Saturday, January 24, 2009

A movie: "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle"

I'm just mulling over this movie which I watched last night and must watch again soon. I stumbled on the DVD in the sale bin at Borders the other night, but I had to check a couple of reviews before purchasing. They wavered over how good the movie was but were enthusiastic about some of the character portrayals. They also implied that I should take an anti-depressant before viewing. I had a beer instead. What the hell? Most of the characters in the movie were drinking, and a lot, too.

The movie was released in 1994, directed by Alan Rudolph. Watching it was like a crash course in American culture and society of the early 20th century. Mrs. Parker is poet, author and heavy drinker with suicidal tendencies, Dorothy S. Parker. The supporting cast can be summed up as her fellow artists who formed an informal dinner and discussion group that came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table, which took place at New York's Algonquin Hotel in the 1920's. Not all of these artists are fully fleshed out in the movie -- there are too many! -- and they become a circus of wits in the background. The reviews I checked rightly praised Campbell Scott as Robert Benchley and Matthew Broderick as Charles MacArthur, who we do get to know better. (I also liked the portrayal of Alexander Woollcott, a large person in every sense, played by Tom McGowan.)

As the movie progressed, I recognized names I had seen in Jon Winokur's Curmudgeon books, which include curmudgeoness Parker. Reading the essay on Benchley in "The Big Curmudgeon" this morning explained a lot of other things going on in the movie -- note Campbell Scott's rendition of Benchley's comic monologue, "The Treasurer's Report". Harpo Marx is also hanging around at the Round Table's parties in other locations. Other luminaries' names come up here and there, and at one point Parker asks at a party, "Who's that sitting with Deems Taylor?" Yes, apparently composer and music critic Taylor was part of this circle.

The movie plays a clever trick by having some sequences in black and white and some in color. A comment is intended, with a clue given by Parker near the beginning. I don't want to give the game away, but some of the black and white scenes are of Parker reciting her poetry to the camera. This seems a better introduction to her poetry than reading it for the first time in a book. Reviews describe actress Jennifer Jason Leigh's portrayal of Parker as eccentric, a bit hard to take for the full length of the movie, but I assume that Leigh is basing her interpretation on what was known about Parker. I didn't find it hard to take, and the poem recital scenes are very engaging.

Later in life, Parker was in one of those celebrity marriages in which the husband was gay, and the fact was acknowledged by the wife. We get to see some of husband Alan Campbell in the movie, but it's a very small sub-plot. [CORRECTION: I seem to be mistaken here, but it's what I gleaned from watching the movie. Other sources, including a documentary in the DVD's extra features, indicate that Dorothy and Alan did not get along, and Dorothy made insinuations.]

Campbell Scott is a fascinating actor, one I don't recognize right away as I see each of his movies, so varied is his work. He's Robert Benchley here. He is also not to be missed in "Big Night" and "The Impostors". I will be watching out for more movies featuring Scott in the cast. I'll also be doing a little more reading before I watch "Mrs. Parker" again.

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