• Golden Globe Awards

Jennifer Jason Leigh on Dorothy Parker, 1994 – Out of the Archives

Jennifer Jason Leigh – now part of the ensemble cast of Sharp Stick (2022) written and directed by Lena Dunham – received the first of two Golden Globe nominations for her portrayal of Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle directed by Alan Rudolph. She spoke to the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press in 1994 about the brilliant writer famous for her collection of poems, short stories, and articles for magazines like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table.
The actress admired the writer, so it was a great pleasure for Jennifer Jason Leigh to do research in order to play Dorothy Parker in the movie: “Dorothy Parker had always been a hero of mine as a teenager, so for me to play her was like a dream and I did a lot of research. I read everything she had ever written and everything that had ever been written about her, as well as interviews that she had given to journalists; then I heard two audio recordings of her voice, which were enormously helpful to me. There isn’t really any film footage of her, but there are lots of photographs. I had three months to prepare, which was luxurious from what I’m used to, and I loved playing her. It was so much fun shooting the movie surrounded by all those actors, we had the time of our lives, I’ve never laughed so hard while working or not working. It was a really brilliant, funny, silly group and it was a lovely shoot. It was such a wonderful experience to get up every morning and play this woman who spoke these brilliant words and had this incredibly painful yet wonderfully full life.”
Parker was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table with Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott) and Robert Sherwood (Nick Cassavetes), the group of writers that regularly met for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan from 1919 to 1929: “They were incredibly witty, and they lunched at the Algonquin every day. Not only would they have lunch together, then they’d go out together, go to a play together, go to dinner together, go to a speakeasy together.  They loved being amongst one another so much and they couldn’t bear to be alone, because that meant to face the typewriter, and face their own inadequacies, so they wanted to avoid that at all costs. And for Dorothy Parker, it was much nicer to be in that group than to be at home alone.”
Leigh had some guesses as to why Parker was unhappy, suffered from depression, and attempted suicide more than once: “Her mother died when she was not even five years old and, based on everything I’ve read, she always felt responsible for it, because her mother was 42 when she was born, so she came very late in her mother’s life. Then her stepmother, whom she couldn’t bear, died two years after the marriage, so she had two deaths by the time she was nine years old. There were a lot of deaths for a child, so that gave her a preoccupation with death and a romantic illusion about death. Living was hard for her; the simplicities of everyday life were foreign to her. She couldn’t even fathom how to cook eggs or fry bacon, she’d take off dirty underwear and put it back with the clean underwear, she threw away a typewriter rather than change the ribbon because she couldn’t figure out how to do that. She loved her dogs more than anything, they were like her babies. She would take them to speakeasies and everywhere with her, but she never toilet trained the dogs. She always had dogs, even when she was a young child, so that was family to her, something familiar, warm, and good.”
Parker was an alcoholic, but Leigh did not believe she ever wanted to quit drinking: “She tried a Twelve Step Program once and she said after attending the meeting, ‘it was wonderful, but they want me to stop drinking now.’ She liked drinking, it softened the world for her because she saw things too clearly. There are people who don’t thrive on stability but thrive on chaos, everybody’s very different. She wasn’t afraid of pain, she went into it headfirst, she didn’t deny it, she embraced it, and she cried at the drop of a hat. She was a really heavy drinker and yet she outlived all her friends, which is kind of a miracle. She did want to kill herself and she tried four times, which is quite a lot, but she was a great writer.”
It was her writing and her wit that gave Parker the strength to survive: “It’s true that she was a survivor. Part of it was that she could write so clearly about the struggle of survival and her attempts to end her life and that she always had her work and her wit. People who have an incredible sense of humor sometimes can go through hell and laugh about it. She’s a remarkable writer and if you read her stories now, they’re just wonderful. They’re not confined to the ’20s. There isn’t a woman alive who can’t relate to them in a very personal and strong way.”
It was challenging for the actress to play the famous writer: “There was something that was obviously inspiring, heroic and courageous about her, but what was a challenge for me was to be inside a woman’s mind who was so brilliant but could not control the chaos that was her everyday life, and yet she could write so searingly, so beautifully and sparingly. I mean, her sentences are so tight and economical that they pierce you, so I was trying to be as true to her as possible. You can feel this enormous obligation when you’re playing someone that’s a hero of yours, so you want to be as honest as you can be and do as good a job as you can.”
It was helpful to Jennifer Jason Leigh that her own mother, Barbara Turner, was a writer: “My mother and I are incredibly close and always have been. She’s a writer, so I’m very lucky that she actually helped me a lot with Dorothy Parker. It was great to grow up watching that, then to play a writer and be able to talk to her about her process. I was really fortunate growing up in that my mother always worked, so I always saw women as equals and I was never told it was anything other than that, that all human beings worked to clothe and house their family and for the love of what they did. My mother always felt it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you have a real passion for it. As for Dorothy Parker, she always said, ‘I worked because I had to. Nobody likes to work, but, by God, you do it.’”
Her father Vic Morrow being an actor and her mother a screenwriter, working in Hollywood movies seemed normal to the young actress: “I guess that was certainly some help, in that I grew up in Hollywood, so it was never a foreign, exotic, beautiful, faraway place for me. It was where my parents worked and where I went to school, it was my hometown, so I didn’t have any illusions about Hollywood. My parents went to work and worked very long, hard hours, they came home grimy and tired, but both loved what they did very much. So in that way, I understood movie-making from an inside perspective.”
The actress commented on how the 1920s in America were a period of increased freedom for women: “It was a very freeing time for women, an obvious example is that women had just gotten the vote in 1920, but an interesting one is that women stopped wearing girdles in the twenties, and that’s a nice way of seeing the freedom, it’s kind of an analogy for what was happening inside as well, politically and career-wise. For Dorothy Parker, she was surrounded by men, they were her peers, and she was one of them, as smart and as fast, she could outdrink, outsex, outtalk all of them. America was very young then and there was a tremendous amount of hope. There was no TV, but there was the art of conversation, which is a lost art now, and a real problem today is that a lot of people don’t read nearly as much as they used to, but you always hope that that will change, of course.”