (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is working for the movies (she worked on a number of films, including two versions of A Star Is Born, The Little Foxes and Hitchcock’s Saboteur) and flashes back to her activities during the prohibition days of the ’20s in New York as a theater critic for Vanity Fair. During this time, her co-worker was humorist Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), with whom Parker formed a platonic friendship that would withstand the worst of times as well as the best. Parker and Benchley began to congregate regularly at New York’s Hotel Algonquin, drawing an ever increasing crowd of artists and writers that included Robert Sherwood, Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. It was at the Algonquin “Round Table” that Parker found her wit, surrounding herself with the best and brightest in New York and hiding her unhappiness in her marriage to the drunk, morphine-addicted Eddie (Andrew McCarthy, in a surprisingly good performance).
Parker has a brief affair with writer Charles McArthur (a typically wooden Matthew Broderick), whom tags along to the Algonquin and to the studio of artist Neysa McMein, but when the affair ends abruptly, Parker tries suicide. She is on hand when New Yorker magazine is launched as well, but Parker’s insecurity over her writing and the intense loneliness of her life â€“ love was sadly elusive for Parker â€“ drive her to drink more and more, with Benchley always being there to pick up the pieces. “People think he’s banging me every night,” she says of Benchley, “and sometimes I wish to God he was â€“ but only sometimes.”
This is a wonderful piece of filmmaking by one-time Robert Altman protegee Rudolph (Altman produced this film), gorgeous to look at with peerless attention to period detail, but Rudolph’s use of Howard Hawksian overlapping dialogue â€“ the quips are fired here at a machine gun pace â€“ and the fact that the screenplay doesn’t make any concessions to those unfamiliar with the principal characters, may drive away the less adventurous filmgoers. Campbell Scott is sympathetic enough as Robert Benchley, but he looks and sounds nothing like the real Benchley, whose short subjects and roles in films such as Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent should be familiar to most film buffs. As it is, there are plenty of nice cameos here for those pop culture junkies who still look for such things (Lili Taylor plays Edna Ferber, Jennifer Beals is Benchley’s wife, Keith Carradine pops up as Will Rogers).
In the end, though, it’s Leigh’s film. She embodies Parker’s heartbreaking sadness unforgettably, and when the Algonquin regulars ask how Dottie can be so sad and so funny at the same time, Leigh , via Parker’s acerbic and painfully self-aware poems, shows us exactly why â€“ no small achievement at all.