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The lost art of talking is splendidly revisited

CANNES, France -- The table has long since been cleared for the last time, and the wits who surrounded it rest in their graves, but the idea of the Algonquin Round Table lives on. For a decade, from the 1920s through the 1930s, the brightest and the funniest writers in New York gathered every day for lunch around a huge round table at the Algonquin Hotel, and then they went back to their typewriters and made each other famous by quoting what they said there.

Today the names may not be famous any longer. A remarkable new movie, "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," celebrates the wits of the Round Table, but how many people in the audience will have heard of them? I know who Heywood Broun, Alexander Woolcott, George S. Kaufman, "F.P.A" and Harold Ross were, because that's my job.

Robert Benchley was the most famous humorist of his time, author of best-sellers, the star of a series of Hollywood short subjects. Do people under 40 know his name? And what about Dorothy Parker, the wittiest person at the table, the only woman in a closed circle of men? They still teach her short story "Big Blonde" in English classes, but do undergraduates still quote "Candy is dandy,/But liquor is quicker"?

And do people still practice what was once called the Art of Conversation--consciously trying to sound smart, witty, informed? One-upping one another? I have a vision of the republic as a nation of glassy-eyed TV watchers, their senses of humor hammered into oblivion by the stupidities of sitcoms. Does an audience still exist that can listen fast enough to appreciate the dance of words around the Algonquin table?

I hope so. Seeing "Mrs. Parker and Her Vicious Circle" at its world premiere, here at the Cannes Film Festival, was an awakening experience because it brought words to the front of the screen: You had to listen as intently as you watched. And at the center of the circle, her cynicism a barrier against the terror of silence, was Dorothy Parker.

Alan Rudolph's movie is, oddly enough, a love story, of the devotion that endured for years between Parker and Robert Benchley, who were married to various other people, who had many affairs, but who never slept with one another--because that would have spoiled the one perfect thing in their flawed and destructive lives.

The characters are played in the film by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Campbell Scott, in performances that are being mentioned as possible festival prize-winners. Although no people could be less alike, they reminded me somehow of the characters of C. S. Lewis and his American wife in "Shadowlands"--because there, too, was a meeting of the spirits that did not depend on the physical level of a relationship.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has played many characters in her career: A high school beauty queen in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," a tragic prostitute in "Last Exit to Brooklyn," a criminal's girl friend in "Miami Blues," a housewife who works in the phone sex business in "Short Cuts." Dorothy Parker is her best work so far, as a small, dark, intense, very bright, very lonely woman who used words to keep the world at bay, and alcohol to speed the passage.

The movie begins in the early 1920s, with Parker, Benchley and others on strike against their low wages at Vanity Fair. It follows them through the birth of the New Yorker, where Parker was the drama critic, and then to Hollywood, where Benchley became a movie and radio star, and Parker was a screenwriter whose credits included the first "A Star in Born." Then Benchley dies of liver failure in New York (the movie provides the unforgettable verbal report of a friend "racing around the Stork Club trying to find blood donors"), and Parker, still famous, descends by slow stages to death by alcoholism.

"My mother helped me prepare for the role," Leigh told me one afternoon here at Cannes. "We'd go every night and sit in bars. I'd drink port and she'd drink wine and we would read Parker's poems to one another. I did all the research--any member of the cast of this movie could write a doctorate on the Round Table--but finally I just had to sort of leap into Dorothy Parker's skin. For me, the key was that she was incredibly myopic. But she never wore her glasses. And I think her near-sightedness did the same thing for her as the alcohol. It softened the edges of the world that she saw so painfully. She sipped whiskey all day long. Her line was that she was 'Seldom drunk but rarely sober'."

She comes across as so brave in her sadness, I said.

"She loved to cry. She'd see a horse pulling a cart in the street, and start crying. She said, 'Three drinks and I become St. Francis of Assisi.' She could annihilate someone with a single sentence, but the first feeling everybody had about Dorothy Parker was that they needed to take care of her. This gentle soul."

Benchley was another gentle soul. "He was her rock. Her catcher in the rye. She could call him at 4 a.m. and he would take the next train to be with her. Everybody needs a Benchley. If they'd ever made love, perhaps that wouldn't have been the case anymore. They were keeping something scared. He really was her soul mate. She referred to him as a saint. No one didn't love Benchley.

"But they drifted apart after they went to Hollywood. She got very political, and he didn't. And she never forgave him for one night when she was trying to get him to take a stand on something, and he said, 'Don't bat those ingenue eyes at me; you're not an ingenue any more'."

There is a scene in the movie where Benchley visits Parker in the hospital after a suicide attempt. "Rudolph set the scene up and just let the camera roll," Leigh remembered, "and we did it, Campbell and I, and after the take we looked at one another and said, 'were we acting?' Rudolph created an environment, boundaryless, blurring the lines, until it was almost like living this person's life."

Toward the end of the film's New York scenes, Parker goes to a psychiatrist, who questions the need of the Algonquin circle to remain always in one another's company. They'd meet for lunch, then to go a salon, then to the theater, then to dinner, then to a speakeasy. Never alone. When Benchley and Parker vowed to get serious about their writing, they rented a private office--together. The psychiatrist questions their unwillingness to ever leave their charmed circle.

"It was so painful for her to write," Leigh said. "For all of them. She said it was the loneliest life there is, to be a writer. With a painter, you had the world. With an actor, you were surrounded with people. But with a writer, it was just you and your paper. You were always faced with your inadequacies. Dorothy said, 'I write five words and erase seven.' It took her six months to write a short story.

"When amongst her friends, she didn't have to encounter herself. She was reflected through their eyes as a person who was alive and could make everyone laugh. So she didn't want to face that room and that typewriter--that 'dreadful machine' she called it--and she actually threw away a typewriter once, because couldn't figure out how to change the ribbon."

The usual Hollywood biopic arranges the facts of the life in a grid supplied by the countless cliches of earlier filmed biographies. They plant clues in act one they pay off at the end. They "explain" everything. What I appreciated about "Mrs. Parker" was that it explains nothing. It simply observes with sympathy, as a lonely woman with a verbal gift drinks away her happiness while making others laugh.

The performance by Leigh doesn't analyze or explain, or underline points so we won't miss them. It simply exists: The best kind of acting. At the end of the film you still may not know who Broun or Woolcott or F.P.A. or the others were, but you might be curious to find out. (The place to start would be "The Portable Dorothy Parker," still in print after 40 years.) What you will understand, just from the film, is how words connect with feelings, even when they don't seem to, and how Dorothy Parker's gift kept her going long after the booze and the depression should have killed her. Later, thinking back over the film, you realize that she got most of her biggest laughs, not for being funny, but simply for telling the truth.

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