Blood sisters

Nell and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle invoke mythological American women

The conventional line about Hollywood is that there are few good roles for women. And while women still tend to be simultaneously blamed and glorified for what happens to us as a culture, it remains unlikely that cinema--as pure a social reflection as you'll find--can create an adult female who satisfies everyone.

Folks now have potent material with which to form their own opinion of woman as product of, and challenger to, civilization. Opening the same day in Dallas are two films driven by forceful, completely original female performances that wind up trumping the expectations of both the scripts and the men who directed them.

Nell, the first film produced by Jodie Foster's Egg Pictures, features Foster as an illiterate North Carolina woman-child who speaks her own version of the English language and lives in a fantasy world populated by only two other people, both dead. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, produced by Robert Altman and directed with glossy languor by his protege, Alan Rudolph, is a biopic about Dorothy Parker in which Jennifer Jason Leigh slinks, slurs, and purrs her way through an interpretation of the Parker persona that offers few explanations and even fewer apologies for the woman's notorious self-centeredness.

Both are remarkable performances for opposite reasons. Foster takes a mythic character intended from the first scene to manipulate our emotional responses and finds spontaneity and vulnerability. Leigh transforms a real woman haunted by a reputation that not only preceded her, but often stood in for her at public events, into a wounded, self-indulgent legend who never could break the self-destructive cycle--the "vicious circle," although that may or may not be what the film's title refers to--of living and reliving her own infamy. Both Foster and Leigh are a lot cannier than these movies deserve.

Since Nell has all the earmarks of a vanity project--the star supervised everything, from giving the green light to turn Mark Handley's play Idioglossia into a feature to picking Oscar-nominated playwright William Nicholson (Shadowlands) as screenwriter and British-born Hollywood veteran Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) as director--we can lay a good bit of what works and what doesn't at the feet of Foster. She shows admirable restraint and an exquisite sense of timing in allowing co-stars Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, as a volatile country doctor and a tight-assed university researcher who battle it out over the fate of the newly discovered Nell, to carry much of the film.

The exotic title character is the seasoning that defines the flavor of this detached, philosophical fable about the conflict between nature and nurture, individual will vs. the will of society. Nell is discovered by accident after a delivery boy finds her dead mother, sunflowers gently placed over the corpses' eyes, in her backwoods cabin and alerts the local authorities, which include Dr. Lovell (Liam Neeson), an Irish-born physician who keeps a decidedly jaundiced eye turned on his fellow man and woman.

Nell is discovered by Dr. Lovell cowering in the shadows of an upstairs room, and immediately he makes it his personal mission to understand this terrified woman, who observes bizarre rituals and babbles in an incomprehensible language--a bastardized version of the speech of her late mother, who suffered numerous strokes.

Enter Dr. Olsen (Natasha Richardson, who wins the trophy for most convincing North American rural accent yet done by an English actor) as the child-development expert who sees this woman as a horribly deprived person, and wants to introduce her to the benefits--as well as warn her about the dangers--of social living.

If you predicted this epic rivalry from one look at the sappy trailer for Nell, then the film should still hold one surprise for you--the graceful, intuitive lead performance by Foster, who clearly isn't interested in idealizing her role, despite the platitudes that finally sink Nicholson's script and Apted's heavy-handed, let-me-pour-more-atmospheric-light-on-this-important-moment direction. She keeps the character of Nell unreachable to both the self-righteous doctor and the over-educated child expert, thus trapping both sides of the argument in tense, compelling limbo for much of the picture.

Unfortunately, even Foster's spontaneous gifts can't rescue the climactic scene, in which her character lectures (through interpreter Neeson) a courtroom full of townsfolk who've gathered to hear a judge rule on her mental fitness. The impressive high-wire act that Nell has walked crashes to the ground here in a fit of saccharine, Forrest Gump-like moral posturing. We are no longer allowed to decide for ourselves whether Nell is better off left alone or should receive the socialization denied her by a hermit mother. At the last minute she is paraded across the screen as an incorruptible ideal, a bumper-sticker example of the pure inner essence the rest of us have presumably abandoned. This gesture indulges in the same exploitation that it purports to despise, and colors everything that has come before in crass, simplistic tones.

If you expect such thematic equivocation from Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, you'll be disappointed, and possibly more. Alan Rudolph's sumptuously photographed, deadpan chamber epic documents 50 years of lowlights from this century's most famous American woman writer. People who seek some kind of pop-psychological subtext for Dorothy Parker's personal woes--her alcoholism, her promiscuity and failed relationships, the self-doubt that crippled her writing--will run smack into Jennifer Jason Leigh's brittle, deeply self-conscious turn. Her work is at once grandly cinematic and whip-smart, draping layer after layer of artifice on a woman who in real life hid behind a carefully constructed, theatrical cynicism. It's also guaranteed to split audience reaction straight down the middle.

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