Tuesday, June 7, 2011

You Might As Well Live

Since I’ve written about these matters before, I may as well mention that as of now I’m employed again. Which, it certainly goes without saying, is a huge relief. I don’t want to say much about the job at the moment since I prefer to keep those worlds separate but I think things may actually be looking up for me right now. I feel good about this. Not that I didn’t spend the days leading up to starting the new job extremely nervous, worried about what was going to happen, continually going over these last months, pondering how I got to the place I am now. Some of it seems like one giant haze of worry, of fear, of long walks, of freedom, of new people in my life. What had really happened to me in the time since late that drizzly afternoon in December ‘09, wandering through the CBS Radford lot to my car having just been laid off? How much had I changed?

The only way to watch MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE is to drift through it. Like you wind up drifting through life sometimes, trying to make sense of your friendships, the people you remain closest with, the ones who you never really knew all that well no matter how much time you spent with them. There are certain women in my life where when I speak to them I sometimes find myself slyly saying their married name like “Mrs. (NAME REDACTED)” with Campbell Scott’s portrayal of Robert Benchley in mind, slightly putting myself into the wish fulfillment place of being such a writer, slightly indicating my own unspoken feelings as well. The real Benchley was also from Scarsdale, so there’s something I already have in common with the guy. As films go, this biopic of the legendary writer Dorothy Parker seems like a dream and maybe it’s mostly remembered by people as a dream. Recently I ran into an old friend for the first time in a while and mentioned what a coincidence it was, since I had just been watching some of MRS. PARKER earlier that day. He looked at me confused, not getting the connection, until I reminded him that his wife was in the movie. Things get forgotten. People get forgotten. Or maybe they just fall into yet another haze.

Alan Rudolph’s 1994 film which details the story of Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) introduces her in the flush of reluctant success as a Hollywood screenwriter in the 40s married to her writing partner Alan Campbell (Peter Gallagher). Shortly after meeting up with old friend Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott) she flashes back to her days in New York in the 20s where we see Parker’s rise to prominence as Vanity Fair drama critic, famous short story writer and one of the key members of the historic Algonquin Round Table. The drama critic Benchley is also part of that large group of notables as well as being a close confidante to Dorothy with the film focusing on the relationship between these two people married to others and their never-romance amid the intellectual wisecracking mayhem of all their cohorts. Dorothy does meet and quickly fall for famous playwright Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick) but even when that romance falls by the wayside, Benchley is always near Dorothy as the roaring twenties go on and the relationship between the two never becoming anything more, their fame continues as she falls deeper into a well of depression and booze with only her talent keeping her going but even that by a certain point is never enough.

There’s a line in the Wikipedia page about the Algonquin Round Table where it mentions that when various members reassembled years later for a funeral they came to the realization that without the commonality of their group they had absolutely nothing to say to one another. Along those lines I’ve always been slightly haunted by a passage in the biography “Charlie—The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur” by lifelong friend Ben Hecht in which he writes, “Most of us grow old without protest. We stop dreaming, we expect less and less. We cut ourselves down to fit our smaller years—and people’s smaller opinions of us. They’ve heard our stories, and there’s no mystery left to us. We’ve become what we were going to be, and there’s nothing more to watch for,” with Hecht going on to say how much his friend who turns up here as a crucial piece of the Dorothy Parker puzzle was never like this. When I first read this passage many years ago I was greatly affected by it, placing myself and some of my own relationships along with what they might become into this prism. Now these words are the sort of thing that haunt me almost daily as I contemplate how certain people have drifted out of my life, how they’ve changed, become something else, how certain women I’ve spent time dreaming of have nevertheless remained on the outskirts of whatever’s happened to me. Wondering what I’ve become.

These are just a few of the things I think about as I watch MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, which unfurls in its own sort of haze, a mistier version of Robert Altman, who produced this one as he often did for Rudolph. Instead of a fast talking rat-a-tat telling of this story I always kind of expect and maybe wish for—kind of an understandable association of Leigh with THE HUDSUCKER PROXY which had come out earlier that year—I think I was somewhat alienated by that lack of a kick, the absence of a real payoff on my first viewing back in ’94. But through the years I’ve found myself returning to it repeatedly, looking forward to once again drifting through this jazzy reverie (certainly aided by Mark Isham’s wistful score) presenting these people, many of them writers, as I study these characters and their interactions in a way that it’s hard not to be fascinated by the lives they lead. And of course, fascinated by the beguiling Dorothy Parker most of all. Yet not only are many of them not particularly likable, falling further and further into drink during the height of prohibition as they seem to desire nothing more than another afternoon of lounging around at the Algonquin, by a certain point they don’t even seem to do very much to warrant their famous reps as denizens of this table, the very first people famous for being famous. It’s the birth of celebrity in the modern age. That misty, boozy feel familiar from much of Rudolph’s work that presents this camaraderie has never seemed quite as appropriate as it does here.

