Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
To cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.
--- Dorothy Parker ---
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is an ensemble drama (or maybe a dramedy) with an enormous cast of characters and frequently overlapping dialogue, as directed by Alan Rudolph in the manner of his mentor, Robert Altman. The central character is the famous wit and tastemaker, Dorothy Parker, and her fellow members of the famous Algonquin Round Table.
What was the Algonquin Round Table? It was basically an informal society of funny New York literary types who met for lunch and drinks at the Algonquin Hotel every working day throughout the early 1920s. In the period between the great wars, there was a flourishing of such intellectual drinking societies in Paris and New York. Paris had the greater literary giants like Hemingway, Joyce, and Fitzgerald, but New York had the sass and wit of people who polished funny sentences for a living. The Algonquin group included the playwrights from a time when New York's theater scene was the center of showbiz existence, and it included the newspaper columnists from the heyday of New York journalism when many newspapers competed vigorously for the most sophisticated audiences. The boisterous luncheon group at the Algonquin became so large and so famous that the hotel eventually wheeled in a large round table to accommodate their numbers and placed it in the center of the dining area to accommodate their ever-increasing value as a tourist attraction. Because so many in the Algonquin society were journalists with daily or weekly columns to fill, the Round Table's daily bon mots were dutifully recorded and became not only famous but also the acknowledged standard for witty badinage in their era.
One fact tells you about all you need to know about the film: although its characters were said to be the wittiest people in the world, Jennifer Jason Leigh was nominated for the Golden Globe as the best actress in a drama. Given the group's reputation as an association of the funniest people then alive, one would expect this film to glitter with non-stop wit and fun. There is some of that of course. Some of the film's best scenes are re-created highlights of the group's famed luncheons, and were actually filmed at the Algonquin, which still stands on West 44th Street, largely unchanged to this day, but the author seems to subscribe to the cliché that all clowns hide broken hearts, and at its core the film is a "laugh in the face of tragedy" drama about the inability of Dorothy Parker, the group's ringleader and sharpest tongue, to find happiness. As the film's official blurb notes, "Her barbed wit was fueled by alcohol and flirted with despair."
The film even provides its own mature and too, too serious self-analysis in the form of a psychiatrist character who latches on to the famous group, and reminds them how dysfunctional it is to feel a constant need to amuse one another like children at recess. The shrink nags Dorothy about finding some deeper connections with people. He might have added that Dorothy may have come to a happier old age if she had done anything in her youth besides making nasty comments about people. Her acerbic wit and almost unfailingly negative judgments of others, coupled with her alcoholism, had long-term repercussions on her personal life. In defense of her integrity, one might note that Parker was just as harsh in judging herself as she was in judging others. The shrink character was right to have so many misgivings about the hollow pseudo-happiness of the Round Table, but one would expect him to be right considering that he actually represents the omniscient voice of a screenwriter who knew with perfect hindsight what would eventually happen to all of the neo-Arthurians. Dorothy herself would eventually shoulder her way through various bad relationships, endless affairs, failed romances, infidelities, repeated suicide attempts, and alcoholism before turning into a pathetic drunken has-been in her final days.
(For reasons presumably related to a desire for focus and compression, the script ignored the contribution made by Parker's radical leftist politics to her declining status in Hollywood during the McCarthy Era.)
Jennifer Jason Leigh offered an odd voice characterization as Dorothy Parker, using a clipped Northeastern delivery which was long on bitter mumbling under her breath, and short on vulnerability. It sounded like the result of Katharine Hepburn getting drunk and deciding to impersonate W.C. Fields. Some critics praised Leigh's ability to capture the real Parker. I don't know whether that quirky interpretation did in fact render a facsimile of Dorothy Parker since I have never heard the voice of the real Parker, a fact for which I am grateful if she sounded like this. Given the mumbled lines from Leigh and others and the Altmanesque overlapping dialogue, I decided to watch the film with English subtitles, a process which I recommend, since by doing so I picked up some good lines from the captions which I would otherwise have missed. (Note: Scoop viewed an earlier DVD release which is now out of print. The new DVD does not offer English sub-titles.)
