Thursday, August 20, 2009

I write doodads because it's a doodad kind of town.

After Dorothy Parker's death in 1967, her ashes remained unclaimed, passing from one cabinet to another, for 17 years; how fitting an afterlife for a woman who once suggested "Excuse my dust" as her epitaph. A common criticism of Parker's poems is that they persistently return to the same themes: despair, insecurity, unrequited desire, failed romances and, almost always, death. Yet the appeal of Parker's work lies in the razor-sharp wit she brings to morbid self-interest - deceptively "light," her poems often cut to the bone. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle opens, in black and white, on a close-up of Parker's lips as she recites a poem; as Parker - played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, perfectly interpreting Parker's smokey, half-muttered speech patterns - speaks, the camera drifting from her lips to her eyes, the camera finds a tactile sensuality in the mordant humor of Parker's words. It's director Alan Rudolph's invitation to the blues; with a film set against the backdrop of the Algonquin Round Table and its revolving cast of artists and intellectuals, it would be more obvious to adapt a blithe, wisecracking tone. But Rudolph's decision to focus his film on the member of the Algonquin who would be most likely to disavow any club that would have her as a member gives his film surprising emotional heft.

Using Parker's own poetry and scenes from her later years as a framing device, Mrs. Parker takes place during the heyday of her reputation as the most savage wit among the Algonquins. The title's "vicious circle" could just as easily refer to Parker's own life, marked by a series of failed or stalled relationships to men like her abusive first husband Edward (Andrew McCarthy) and the charming but unfaithful playwright Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick). The breakup of this relationship, and the subsequent termination of their pregnancy, leads to Parker's first suicide attempt; it's remarkable to watch Leigh make an almost imperceptible shift from self-depricating jokes to the very real despair just beneath the surface. Leigh is just as astonishing in every scene, going beyond impersonation to embody Parker's tough, defiant spirit. As with many of Leigh's strongest performances, she seems completely unconcerned with whether the audience is on her side; this makes her a perfect match for Parker, who was her own harshest critic (we spy her, at one point, writing "Please God, let me write like a man") yet remained true to herself.

Rather than providing the endless exposition that would have been needed to introduce the members of the Algonquin Round Table to modern audiences (other than an awkward scene where the founders of the New Yorker fumble over the name for their new venture), Rudolph smartly allows the supporting cast - a who's who of up-and-coming '90s stars - to populate the film like familiar acquaintances. Rudolph, a protege of Robert Altman (who produced the film), has frequently adopted Altman's trademark use of overlapping dialogue. Sometimes, as with the disastrous adaptation of Breakfast of Champions, the result is a mess; here, however, it's a perfect fit. As the camera drifts through countless lunches and parties, characters verbally spar and one-up each other as they barely conceal their desperate desire to impress one another. The words themselves become a major character in the film, which at times plays like a eulogy for the lost art of conversation.

Words also take on an erotic carge in Parker's bittersweet, decades-long friendship with writer and humorist Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott). It is the relationship between Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley, as they affectionately call each other, that is at the heart of the film. Longtime writing partners and best friends, Parker and Benchley never quite say what they feel, largely because of Benchley's loyalty to his wife (Jennifer Beals), who can only view her husband's friendship and creative success in terms of the time he spends away from home (Beals and Leigh would reverse these roles in The Anniversary Party, with more sympathy for the jealous wife). Words tie Parker and Benchley together, yet they also use words to keep each other at arms' length - as Parker tells Benchley, "I'd kiss you, but I'm afraid it wouldn't come out right." It's in the unspoken moments, as we observe each character when the other isn't looking, that we realize the depth of Parker's affection for Benchley and the strength of his loyalty to her, and we realize that, for all her failed attempts at happiness, this friendship may have been the great love of Parker's life.

The relationship also serves to anchor the film; Rudolph could have been content to blithely romanticize his '20s-set cast of characters (it'd be easy with such fabulous costumes), but while the film celebrates the Algonquins, it stops short of idealizing them. Parker herself would eventually dismiss her friends as "a bunch of loudmouths," and a remarkable New Years-set sequence late in the film suggests that, as the party began to wind down, what remained for the partygoers was the need to be noticed. Parker saw this in herself - was painfully aware of all her human frailties - and all the booze, sex and sarcasm in the world couldn't finally dull her painful self-awareness. But she remained fiercely herself, even at the expense of happiness, and I think she would agree that an unsentimental, stubbornly sad and largely overlooked biopic is one that suits her best.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009