In the script he wrote with Randy Sue Coburn, director Rudolph emphasizes the relationship between Parker and Benchley with some additional focus on what goes on between her and MacArthur in the middle of the film when that famous writer enters the picture as the other legendary figures of the vicious circle are allowed to float through scenes, sometimes barely observed as they move past the camera, some making more of an impression than others. Since the film never clarifies such things maybe someone would have to read up on who a few of these people like Alexander Woolcott were and what they did (as for even more famous ones, even the briefly portrayed Harpo Marx is so fleetingly identified you could easily miss it) but is there really very much wrong with having to do that? The famous Round Table is only partly the focus but the film makes the atmosphere around the legendary Algonquin Hotel much of this is set in feels somehow tangible—you can almost smell what it must be like in that restaurant—as the group seems to be forever moving from there to one of the countless parties thrown by one of them and back again, some of these sequences extremely addictive for me on multiple viewings (that’s me, always loving movies with party scenes). All as the focus is on the forever fascinating Dorothy, bracketed by stylized interstitials as she recites her poems to the camera making all the more clear how much those words make up who she is, how much of her is to be found in them, revealing more than she ever would to anyone otherwise, with the insecurities of herself and her work (PLEASE GOD, LET ME WRITE LIKE A MAN she types to herself early on) that says all we’ll ever understand about her showing through in every phrase--the only poem she ever recites to people in the film proper is the legendary “Résumé” (you know it, it’s the one that starts with, “Razors pain you…”) and it makes sense this one which really does say it all is given such a moment.

Of course there’s all Dorothy's cavorting with fellow Round Table members throughout their parties as well, drinking as much as any of them (one line from someone that floats through, “Best way to avoid a hangover is to stay drunk” is a credo they each seem to live by) and clearly more brilliant as well with her own sly one-liners continuing to fall off her tongue with someone close to her bafflingly observing, “Dottie can’t be suffering and still say all those funny things…” It’s in that self-obsession that the movie zeros in on (“Did they talk about me?” “Of course they talked about you.”) but it also becomes clear how it’s something each of the circle’s members, all very intelligent people, might actually realize they have in common if they ever cared to say something other than trading pithy one-liners at each other. Late in the film David Thornton as legendary playwright George S. Kaufman (I guess the part couldn’t have been played by John Turturro) enters a psychiatrist’s office after Dorothy and the first thing he does is ask if she said anything about him. On the commentary Rudolph reveals that this was actually a callback to a specific moment cut from the film so while it doesn’t specifically refer to anything in actuality the moment encapsulates it all perfectly. I suspect not much has changed. At least not for me.

“I suppose it was colorful,” says Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy of those days when she’s introduced in a black & white sequences set in the Hollywood of the forties at the start, but the flashback narrative doesn’t quite conclude as we’d expect it to, proceeding forward almost to make clear how cruel time can be, how much there is no way to recapture what is past, of relationships that are lost and all the regrets associated with that. It makes sense considering what’s been written in places about the people who were part of this famous circle—playwright Marc Connelly, portrayed here by Matt Malloy, once commented that remembering when the Round Table ended would be like remembering falling asleep. And, for that matter, the one person who seems to end up in a content place when last seen in the narrative is never even really a part of the group—certainly that New Years’ Eve party late in the film where temperatures are rising and someone even asks “Isn’t anybody happy?” gives an impression of where this is all going, even if there is no actual ‘break-up’ to be dramatized. The last moment we see Mathew Broderick’s Charles MacArthur hardly seems like a ‘final scene’, more like a bit of business between actors that Rudolph couldn’t resist using, but it makes sense that he just drifts off to the rest of his own life (marriage to Helen Hayes, actually), one which doesn’t involve Dorothy anymore. I suppose it’s this strong feeling of dissatisfaction, of how I apply that to some of my own regrets, things that haunt me even now long after they stopped mattering, that the film achieves in a way that I rarely ever see. I didn’t need this movie to be fascinated by Dorothy Parker. Or some of the other people portrayed here. Or writing. Or the 20s. Or women. Or the past. Or friendship. Or regrets. But it certainly helps, providing a certain amount of clarity to some of these feelings that continue to swirl through my head, never fully reconciled with my own memories.

It seems silly to toss superlatives onto Jennifer Jason Leigh for her work here, but she simply is Dorothy Parker, right down to her bones and maybe because people have always slightly associated the period affectations connected with this and HUDSUCKER she’s never really gotten the attention for it that she deserves. It may be mannered but mannered seems appropriate and as she becomes Dorothy Parker in front of the camera the cumulative effect of it all becomes mesmerizing, an ideal fusion of a lead performance complimenting what the director is doing. Maybe giving his best performance here, Campbell Scott is possibly even stronger as Robert Benchley, forever insistent on being unflappable, bringing a blithe rhythm to every moment he has and making the little things count more than anything—it’s as if he makes his feelings for Dorothy forever known in the way he drags out the word ‘teeth’ in an early scene between them and the phrasing remains hanging through the air in every scene they play together that follows as he remains unwilling to take things to the next level. Placed up against this pair who seem perfect yet destined to remain apart, Matthew Broderick is almost a touch too modern for the ambience—strangely, looking at photos he has just about the strongest resemblance to the real person as anyone here—but he keeps up his lackadaisical feel and in some ways his different form of behavior seems appropriate considering his outside status.

