TBT: Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

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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.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

“I’m not a writer with a drinking problem, I’m a drinker with a writing problem.”

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.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

Benchley and Parker have a deep platonic friendship and unresolved romantic relationship that forms the spine of the film.

1919, Robert Benchley & Dorothy Parker

1919, Robert Benchley & Dorothy Parker

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

“Lips that taste of tears, they say, are the best for kissing.”

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

“Constant use had not worn ragged the fabric of their friendship.”

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.”

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

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.

1919, Dorothy Parker

1919, Dorothy Parker

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

“The cure to boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

The ethnic motifs popular during the ’20s are used on Dottie’s clothes, emphasizing her bohemian attitude and lifestyle.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

“There was nothing separate about her days. Like drops on the window-pane, they ran together and trickled away.”

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

Benchley’s stuffy, long-suffering wife still gets a smart dress and matching hat.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

Cindy Lauper fills out the crowd at a summer party.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

So many gorgeously trimmed hats!

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

“Travel, trouble, music, art, a kiss, a frock, a rhyme — I never said they feed my heart, but still they pass my time.”

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

At a summer party, Mrs. Parker is forced to recite a poem, like singing for her supper. She chooses “Résumé.”

Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful,
Nooses give,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.

 

Have you seen Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle? Are you a Dorothy Parker fan?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

8 Responses

  1. Frannie Germeshausen

    OMG, I need to see this. I have a dress similar to the one she’s wearing when sitting for the portrait. Everything looks so right.

    Reply
      • John Hintergardt

        Renee April is very prolific costume designer and has won 3 Genie Awards (Canada’s Oscar) and John Hay has pretty much retired. April recently designed Blade Runner 2049.

        Reply
          • johnny

            Here are some more of Renee April’s films you have to check out; Black Robe (1600’s), The Red Violin (1700’s, 1960’s), Grey Owl (1930’s), Million Dollar Babies (1930’s), the Bay Boy (1940’s), The Moderns (1920’s), and The Kiss.

            Reply
  2. Kat from CA via NJ

    Ooh I love this movie but it was so underrated around the time it came out. My parents watched it with me because of my mom’s deep and abiding love for Dorothy Parker, and of course as a depressed teen I recited Resumé to weird-out my classmates. Love Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance in this, too, and the very rare focus on a platonic male-female friendship, even though the story is super bittersweet.

    Reply

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