Small-screen Lives

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When Sunrise at Campobello , Dore Schary’s play about the crippling of Franklin D. Roosevelt, opened on Broadway, Eleanor Roosevelt and two close friends were in the audience as his guests. It is a heroic double portrait in which Mrs. Roosevelt is unfailingly patient and FDR is barely permitted an unhappy thought, let alone a discouraging word. After the curtain fell, the President’s widow went backstage, where, gracious as always, she thanked the playwright and praised the whole cast, especially Ralph Bellamy, whose bravura impersonation of her husband had genuinely impressed her. But as she and her friends rode home afterward in their taxi, she admitted the play itself had had about as much to do with her and her family “as the man in the moon.”

Until very recently most portrayals of historic personages on stage and screen have been more or less like those Mrs. Roosevelt found so disconcertingly unfamiliar: uniformly virtuous icons who, like Raymond Massey’s sepulchral Lincoln, or—as with George C. Scott’s Patton and even Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi—had their authentic flaws somehow transformed into lovable quirks through the actor’s alchemy.

Things have changed. As three interesting recent movies suggest—all of them now likely to be available for rent at your video store—at least some of today’s historical filmmakers prefer to focus on their subject’s flaws and not their strengths.

In Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), the director Alan Rudolph manages to bring to surprisingly vivid life the circumscribed world of Dorothy Parker and her friends and fellow diners at the Algonquin Round Table. The characters in this screenplay are almost all well-known—or once well-known—literary personalities: Marc Connell, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Charles MacArthur, Harold Ross, Robert Sherwood, Alexander Woollcott, and more—and in less sure hands the whole film could have merely become an exercise in name-dropping and caricature. Instead, I had a sense when the cast seated itself and began to chatter that I was somehow listening in on the real thing.

To lunch daily with this egomaniacal crew, as Parker did, must have been something like being a permanent guest on a TV talk show, expected always to come up with a gag while remembering never to say anything too substantive for fear of slowing the frantic pace. As the film’s protagonist, Jennifer Jason Leigh gets to recite some of Parker’s sly, bleak verse and to toss off some of her best one-liners in a strange, slurred, world-weary manner that somehow seems just right: “A girl can get splinters sliding down a barrister” isn’t a bad line; neither is “one more drink and I’ll be under the host.” But the film also shows how inane most of what passed for repartee at the Algonquin really was: If someone happened to end a sentence with “a Jew,” someone else could be counted on to say Gesundheit .

Beneath the brittle laughter Parker is seen as a self-loathing alcoholic, too frightened of failure actually to try writing the serious fiction to which she aspires, and unable to resist falling in love with men she can never attain—most notably the humorist and sometime actor Robert Benchley (played beautifully by Campbell Scott) who appears happily married when she first gets to know him but later kills himself with drink. Looking back from the grim vantage point of the late 1930s, the on-screen Parker concludes that for all the desperate fun they told each other they were having back in the twenties, she and her New York friends had really been just “a bunch of loudmouths, showing off.” On the evidence offered in this dispiriting but strangely moving little film, Parker seems to have got that about right.

As Hollywood history films go, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is a relatively small-scale effort. Jefferson in Paris was a big-budget disaster. But precisely why it went so wrong remains a puzzle. The filmmakers—producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala—are responsible for a slew of fine films, after all, including Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day , each a masterpiece of period drama. Furthermore, everything about the look and feel of Jefferson in Paris seems right: the bright-blue hot-air balloon that rises eerily above Versailles, the gleaming carriages flourishing across cobbled courtyards, the royal fox hunt in the heart of the impossibly green forest that is interrupted by the unhappy news that the French Revolution has begun.

Nick Nolte’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson is a big part of the problem. Despite his shyness and his carefully chosen plain dress, the authentic Jefferson was handsome, charming, and courtly, a Virginia gentleman who enjoyed the company of women. This Jefferson is merely handsome; he seems woefully out of his depth in Paris salons, so doggedly earnest and so slow-talking that when the elegant Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi) falls in love with him, this viewer, at least, could not imagine why.