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.

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.

The voice is most effective when Leigh is the elderly Parker, attending awards functions drunk, letting her pet spaniel eat from her plate, snapping guttural one-liners at the audience and the press. All the advertising hype that insists Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle "turns the legend into a woman" is hooey, because Alan Rudolph and Jennifer Jason Leigh are enough in touch with their own excesses to know a fitting tribute to Dorothy Parker is one that burnishes her reputation as a beautiful loser.

Nell. A 20th Century Fox/Egg Pictures film with Jodie Foster, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson. Written by William Nicholson and Mark Handley. Directed by Michael Apted. Opens Dec 25.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. A Fine Line Features film with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Campbell Scott, Matthew Broderick. Written by Alan Rudolph and Randy Sue Coburn. Directed by Alan Rudolph. Opens Dec 25.

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