In Brian Gilbert’s Wilde (1997), we discover the early nature of Oscar Wilde’s fame (played by Stephen Fry) from a conversation between the characters of Ada Leverson (Zoe Wanamaker) and Lady Mount-Temple (Judy Parfitt):
Lady Mount-Temple: I know your friend is famous, Ada.
Ada Leverson: Notorious, at least.
Lady Mount-Temple: But I don’t understand for what.
Ada Leverson: For being himself, Lady Mount-Temple.
In Alan Randolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), this type of fame is said to be true of Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as well. The repetition of this notion (in these and other films) suggests that writers have a larger-than-life personality and high social profile in addition to the work they produce. While we know this to be untrue, particularly since writers lead much of their lives behind a desk writing about subjects other than themselves, only those eccentric, dramatic and often tragic figures lead lives worthy of having films made about them. Unless we look beyond the film portrayals, what an audience is left with is the notion that all authors must experience adventurous escapades to craft good work.
What Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle does differently is poke fun at the stereotypical valorization of the writer’s life at the same time that it partakes in the act. By creating a story about those literary figures that began at Vanity Fair and who eventually created The New Yorker, they are obviously held in high historical regard, certainly notorious enough to spend?many thousands of dollars on production costs. While the film reinforces valorization in this way, the script itself is where the mockery of this process exists.
What does fame mean as compared with the value of the writing? Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), Parker’s co-hort in the Vicious Circle, says in jest:
It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.
This suggests, at least according to this writer’s character, that when fame supersedes the work, the work can no longer fail. In fact, the work must continue in order to sustain the fame, but the work’s value mustn’t necessarily be of equal import. Interestingly, this character’s quote stems from Benchley’s real life and is incorporated into the film. Benchley truly pokes fun of his work in this way.
Parker’s character also pokes fun at the perceived writing life. While the character is described within the film as a “trainwreck” who “knows how to suffer,” she is called out by MacArthur for writing “fluff.” The description of Parker’s life is the polar opposite of what she writes. At a social gathering, Parker is asked to recite one of her “little things,” a trifle of a poem to entertain. In response, Parker demonstrates that although she may write ”little things,” these little things are no real reflection of the life she leads. Here she pulls out “Resume”, a poem prompted by her suicide attempt in which living wins out but only because the process of killing oneself is a nuisance:
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.
Later she tells her psychologist that she only writes “doodads” because New York is “a doodad kind of town,” illustrating that perceptions are simply that. Her life is not light fluff. This same psychologist tells Parker that her writer’s block comes from the booze. Trashing the stereotype of booze as muse, he says that she is absent from living life and without seeing it, she can’t write about it.
Overall, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is more a character study than dramatic device. Living “out loud” does not mean living an eventful life according to this depiction. Depression might be Parker’s muse but the events that depress her offer no real turning point in the plot. She just sinks deeper and deeper, the end. While this may read as a detraction from the film’s success, I find the departure from the traditional equation of life and work, glorification of alternate mental states and expected narrative form a refreshing twist from most other films about writers.