Director Peter Bogdanovich is the man behind a few of my favorites movies, and it makes sense as his work subscribes to a particular classic film aesthetic, even if the plots aren’t film related. Earlier works like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon (which is showing at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival) appear as simplistic Golden Era stories undermining the aesthete with a healthy dose of sexuality. His later career’s been lackluster and I can’t figure out why, particularly when his love of Hollywood is evident. The Cat’s Meow is a 2001 film that aired as a television movie in the UK and flew under the radar, theatrically, in the States. It’s sad to say that because this is every bit as worthy and sumptuous as Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. A Hollywood whodunit with a diverse cast of characters (and characters they are), if you missed The Cat’s Meow back in 2001 it’s time to rectify that.
A group of guests invited by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) struggle with their own personal failings and infidelities. Unfortunately, the event ends in death when director Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) dies under suspicious circumstances.
The Cat’s Meow depicts a possible series of events taking place on November 15th, 1924. A group of people climbed aboard Hearst’s yacht, the Oneida, to celebrate Ince’s birthday. The guest list has never been confirmed, but it’s safe to assume Marion Davis, Hearst’s long-time mistress, was on-board, and it’s presumed that Charles Chaplin, Louella Parsons, Elinor Glyn, Aline Pringle, and Margaret Livingston were also in attendance. Three days after leaving the boat, Ince died. Ince’s doctor attributed his death to heart failure, but eventually stories circulated that Ince was shot and dumped at home to die quietly. It didn’t help that no one from the boat was ever interviewed, no one present during the events ever talked about the party, and Ince’s body was immediately cremated without any type of autopsy or examination. Various people, including Davies and Chaplin, changed their stories consistently throughout the years, going so far as to say they were never on the boat and that Ince had been ill for weeks. The movie focuses on one of the more prominent theories: Hearst, while in a jealous rage over Davies suspected infidelities with Chaplin, accidentally shot Ince, believing he was Chaplin.
The script is based on a play by Steven Peros (who also wrote the screenplay), and Bogdanovich retains the stageplay set-up. Despite an almost two-hour runtime the movie is confined to one location and the audience never feels claustrophobic, although the characters certainly feel it. The tight confines of the boat are ironically set alongside the various infidelities going on. It’s hard being intimate with someone if others are constantly wandering around, opening doors. Once Ince is shot, there’s debate on who heard what, a believable moment considering the noise of the ocean and the boat itself. The film feels like a play, especially to those who have seen The Drowsy Chaperone or similar show, with moments of soaring highs belied by murder, mayhem, and sexual hijinks.
Bogdanovich’s films love to explore Hollywood as a paradise lost; an Eden where no one wishes to wake up for fear of disappearing altogether. The narration by Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) explains this perfectly: “But I’m watching how ridiculous everyone else looks, and I wonder why they don’t realize it. Then I see that in fact, I too look like a fool. Yet it’s so much fun that none of us can stop. If we stopped, we’d have nothing.” The reason the various participants keep quiet is fear of losing their careers. They were engaging in illicit drinking (Prohibition was on-going at the time), sex, and jazz. However, it’s apparent everyone struggles in their own ways, whether it’s a fear of losing out on happiness or losing a career. It could come off as being devoted to the problems of the idle rich, but Bogdanovich and Peros keep the characters sympathetic.
The actors are, for the most part, incredible and deserving of their roles. Bogdanovich is one with this time period, as evidenced by the lush production design. (It’s said he wanted to film the picture in black and white, as he’d previously done with Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, but was overruled). The script also employs idle bits of gossip and dialogue to help you believe it’s the 1920s. Various names and other references delight the astute classic film fan. Eddie Izzard is a solid Chaplin, although it’s hard to buy him as a sex symbol. I’m spoiled by the fantastic portrayal Robert Downey Jr. did in Chaplin, and watching Izzard’s phenomenal comedy can prevent you from embracing his character, but Izzard looks the part and sells it. Joanna Lumley is a regal Elinor Glyn, although I can’t fathom why she’s the one narrating the story. She didn’t see Ince’s death, according to the narrative. Maybe because she was a writer? Or because we need more of Lumley’s exquisite voice on the screen?
As Thomas Ince, Cary Elwes comes off as the mock-villain of the film; a quasi-Iago who fills Hearst’s head with suspicion about Marion. Elwes plays the brown-noser so well you’re waiting for him to die the first minute Hearst mentions “gun.” The repetition of gun language (jokes about being shot and the like) comes off as a gimmick as well as a poor attempt at foreshadowing. It’s not prophetic if everyone sees it coming. Jennifer Tilly plays Louella Parsons, in the most Louella Parsons way possible. The character is annoying, constantly bugging people and saying the wrong thing, which is perfect for Tilly. I say that with love because I find Tilly adorable in movies, and her playing Parsons is certainly one of them.
Kirsten Dunst and Herrmann as Davies and Hearst, respectively are the two A-list names. Herrmann is nothing short of astounding as Hearst. This is a character who, if played by the wrong person, is a conniving, horrific man. Instead, Hearst is vulnerable, driven so blindly by love he’s willing to murder someone. There isn’t much context to the Hearst/Davies love affair in the movie, but you can interpret their love as one where there’s respect and love, a love hindered by Hearst’s own fears of inadequacy and failing youth. The script never portrays Davies as a gold digger or Hearst as a manipulator. They’re people who found each other and possess very human flaws (her’s infidelity and his jealousy and lack of trust). When Hearst realizes he’s killed Ince, the crumbling face of Herrmann says it all. And yet, he finds himself sobbing more over fears of losing Marion, proclaiming “You’re my whole world.” That isn’t to say we don’t see a devilish streak in his personality. He spends the last third of the movie dumping evidence, and slyly manipulating the guests into remaining silent. If this had received additional attention, I’d like to think Herrmann would have received recognition come awards time.
The film’s biggest name, and befuddling presence is Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies. I find myself asking if Dunst is great, or just good at playing Kirsten Dunst. There’s no denying the woman is beautiful wearing 1920s makeup and flapper dresses, but that’s all she does to convey she is Davies. There’s a vague resemblance if you look at photos, but she comes off like she’s visiting a Halloween party themed to The Great Gatsby. There’s no way a random audience member would look at her and say “Marion Davies.” Especially compared to the dye job and hair stylings Izzard undergoes to play Chaplin. Dunst plays Davies sympathetically, but again she’s one-note. Her Davies performance is no different from her playing Marie Antoinette a few years later. This may be the script’s belief that no one knows Davies well enough to critique Dunst’s performance, but to the untrained eye Dunst is just playing herself.
Overall, The Cat’s Meow lives up to its name. It’s a fun Hollywood murder mystery combining real life with a dose of cynicism and fear. The performance by almost all, especially Herrmann, are fantastic. And Peter Bogdanovich proves he’s still able to direct a fantastic film hearkening back to the Golden Era.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.