The Cat's Meow
Starring: Edward Herrmann, Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley

Peter Bogdanovich

Writing credits: Steven Peros
Distributor: Lion's Gate Films * 112 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of violence and brief nudity
  (USA 2002)

They just don't make Hollywood scandals like they used to. Time was when a good Hollywood scandal had not just sex, but illicit hooch, mystique, money, great music, and fabulous clothes. Today, Hollywood scandals feature the dregs of the industry; the hangers-on, the has-beens and the never-wases. But at one time, the scandals featured the cream of Hollywood society. Director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in 1922; a crime never solved, but one which sparked years of speculation, rumormongering, and tawdry stories of affairs with both starlet Mary Miles Minter AND her mother. Roscoe Arbuckle, the most famous comic actor of his day, saw his career destroyed when he was charged and prosecuted three times, all unsuccessfully, for the murder of starlet Virginia Rappe at a wild, liquor-fueled party. Although he was never convicted, his career was ruined.

Ironically, much of the near-hysterical press coverage of the Arbuckle case was fueled by the Hearst newspapers -- the media empire headed by mogul William Randolph Hearst, who according to some accounts, zeroed in on the Arbuckle case to distract attention from the fact that he himself, a married man, had recently moved his mistress, an actress half his age named Marion Davies, into his pleasure palace San Simeon.

Yet this was not the only scandal in which Hearst found himself embroiled. In 1924, during a weekend party on his yacht Odeon in honor of western film pioneer Thomas H. Ince, one of the guests had to be spirited clandestinely to shore and later died. The official story was that the guest had succumbed to heart failure after a bout of indigestion, but the true circumstances of the case have been the subject of speculation for nearly eighty years since.

It is this tawdry, but deliciously intriguing story that director Peter Bogdanovich, himself no stranger to Hollywood scandal, has chosen for his first wide-release film in nearly a decade. Based on Stephen Peros' play, THE CAT'S MEOW dramatizes one of the lingering accounts of what happened on the Odeon that weekend, which included Hearst himself (Edward Herrmann), Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Ince (Cary Elwes), Elinor Glyn, Ince's actress paramour Claudia Livingston (), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), and fledgling Hearst entertainment reporter Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), and an assortment of other entertainment industry figures of varying degrees of importance.

If this is starting to sound like GOSFORD PARK, I suppose that's inevitable, because both films portray lavish weekend-long parties attended by perfectly insufferably decadent people. But THE CAT'S MEOW wears its emotions much closer to the skin; as its web of careers on the wax and wane, intertwined with a palpable sexual tension, spins ever faster towards its inevitable tragic conclusion. Unlike the equal-opportunity obnoxiousness of Julian Fellowes' upper-class twits in Altman's picture, the cast of characters on the Odeon are recognizable as real people, or to those unfamiliar with the Hollywood of the 1920's, as recognizable archetypes. Whereas the fadinag aristocrats of GOSFORD PARK try to ignore the fact that the world in which they live is dying; many of the passengers on the Odeon are coming off failures of their own -- Ince the decline of the silent Western, Chaplin the commercial failure of his recent directorial debut, Davies bored and limited to the kind of stiff period films that Hearst regards as "serious films."

Edward Herrmann, in the thankless role of William Randolph Hearst, admirably deals with the challenge of portraying a character who many people today know only as the prototype of Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane. Herrmann doesn't try to escape Welles' lumbering portrayal, but integrates it into a far more humanized portrait of a man hopelessly enamored of his young lover/protegee, yet despite his millions, fears that he may not be able to compete with younger, more charming admirers. His Hearst is a gracious and generous host, who can Charleston with the best of them, looking utterly pathetic in a jester's hat, but limits his guests to one glass of champagne each, lest the proceedings get out of hand. His face, which reflects rage, grief, and a painful awareness of his own fading appeal despite his millions, is an aging mirror of the doubts that the performers with whom he surrounds himself face with every passing day.

As Marion Davies, Kirsten Dunst debunks the notion that people just LOOKED different in the 1920's, demonstrating conclusively that it really was just about the hair and makeup. With bee-stung lips and marcelled hair, her resemblance to Marion Davies is extraordinary. At nineteen, she seems just a bit too young and chubby-cheeked to portray the 27-year-old Davies; indeed appearing in one scene more like a teenaged Shirley Temple than like an ex-Ziegfeld girl. But there's no denying that the child vampire of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE has some serious talent. Both attracted to and trying to resist Eddie Izzard's surprisingly effective Charlie Chaplin, she conveys the conflict of a young actress in a young industry caught between a strong emotional/physical attraction to one powerful but fickle man and a strong affection for, and more than a little fear of, an even more powerful, and far less fickle, if also less attractive one.

As Chaplin, Eddie Izzard (who continues his streak of well-chosen and extraordinarily well-performed silent film characters), inevitably playing his character in the shadow of Robert Downey, Jr.'s definitive portrayal, suggests Chaplin rather than even attempting to duplicate Downey's work. In the early scenes, his relative lack of resemblance to the real deal is somewhat disconcerting, but it doesn't take long before his charm and ardor, his palpable longing for a more powerful man's mistress, brings a very different Chaplin to life; a side of him that Downey's portrayal only rarely was able to display.

The supporting characters round out the fine cast. Cary Elwes as Thomas Ince, looking better then he has in a long time, radiates anxiety, restlessness and desperation. Jennifer Tilly very nearly steals the show as a ditzy young Louella Parsons, who displays a surprising determination near the end of the film as she extorts a lifetime contract from the most powerful media magnate in the country. Joanne Lumley doesn't quite leave Patsy from ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS behind; and indeed, Elinor Glyn only wished she looked this good, but in caked-on makeup, looking at times alarmingly like Cher in plaster of Paris, she makes the most of the Wildean bons mots she's given. Glyn, who wrote some of the most awful purple prose novels ever published (and yes, this critic has read two of them; e-mail me if you want to know why) and went on to become the highly influential screenwriter who turned Clara Bow into the "It Girl", is a fascinating story in her own right, and Joanna Lumley in "The Elinor Glyn Story" is a film I for one would pay to see. An interesting connection to GOSFORD PARK is an appearance by Claudie Blakley as a heavy-drinking, reefer-smoking hedonistic starlet; a nice departure from her abused wife character in Altman's film.

Bogdanovich has had mixed success with period pictures, but as in his best directorial effort, PAPER MOON, he demonstrates a strong sense of place and time and mood where the 1920's are concerned. From the very first scene to the last, both punctuated with Elinor Glyn's observances on the milieu in which she travels, Bogdanovich's attention to period detail is impeccable. Caroline de Vivaise 's costumes are spectacular, with dramatic headpieces setting off meticulously-beaded party dresses; cute little hats setting off the sailor outfits popular in the 1920's, on to Elinor Glyn's dramatic black-and-white tailored suits. The period furnishings are meticulously selected, and popular songs of the time magically recreated by vintage music buff and 1960's one-hit wonder Ian Whitcomb, whose performance of these Tin Pan Alley favorites capture the flavor of the "white jazz" of the time, made popular by bands like the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Like GOSFORD PARK, THE CAT'S MEOW is a sour little movie at its core; an exploration of the emptiness that underlay the relentless gaiety of the 1920's, as if to stop would hasten the economic and global political turmoil that was to come. The film's ending has a "What was it all for?" feeling to it, but like the 1920's, the trip there is a great deal of fun.


- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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