For seventy years Dorothy Parker's adherents have been calling her "the first modern American woman" or "the wittiest writer of her time" or something equally absolute. Valued for her sardonic commentaries on failed love, suicide, heavy drinking and the bad plays she was forced to review, she is held up as the soul of sophisticated disenchantment in the 1920s and as a master of the elegant one-liner.
If we can believe Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, the new film about her by Alan Rudolph, she was also a world-class whiner.
It's no surprise that Rudolph (Choose Me, The Moderns) seeks to debunk--that seems to be the movies' central mission in our time. The surprise is that, in the person of Jennifer Jason Leigh, La Parker not only survives the beating she takes here, she looms a little larger than her reality. In truth, she was a second-ranker more interested in emptying her glass and talking away the evenings than actually pounding the typewriter. But she emerges from Rudolph's biographical smoke and ashes as an authentic cultural icon--stewed but somehow sweet, unfinished yet exalted. There's still plenty of romance left in self-destruction, one must conclude.
"One more drink and I'll be under the host," Parker is said to have quipped. If Jason Leigh, mewing along in a wire-jawed approximation of the so-called mid-Atlantic accent, has another drink, you suspect the oral affectation might vanish. But not the fetching collision of caustic observation and little-girl vulnerability that has endeared Parker to four generations of readers. If I had to choose but one story, why not "Big Blonde" (which goes unmentioned here)?
In Rudolph's film, the Algonquin Round Table crowd--sparkling, brilliant and quick, at least in myth--is portrayed not so much as a collection of barbed wits sharpening up during the lunch hour, but as a half-soused band of loudmouths who can't find anything better to do than savage one another without mercy. This Round Table has the desperate interdependence of a postgraduate frat party, with Parker as the female wild card. Here, everyone talks at once.
The centerpiece, as Rudolph would have it, is the apparently unrequited love affair between Parker (who was married to a likable dimwit who returned from the Great War as a morphine addict) and fellow humorist and New Yorkerite Robert Benchley (who was married to hopelessly suburban Gertrude, who reined him back into Westchester every night). Roaring Twenties? Not exactly. The reluctance of Parker and Benchley, unmistakable made-for-each-others, to hit the rack together speaks of the repressions of their time and of the essential qualities of their friendship: The witty yet sexually tense scenes shared by Jason Leigh and Campbell Scott's bluff, polished Benchley are the movie's best.
As for playwright Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick), who broke her heart, New Yorker founder Harold Ross (Sam Robards), critic and bon vivant Alexander Woollcott (Tom McGowan) and the others, they are a mixed lot, dramatically speaking. Unless you love the era, they may even seem like musty literary relics. Harpo Marx (Jean-Michael Henry) stands on his head at lawn parties. Woollcott coins the by-now familiar saw about things "illegal, immoral or fattening." F. Scott Fitzgerald (Malcolm Gets) drops by for--what else?--a drink, but unlike the others, he actually goes home to work on his novel and we never see him again.
What we see of Parker as a writer is neither pretty nor inspiring nor particularly profound. When she's not being dunned for her overdue hotel bill, she's reading her bitter, self-pitying poems into the camera in world-weary tones while the film stock bleeds into stark black-and-white. Sample: "And I lie here warm, and I lie here dry/And watch the worms slip by, slip by."
It is this tone of fashionable morbidity and elegant wit that marks almost every piece in your copy and mine of The Portable Dorothy Parker, but nothing seems quite so portable as her capacity for feeling sorry for herself. This is less a movie about squandered genius than about disabling hangovers, less about an artist gone wrong than a gifted aphorist aware of her limitations. She writes "doodads," she concludes.
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In Jason Leigh's tiny, doll-like face, hardened into a smile, we see not so much the woman who prays to "write like a man" but the lonely woman with no gift for choosing a man. By the time her middleweight tragedy has wound down to solitary afternoon drinking in a dreary Hollywood cocktail lounge, she's worn us out, too, with her personal failures--and her complaints about them. In the end, this captivating film is a kind of spiritual autopsy.
Parker died in 1967 at the age of 74, having outlived all her friends. But the wordsmith, the literary myth and the feminist heroine survive. "Brevity is the soul of lingerie," she once said, giving Shakespeare a nudge. So renowned is Parker's wit, in fact, that writer/director Rudolph cannot resist giving her at least one one-liner she didn't say: "I never liked a man I didn't meet," she tells visiting Will Rogers, amid the acid gaiety of the Algonquin lunchers. Thus does the circle close. Up there on the silver screen, the great Dorothy Parker is now imitating herself.
Oddly, there's something even more poignant in that than the life complete and true. "She had a passion for unhappiness," MacArthur once said of her, and that's what we see distilled here: Parker's passion for almost nothing but unhappiness. Oh, well, bottoms up.