Blood sisters

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

In the public mind, there are really two Dorothy Parkers, both of which contain a kernel of truth but may bear little resemblance to the artist as a woman. There's Parker the writer, defiantly opinionated, outspoken in her tastes for liquor and men, and angrily challenging--in her obsessive flirtations with death on paper and in life--the idea that women are, by nature, life-givers. Then there's Parker the chronic self-pitier, who clung to the company of flattering sycophants, drank herself into pain-dulling stupors, and seemed to choose her relationships based on their likelihood for a premature and traumatic finale.

The artist as portrayed in Mrs. Parker belongs to the latter category, although her stunted brilliance as a self-chronicler is accounted for in spine-tingling black-and-white sequences of Leigh reading Parker's most acidic light verse directly to the camera. Implicit in Rudolph's screenplay (with Randy Sue Coburn) and Leigh's performance is the idea that creator and creation are inseparable, that we can gain the best understanding of an individual by mining her works for favorite ideas and recurrent themes.

Assuming this is the case, Parker becomes one hell of a thorny subject with which to spend an hour and 50 minutes. The film begins with her appointment in 1918 to the post of Vanity Fair theater critic, a job she earned by--and would soon lose because of--her singular talent for the literary put-down. Resigning in protest at Parker's dismissal is co-staffer Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), a pranksterish wordsmith whose own humorous essays would catapult him from impoverished critic to nationally celebrated movie comedian and undermine his marriage to a shy woman with traditional ideals (Jennifer Beals).

In Alan Rudolph's version of events, Parker's friendship with Benchley was the one constant in her life, and the cover for an unconsummated romance that caused Parker much pain. Indeed, Benchley is portrayed as the only associate to stick by the writer through her self-inflicted miseries. He's on hand for Parker's string of disastrous relationships, including an early marriage to a morphine addict (Andrew McCarthy), an adulterous fling with a rakish writer (Matthew Broderick) that ends in abortion, and marriage, divorce, and remarriage to a former actor (Peter Gallagher) whose well-known bisexual exploits humiliated her.

The sequins in this dark fabric were the much-glorified literary lunches at New York's Algonquin Hotel, in which Parker reveled alongside major talents (F. Scott Fitzgerald, George S. Kauffman, Edna Ferber) and major self-promoters (Alexander Woolcott, Heywood Broun) of the day. Director Rudolph films these meetings as phenomena that began spontaneously and lasted long past their welcome. His camera shifts and slides over the eagerly chattering heads, with only an occasional comment salvaged above the din of egos. As the decade that harbored these masturbatory get-togethers advanced, more and more alcohol was required to make them bearable.

Indeed, alcoholism becomes an inescapable metaphor for self-deception and suicide, nowhere more poignantly than in the character of Benchley (rendered by Campbell Scott with genuine charm, if a tad less bluster than the real man), who abstains from the sauce in the film's opening half, takes his first clandestine, Prohibition-era drink to a round of applause from his peers, and dies in the late '50s from cirrhosis of the liver after getting wrecked every night and screwing his way through as many showgirls as he could find.

If the tone of Mrs. Parker sounds monotonously despairing, that's because it is, although few films with such an utter hopelessness at their core contain this much desire to look pretty. Rudolph packages his pessimism in floods of soft golden light, lavishly adorned interiors, and costumes that embody the fierce contests for attention into which most of the gatherings degenerated. This is the American cultural elite leavened with Conde Nast fashion photography and pungent Baudelairean visual decadence.

What all the exquisite technical atmospherics can't obscure is a shallow script by Rudolph and Coburn that, for all its pretensions to understand the principals involved, really only wants to wallow in their deterioration. Rudolph can't decide whether he wants the debauchery to look fun or pitiful, so he fudges and tries to have it both ways, at least until the movie's end, when the increasingly strained relationships among the literati erupt in petty quarrels.

Amidst all this back-stabbing and gratuitous showboating, Leigh shines as Parker, a woman who yearns for intimacy but shields herself at all costs from it. Her performance is completely self-contained, which might explain some of the harsh reviews she's earned for Mrs. Parker. Her co-stars react, cajole, even administer to her, but rarely seem to connect, because Leigh maintains a thick wall of protection that ultimately the audience must also scale. It's rare that an actor, much less a lead, much less a woman, offers moviegoers so few opportunities for sympathy, but Leigh's performance is a modest revolution in its suggestion that some people are self-destructive for no good reason other than they choose to be that way.

As for the actress' much-discussed exaggerated accent as Parker, yes, it's exaggerated, but no, it's not an accent. No one who's heard the real Dorothy Parker speak can doubt her penchant for pompous over-pronunciation, just as anyone who's read even a smattering of her poems and stories can sense a special need to create high drama out of her own emotions. At this crossroads Leigh delivers her lines with an affected, back-of-the-throat ennui, like a woman who loves the sound of her own voice and wants everyone to think she's invented herself by the sheer force of her own imagination.

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