Living by her wits
In Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle, acclaimed writer-director Alan Rudolph examines the life of the legendary Dorothy Parker. He tells Trevor Johnston about a
contradictory woman who was more than a match for her peers.
‘Dorothy Parker was the ﬁrst modern American woman. She could’out-think. out-drink. out-write and out-fuck the men.‘ Thus reckons writer-director, Altman associate and perennial critics‘ darling Alan Rudolph. whose latest unanticipated move is to be ﬁrst to the screen with a life story ofone ofthe modem legends of American letters — wit. poet. playwright. short story specialist and queen of the jazz age New York literati. the etemally quotable Dorothy Parker. ‘ln American cultural history. ifthat doesn't sound like too much of an oxymoron,‘ he continues. with a conspiratorial aside. ‘1 would say that the Algonquin Hotel round table. what it syrnbolised. and the ripple effect that went out from it. was probably up there in the 50 most signiﬁcant events of the century. Nobody had tried to make a ﬁlm about it up to this point and now i know why — the hardest thing about this whole project was dealing with the so-called experts who guard the myth of Dorothy Parker and don‘t want you going near their little patch. They wouldn't talk to us while we were making the picture. now they‘re coming out ofthe woodwork to tell us how we got it wrong.‘ Although Rudolph maintains that Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle stands up to anything that the fact- checkers can throw at it, it‘s not the ﬁrst time he‘s had a closer look at the arts world‘s ofﬁcial version - 1988‘s The Modems recast the whole Paris-in-the- Twenties schtick as just so much flummery and fakery — but this time the focus is much more on getting beneath the collective skins ofa remarkable band of what has been termed ‘ﬁrst-rate second-
‘How are we to account for a woman who was fantastically witty but wrote the darkest poetry, who went through
five suicide attempts but was a self-destructive survivor?’
raters’. The narrative thrust of an occasionally cac0phonous ensemble piece (they had to remix the soundtrack after complaints at last year‘s Cannes Film Festival that the Altmanesque over-lapping dialogue over-lapped a bit too much) centres on the ever-extraordinary Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker and her crucial but platonic relationship with Campbell Scott‘s almost as striking incarnation as humourist and later Hollywood wag Robert Benchley. Moving around the same dinner table orbit
are the likes of Matthew Broderick‘s Charles MacArthur (writer of The Front Page) Tom McGowan‘s Alexander Wollcott (the fearsome theatre critic immortalised in The Man Who Came 7o Dinner). Nick Cassavetes‘s Robert Sherwood (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) and David Thornton as the deeply eccentric George S. Kaufman (one of the founders of the Broadway musical as we know it).
While Rudolph gives US a taste of this unparallelled gathering in full-ﬂight (‘These people were the media and all they did for ten years was write about each other‘). it‘s the interior landscape ofa contradiction- riven artist like Dorothy Parker that clearly fascinates him most. ‘My favourite moments in any movie are when the main characters are alone. Dorothy left no memoirs. no autobiography. no diaries. so how are we to account for a woman who was alone on the streets of New York at fourteen. who was fantastically witty but wrote the darkest poetry, who went through ﬁve suicide attempts but was a self— I destructive survivor?‘
in ﬁlms like Choose Me, where Keith Carradine plays a destructive chameleon of a character, or Equinox. where Matthew Modine really only comes to self-understanding when he meets his twin. Rudolph has covered the sort of awkward but telling emotional territory that few other ﬁlmmakers ever wander into — the interior landscape where we confront ourselves. in Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle. the ﬁlm‘s temporal leaps and bounds and the intercutting of Leigh reading Parker‘s tough. sad and characteristically aphoristic poems in a voice learned from the author‘s own recordings combine to offer a penetrating study of a woman who. however gifted. obviously wasn‘t happy being in her own skin. ‘I don‘t think she was over-sentimental about it,‘ offers Rudolph. by way of explaining the unexplainable. ‘but she was someone who carried around a lot of
l l i i
Jennifer Jason leigh prepares a peppery reply as Dorothy Parker
pain. In the era of “anything goes“ she took lovers as fast as they could produce them. yet in her own way all she wanted to do was ﬁnd some truth at the end of it all. The fact that she never slept with Benchley despite their being constant companions seems to me enormously important. it‘s like you can be a bad lover. but you can‘t be a bad friend.‘
Although a lot of attention has been lavished on
‘In the era of “anything goes” she took lovers as fast as they could produce them, yet in her own way all she wanted to do was find some truth at the end of it all.’
Leigh‘s dedicated but controversial assumption of the title role. Rudolph is cheered by the evidence that people are talking about one of his films at all. and that it particularly seems to strike a chord with young women in their 20s (‘even if they‘re American and haven‘t ever heard of Dorothy Parker‘). He‘s right to be as proud of the movie as he evidently is. and even though none of his personal ﬁlms (he discounts studio assignments like Mor/al Though/s as ‘out-of- body experiences‘) have ever struck anything like commercial success. his uncompromising hankering after an authentic vision of the human comedy. even if it‘s given an idiosyncratic sideways glance. has ensured a kind of longevity. ‘I understand myself by now.‘ he adds with a wry smile. ‘I know I don‘t have $100 million taste. l‘rn not interested in the mass audience. but it‘s the individual in that audience i really want to reach. I‘m always greatly buoyed up by the people who come to me and genuinely let me know that one of my ﬁlms has been important to them. that somehow it just got to them inside.‘
Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle opens a! the Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday IO Marc/1 and a! the [Edinburgh F ilmhouse on Friday 24 March.
18 The List 10-23 Mar 1995