Shade Grown Hollywood: Dorothy Parker on the Modern Movie Heroine

ColumnWhere celebrity becomes conscious.

Before her death in 1967, Dorothy Parker had perfected the art of satire. With her wit and wisecracks, this poet-turned-screenwriter cut into the heart of modern day foibles – and then she served it up with a nice scotch. Born in 1893, she sold her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914 and grabbed her first desk job at Vogue. A few years later, she’s shared the Algonquin Round and had developed a national reputation for satire.

And then, in the 1930s, Parker moved to Hollywood and became a screenwriter. She made her mark with films such as A Star Is Born (1937), The Little Foxes (1941), and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Saboteur (1942). Here, she brought to life strong, smart, and even sinister women of the screen embodied in the likes of Bette Davis. You did not mess with Dorothy Parker’s heroines, lest you end up crumbled on the staircase, reaching for you medication while she stood watching you die. Parker’s screen heroines were, at times, Badassus Extremis women. One would think they would have set the stage for Hollywood’s Modern Career Woman, a pinnacle of strength and conviction and an easy seductress when it suits her own terms.


Yeah, not so much. Flash forward several decades and the likes of Katherine Heigl, Kate Hudson, and Jennifer Aniston reign as Rom Com Queens over a landscape of neurotic relationships and quests for bridal glory. Career women are cold and prudish, begging to be undone by an obnoxious playboy who has to help Ms. Icy Pants loosen up just a little to find love. With him, of course.

And so, we ask: What Would Dorothy Parker Do? What would the famed wittiest witch of the west have to say about the whining, preening, marriage-obsessed screen heroines dotting the early twenty-first century landscape? Naturally, we had to find out. Putting the space-time continuum aside for a moment (there’s nothing we won’t do for you), we asked Ms. Parker to share her thoughts on the modern movie heroine.

Preparing my feature for Ecosalon, I interviewed the legendary Ms. Parker over scotch at the Biltmore in downtown Los Angeles. Lighting up one of her signature Chesterfield cigarettes, she gazed in contempt at the waiter who asked her to stub it out. “A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika,” she intoned, and the server left us alone. She talked about her take on twenty-first century Hollywood and the time the FBI compiled a 1,000 page dossier to get her blacklisted for Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era.

What do you think of the modern screen heroine?
She’s a lady with all the poise of the Sphinx but little of her mystery. I’d call her Dumb Dora, a skirt looking for a Sugar Daddy to make things nice. Take the characters played by this Jennifer Aniston doll and mush her into one big choice bit of woman. I’d like to take this woman out, get her properly ossified on some good scotch, and make her vow she’ll never do another sad-sack thing as long as she lives. That Aniston seems like a swell girl, got gams up to here. I don’t know why she doesn’t take a stand and stop acting like such a dowd. He’s Just Not That Into You? How about he’s not worth your time. Love Happens? Not when you’re mealy-mouthed. Face it, sister. The cure for boredom is curiosity, and there’s no cure for curiosity. The modern film heroine needs to smarten up and take charge of her own destiny.

But you’ve also mentioned that “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” So doesn’t that enforce the role of the modern screen heroine in that a girl’s gotta play dumb to get her man?
(At this question, Miss Parker blew a steam of Chesterfield smoke straight at me, stubbing out her cigarette in my saucer.) I also said that brevity is the soul of lingerie, darling. A gal can play any game she wants to catch a fellow, but in the end she’s just going to end up with her marbles and jacks spilled all over the floor. She needs to smarten up nicely and put herself before any boy. Happiness doesn’t come from a trip down the aisle. It comes from burning up the aisle and sitting out the flames with a good martini.

So how does a modern woman balance work and love on film?
Ha! Love. See this manacle on my finger? (She points to her wedding ring.) I was married three times, twice to the same lollygagger who was just after my money. We need tough cookies who put themselves first. So what if some man wants to get his wiggle on with her? She can have her nookie, a career, and her man.

Do you think your flouting of society’s conventions contributed to the FBI-compiled 1,000 page dossier in the 1950s? After all, you were blacklisted for Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era.
Probably, darling. Joe McCarthy just didn’t like any woman who could hold her liquor better than he.

Are there any women in Hollywood today you can get behind?
(“Butt me,” she said, and I held out a lighter for her next cigarette and our waiter winced. Ms. Parker thoughtfully brought her Chesterfield to her lips.) That Cate Blanchette, she’s the cat’s pajamas, the real McCoy. I just saw her in Hanna, she reminded me of that scorcher Bette Davis in The Little Foxes. A real bright-eyed murderess with a plan.

What’s the solution for the modern women of the screen?
Look here, doll, this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly, but thrown with great force. Take no prisoners, I say. Ban Kate Hudson from ever playing another broad. The world didn’t need a Streisand remake of A Star is Born and it doesn’t need a Bride Wars 2. Let that brass Heigl girl have a say in her characters – she’s not afraid to speak up off-screen, so why do her girls on film seem too quick to cut out for a gigolo? And for the love of Jeepers Creepers, give us a dame who sees past a wedding gown as a happy ending.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go see a man about a dog. (And at that, Miss Parker snapped two fingers at the waiter, who quickly hurried over to empty her ash tray and refill her glass with scotch.)

*Answers guided by Dorothy Parker’s long list of enviable quotations.

This is another installment in Katherine Butler’s column, Shade Grown Hollywood, where celebrity becomes conscious. “Shade grown” refers literally to shade grown coffee, a farming method that “incorporates principles of natural ecology to promote natural ecological relationships.” Shade grown is our sustainable twist on Hollywood.

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.