Making films is like making love,'' says Alan Rudolph. ''You're never sure how the other guy does it.'' What other directors aren't sure of is how he could achieve the luxe look of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, shot in Montreal with a cast of 34, on a near-$7 million budget. Or, in fact, how the film a chatty portrait of New York's 1920s Algonquin Round Table got off the ground in the first place. ''Nobody wanted to make this film,'' Rudolph says. ''We didn't have (full) financing until four weeks into shooting. It's one of those credit-card movies.''
Eventually, he says, Miramax International supplemented Fine Line's $3 million-plus, and the debts were paid including actors' salaries. For the studios, the payoff was the presence of Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose controversially murmurous turn as Dorothy Parker is the love-it-or-hate-it film performance of 1994.
The buzz began with the rough cut screened at last spring's Cannes Film Festival, where some cineasts loved Leigh's blurry, slurry take on Parker but others could barely hear her. Leigh's rendition of Parker's ragged dagger of a voice is the central element of the film ''You gotta hear it!'' says Rudolph. ''It's 'Dorothy Unplugged.''' Leigh says Parker ''had a quiet, tiny, cultured voice. I had a tape loop of her that I played constantly. I mapped every chuckle, stutter, and pause, almost like you'd learn a foreign-language song.'' After Cannes, Leigh rerecorded parts of several scenes in what some have called an elaborate effort to rescue dialogue. Nonsense, she snaps with crystalline diction: ''It took an hour and 10 minutes I've never done less looping on a movie.''
Leigh's obsessive attempt to find Parker's voice paid off in other ways. As cameras rolled, she was able to improvise pain-laden bons mots uncannily like Parker's: When a meowing cat threatened to ruin a take, Leigh purred sympathetically, ''Yes, me...ow!, too,'' picked up the kitty, and saved the scene. ''Go ahead, beat it, show me a better performance!'' says Rudolph. ''If she doesn't get an Oscar, then it's just politics.''
Leigh is off to star in Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne, in which she again plays a magazine writer, while Rudolph reportedly will direct Bruce Willis in Elmore Leonard's Bandits. But we may not have seen the last of their collaboration. ''Hopefully,'' says Leigh, ''Alan will do a laserdisc version.'' Says Rudolph, ''The real version would be four hours long.''