Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jennifer Jason Leigh and the Friends of Dorothy

Oscar time arrived quite recently and once again people chose to gripe about Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, a film much hated by would-be intellectuals due to its “anti-intellectual” subtext. To be fair, this film is hardly the most complex movie out there and the fact that so many of its smartest and possibly most self-aware individuals end up quite miserable would seem to indicate that the movie itself has an anti-intellectual message.

Yet one could find miserable smart people in many movies, including movies that are allegedly aimed at smart people. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, for example, makes no bones about being aimed at smart people. (It's certainly not aimed at the type of people who prefer films like Forrest Gump.) And yet one would hardly argue that it makes an argument against the misery of smart people. Indeed, the movie would appear to argue that especially smart and witty people tend to have a special talent for making themselves especially miserable.

The main character of the movie is writer Dorothy Parker (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman who herself had little time for sentiments like “life is like a box of chocolates.” Indeed, Dorothy Parker was very much an anti-sentimentalist. And yet she spends most of the first half of the movie “falling in love” with inappropriate sex partners--one of which is ironically her ex-husband, the man who gave her the title of “Mrs. Parker” -- whose chief attributes seem to lay in the fact that they're good-looking. To be fair, she does fall in love with newspaperman/writer Charles MacArthur (played by Matthew Broderick) who is also witty as well as handsome. And yet ironically the chief love of her life -- at least as far as the movie is concerned -- is the not-so-handsome-but-not-quite-that-unattractive Robert Benchley (played by Campbell Scott), a writer who pretty much remains Parker's kindred spirit for most of the movie. Not only is Benchley one of the few men in the movie with whom Parker does not have sex -- primarily because he is married -- but he remains one of the few men who supports Parker when almost every other man in the movie breaks her heart.

And yet alas, he dies off-screen from cirrhosis of the liver halfway through the movie, a fate quite ironic given that Parker drinks about as much -- if not more -- than Benchley. Indeed, Parker outlives almost all of her contemporaries, including those acquaintances who were part of the literary group known as the Algonquin Round Table (the “vicious circle” of the title). And yet survival alone does not make her happy. Indeed, despite all her wit and humor, she seems quite miserable during the last half of the movie -- very much the example of a smart, self-aware woman whose own intelligence and self-awareness are not enough to save her from unhappiness.

I doubt that we were meant to watch this movie and come to the conclusion that intelligence and self-awareness are bad things. And yet few would argue that such qualities prevent people like Dorothy Parker from making the same mistakes over and over again. If anything, intelligence often makes people more adept at finding excuses for their own misbehavior. One would think, for example, that a smart person like Robert Benchley would realize that excessive drinking could very well send him to an early grave. And yet a smart person would also rationalize the risk of excessive drinking, preferring to settle for short-term happiness in a bottle than a long-term life of sobriety.

This doesn't mean that dumb people avoid misery more than smart people. Just that smart people aren't as immune to the sorrows of the human condition as they would like to think they are. As the old song goes, what a fool believes, a wise man has the power to reason away. Even if such reasoning costs that wise man his life.

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Blogger Campaspe said...

What I always found so interesting about Parker was the persistence of suicide as a theme in her work ... and yet, as you say, she outlived everyone.

The observation that intelligent people are better at rationalizations is spot-on. And alcoholic writers are the reigning monarchs in that category, I think.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Thank you for your comments, Campaspe.

Yes, suicide is a persistent theme in Dorothy Parker's work. In fact, it was the subject of the first poem I ever read by her, the oft-anthologized "Resume."

I may have to explore this subject in a future post.

5:42 PM  

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