You can tell that there’s much more of the side characters following each other into their own stories that we never get to see and I wish some of these deleted scenes had been put on the DVD. After all, quite a few of these figures have stories which would make for interesting films on their own and there are maybe too many other actors to list here. Standing out from the crowd (lots of familiar 90s faces) as they make the most of their small moments are Martha Plimpton, Sam Robards, Nick Cassavetes, Rebecca Miller, Chip Zien and Tom McGowan as Alexander Woolcott but also undeservingly unheralded are 80s icons Andrew McCarthy and Jennifer Beals as neglected spouses Eddie Parker and Gertrude Benchley each one doing particularly strong work as people who never figure out how to fit in with the fast-talkers of the Round Table. A pre-fame Gwyneth Paltrow is “Paula Hunt”, a fictional actress who seems to be a composite of various people including Tallulah Bankhead (I suspect the actress plays it as slightly more soulful than how the part was written), Wallace Shawn is Algonquin maitre d’ Horatio Byrd, Robert Benchley’s grandson Peter Benchley is Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield (making this one of his few non-JAWS screen appearances), Cyndi Lauper appears uncredited as a party guest and Leigh’s half-sister Mina Badie has some enjoyably spunky moments as Joanie Gerard, a would-be actress thrilled to meet “a real living writer” in Parker.

Dorothy Parker herself once dismissed any involvement with the group by saying, “The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them.... There was no truth in anything they said.” To its credit, MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE doesn’t quite deny that statement, clearly pointing out many of these people weren’t the major literary figures of the day, let alone the ones who are remembered now. And Alan Rudolph is clearly very much aware of this as well yet the film acknowledges how much some of these figures remain fascinating, just as the film itself is something I continue to remain fascinated by with pleasures that for me are continually worth discovering over and over. I suspect that feeling will only grow over time as some of the feelings of regret that are portrayed become even more palpable for me. “If you want to write, write. Don’t turn forty wishing you had,” Lili Taylor’s Edna Ferber says at one point to Nick Cassavetes’ Robert Sherwood, a phrase which is ringing through my head a great deal at this point in my life but I have my own reasons. Some of the moments in the film will stay with me as I think about some of those Mrs. Parkers that I’ve known myself and will continue to know, as my own past becomes just as misty and I do my very best to remain in the present. I just hope there’s still a chance for all this drifting to possibly lead somewhere.


Unknown said...

Excellent look at this film - probably my fave Jennifer Jason Leigh performance for obvious reasons (neck 'n' neck with GEORGIA) but you can tell this was a very personal project for her as she pours everything she has into the role. Incredible stuff. And, as you so rightly point out, Campbell Scott is right there with her and their chemistry together is fantastic - love to see them do another film together.

And what a cast! A who's who of '90s actors and I love how Rudolph basically allowed them to improv like crazy during the Round Table scenes. These people obviously did their homework as they riff like crazy in character. It just blows my mind every time I see the film.

Paul Matwychuk said...

I've always loved this period of Alan Rudolph's work (THE MODERNS is a big personal favourite, and I'd love to see you write about EQUINOX at some point), and you more than do this film justice in your piece. I particularly admire Rudolph's apparent lack of interest in identifying who all these figures were, and figures that he's not going to sweat it if viewers don't recognize Alexander Woolcott or Franklin Pierce Adams. It's hard to think of another biopic that takes such an invitingly casual approach to introducing its cast of characters.

I'm also very glad to hear that you've found work. Being unemployed is no damn fun at all, and hopefully this period of professional frustration will soon be far behind you.

Mapeel said...

I love this film too, I get drawn in every time I comes across it on cable, and that is fairly often.

Parker had with Benchley that special creative intimacy between talent. She never found that specialness in her love affairs, hence much suffering . . .

So glad to hear you're back on level employment ground.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks to you guys for the terrific comments. Paul, I think you're the first person to even mention EQUINOX in over a decade! I saw it at the time, maybe even on laserdisc, but barely remember anything about it.

Mrs. Peel, it's wonderful to hear from you as well. It's nice to know that you're a fan of this film as well and makes me wish I could meet you at the Algonquin for a long lunch or a drink to discuss it. I thank you very much for the kind thoughts.

Randy Sue said...

Caught up to this rather late, but really enjoyed the depth and perception here. Took me back to the days of working on the screenplay.
Randy Sue Coburn

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Randy Sue--

I've been a little speechless that you commented here and am very gratified that you liked the piece. All my thanks.

Mr. Peel