Along Parker's bumpy journey, the scriptwriters try to shoehorn in just about everyone who was in the entertainment field in any capacity in the twenties, with most of them showing up at the table to say, "Hello, my name is _____," as if living nametags. Many, if not most, of these cameos are pointless. The brilliant humorist Will Rogers introduces himself to the group, for example, but the interaction of America's greatest down-home comedian with America's funniest group of uptown intellectuals produces neither amusement nor anything which furthers the storyline, so the audience is left wondering why the screenwriter felt Rogers's appearance to be worthwhile. Rogers's appearance was symptomatic of the film's greatest weakness. There are simply too many characters, and few of them are developed in any way. The script seems like an exercise to test one's cultural literacy. Even if you already know quite a bit about the group and admire their achievements, you will be struggling to tell the players in this game without a scorecard. If you are not already conversant with their exploits, you should not look to this film for enlightenment. It is a film which preaches to the choir, and was made for people already in on the jokes - not those people who will laugh at the famous witticisms, but people who will nod in recognition of them.
One wonders what the real point of the film is supposed to be. The main take-away from the film seems to be that Dorothy Parker would have been a nicer and happier person if the great romantic love of her life, supposedly playwright Charles MacArthur, had loved her back. Is that accurate? More important, even if it is accurate, is this hackneyed romantic angle the best reason to make a movie about this group? I think most of you could probably think of a better one, like simply capturing the legendary wit of the Round Table on film. The strength of the premise is the fact that a good percentage of the dialogue could be taken from Bartlett's quotations, since the group's persiflage represented some of the best puns, wordplay, and wisecracks of some of the 20th century's most famous wits. I wish there had been more laughter and cameraderie. Frankly, I would have preferred if the script had stayed with the "clowns as funny guys" angle rather than slipping into "clowns are really heartbroken" mode.
I found this comment at IMDb to be insightful and useful:
I agree completely. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is a respectably good movie, but given the potential of the subject matter, one can't help but view it as a missed opportunity. Dorothy's live, or perhaps Harpo's book, would make a great subject for a multi-part series in a format like Masterpiece Theater.
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) is being released again in a new widescreen transfer, and this time it includes special features, including a commentary, and a special retrospective of Dorothy Parker's life. Honestly, the special features were more interesting than the movie itself. I completely agree with Scoop's points. I started the film with a great curiosity about Dorothy Parker, one of the most humorous and intelligent women ever to become a public figure. She is best known, of course, as a pivotal member of the Algonquin Round Table, and everyone in my generation knows some of her quips and short poems.
Perhaps the most telling fact about this brilliant and talented woman was that, when she died of a heart attack in her 70s, most people who read her obituary were surprised that she had still been alive. In the 20s, she was the toast of New York intelligentsia. She then became a successful but dissatisfied Hollywood writer. Later, she came under attack by Joe McCarthy, and took part in the Spanish revolution.
Jennifer Jason Leigh was brilliant in her portrayal in what Rudolph claims is a very accurate telling of Parker's story. The supporting cast was equally good. My biggest problem with watching this film is the same as my objections to drugs suck films. It is two hours of watching a brilliant and talented woman in torment. Director Alan Rudolph chose to focus on the negative part of her life, and the lives of those around her. As Scoop noted, the film leaves plenty of room for another Dorothy Parker biopic or mini-series. Rudolph also borrowed a technique from mentor and producer Robert Altman, and used overlapping dialogue, much the same as what you would encounter at a loud party or a huge dinner. Unfortunately, just as at a party or large dinner, it is difficult to follow what is being said. It was made even more difficult by the accent and diction used by Jennifer Jason Leigh in her Parker impersonation. Unfortunately, although the earlier release had English subtitles for the hearing-impaired, the re-issue does not, and that feature would have been very helpful.
It is a very good film, but not one with an substantial audience, except maybe women over 45, who rate it 7.1 at IMDb!
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