Let’s discuss, for a moment, the art of movie acting. And let’s do so by posing a simple question.
Which of the following is more worthy of praise: a performance that fits smoothly into a film’s overall cinematic landscape (even if that landscape is pedestrian to a fault), or a performance that stakes out a position regardless of the landscape and holds to it without flinching?
To make the choice more immediate, let’s use two examples from 1994. Who deserved more to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, Winona Ryder for “Little Women” or Jennifer Jason Leigh for “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle”?
As “Mrs. Parker” is finally opening (tonight) in Spokane, you can now judge for yourself. And upon seeing it, this much should be clear: If you prefer challenge over safety, then the answer to the above question should be Leigh. In a walk.
Sure, her bravura performance as Dorothy Parker in Alan Rudolph’s new film may have more in common with Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest” than, say, Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.” But at least Leigh’s work resonates. Her lock-jaw impersonation of Parker’s manner of speech attracted an inordinate amount of criticism, but it can’t change the fact that she managed to pull off one of 1994’s most riveting performances.
And yet Oscar didn’t come calling. Leigh’s efforts rated not even a nomination. And Ryder’s, which came in a role that is merely one of an ensemble, did.
What is wrong with this picture?
This is not to say that “Mrs. Parker” as a whole is without criticism. It is, in main, a curious look at one of the curious literary gaggles in 20th-century American letters, the Algonquin Hotel round table. It purports to tell the story of that band of bon-vivant wits - boasting such characters as Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Robert Sherwood, Alexander Woolcott, Edna Ferber, Charles MacArthur and Marc Connelly - who symbolized the New York literary scene throughout the 1920s on into the ‘40s.
But does Rudolph tell the story with any real degree of truth? In Rudolph’s view, these people spent most of their time boozing it up or bedding each other down, entertaining themselves with jibes and cute insults that - with each of them working as the group’s Boswell - remain imbedded in the pages of history.
Example: When someone announced to Parker that dour Calvin Coolidge had died, she blithely asked, “How could they tell?”
Example: Of Katharine Hepburn’s acting, Parker wrote, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
Example: During one notable party, Parker remarked, “One more drink and I’ll be under the host.”
So, OK, Rudolph isn’t exactly exaggerating. These folks, caught in the party atmosphere of Prohibition, did consume ample amounts of alcohol. But that is hardly all they did.
Connelly, Kaufman, Ferber and Sherwood all found time to write Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and novels (Sherwood alone won four of the writing awards). Woolcott was a noted critic, Benchley became a film celebrity and Parker wrote poetry, short stories and criticism (as well as the Oscar-nominated script for “A Star is Born”) that, collected in one volume, is still in print.
Yet where is any of this in Rudolph’s film? Hardly anywhere at all. Rudolph merely proceeds from one liquored location to another.
Interestingly enough, in some ways “Mrs. Parker” represents Rudolph at his most mature. Intercutting color sequences of Parker’s early life with black-and-white flashbacks (which are really fast-forwards as they represent her booze-soaked latter years), he makes the scenes ring with Roaring-‘20s authenticity.
At the film’s heart is the platonic friendship that Parker enjoyed with Benchley, whose quick wit and talent for deprecation (self and otherwise) matched her own. The film follows the two as they graduate from Vanity Fair to the fledgling New Yorker and finally to Hollywood, graveyard of great and near-great writers.
But here, too, is a problem. We know that Benchley and Parker were just friends, but we never really know why. And while Rudolph asks the obvious question at least twice, he never provides an answer. His film, consequently, resembles one of those little Russian doll-within-dolls that has only a hollow space at its core.
As Benchley, though, Campbell Scott delivers a performance that demonstrates what has been until now only suspect: that in addition to having one of the most engaging smiles in Hollywood, he has talent to spare.
And, of course, there is always Leigh to look at and listen to. Especially when she delivers lines such as:
“Guns aren’t lawful,
“Gas smells awful,
“You might as well live.”
If only Rudolph had written a script to match Leigh’s acting and Parker’s caustic commentaries.
Now that’s a combination even the Academy couldn’t ignore.
xxxx “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” ** 1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Cast: Directed and co-written by Alan Rudolph, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Campbell Scott, Matthew Broderick, Andrew McCarthy, Peter Gallagher, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Beals. Running time: 124 minutes Rating: R Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle:” Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald: “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” is at its most vibrant when the cameras settle on the table at the Algonquin, where this literary brat pack routinely gathered to drink, smoke, drink, gossip, drink and exchange bon mots like, “I think far too much of a stretch is made of the word ‘artist,’ because I don’t think the word is all that elastic.” Janet Maslin/New York Times: This film is trenchant enough to capture both the Mrs. Parker who gazed contemptuously at Mrs. Benchley (Jennifer Beals), dismissing her as a homebody, and the one who longed for romantic and domestic satisfactions she denied herself. Drinking, wisecracking and lavishing love on her dogs became the only ways out.”