Combine literary nerding, alcoholic binging, a little bit of sex, and incredibly charming 1920s clothes (especially hats), and you get Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). Jennifer Jason Leigh was at the height of her ‘art house darling’ days in ’94 when she made this film, studying Dorothy Parker’s writings and audio recordings of her voice so she could inhabit the character. The movie is a meandering biography, mostly true, recounting Parker’s life, loves, writing, and socializing that centered around her friends known as the Algonquin Round Table.
In some ways, this is a giant ensemble film because there are so many characters and recognizable actors playing all these famous writers and artists. Director Alan Rudolph noted in the New York Times: “It’s a period piece with something like 60 characters of which 32 or 33 are major principal actors.” Campbell Scott plays humorist Robert Benchley and Jennifer Beals is his wife Gertrude; Matthew Broderick plays playwright Charles MacArthur; Martha Plimpton is Jane Grant and Sam Robards plays Harold Ross, the two founded The New Yorker; Lili Taylor plays novelist Edna Ferber; Nick Cassavetes is playwright Robert Sherwood; Gwyneth Paltrow is artist Paula Hunt; Wallace Shawn portrays the maître d’ at the Algonquin Hotel; the list goes on.
But even with the huge cast, the film is resolutely focused on Dorothy Parker and Jennifer Jason Leigh — especially with the black-and-white poetic asides that film cuts to, reminding viewers of Parker’s acerbic wit, depressive poetry, and rueful humor. It’s amazing that the film is centered wholly on Parker, since the director apparently had a hard time selling it as a straight biopic of her, saying, again to the NYT: “A period biography of a literate woman is the least desirable box on the board game.”
Leigh was obsessive in her study of Parker, telling Entertainment Weekly how she listened to audio recordings to study Parker’s distinctive New England accent. “I had a tape loop of her that I played constantly,” she said, “I mapped every chuckle, stutter, and pause, almost like you’d learn a foreign-language song.” There was a report that preview audiences couldn’t understand some of her dialog and it had to be redone, but the film’s director disputes this. Interestingly, Parker’s accent is similar to what’s called “vocal fry” today — a deep, slightly creeky or slurred tone, that contrasts with more traditional high-pitched feminine voices. The sound may take getting used to for some, but it does fully create the character and helps Parker’s way with words come alive.
Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.
Have you seen Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle? Are you a Dorothy Parker fan?