|To All the Girls He's Loved Before...
Certainly the most annoying thing about Peter Bogdanovichand
the contenders are manyis his insistent need to refer
to his "old friends," who just happen to be legendary
filmmakers, by their first names. Bogdanovich will drop
an "Orson" or "Howard" (Hawks) or "John"
(Ford) with the nonchalance of a Steve Kerr referring to Michael,
Scottie, Phil, or Dennis. That's probably an unfair
comparison: Bogdanovich has made two great movies (The
Last Picture Show and Paper Moon), yet besieged
by a divorce (with Polly Platt), an indulgent relationship
with then-twenty Cybill Shepherd, the brutal murder of his
then-twenty girlfriend Dorothy Stratten, decent into depression,
subequent marriage to Stratten's sister Louise (whom he recently
divorced), and a decade suffering in the purgatory of TV movieshe
has arrived with The Cat's Meow, a movie that works
like Gosford Park without all the insistent classicism.
It concerns a fictional account of the real murder of producer
Thomas Ince aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht in 1924.
Writer Steven Peros takes the real voyagers (Hearst's mistress
Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, gossip columnist Louella Parsons,
Margaret Livingston, and others) and inserts them into a parable
about love, lust, and Hollywood, doubling as perhaps a bit
of therapy for the long-suffering director.
Bogdanovich took in an ailing Orson Welles near the end of
his life, in a sort of highbrow Ed Wood/Bela Lugosi relationship.
Bogdanovich admits his fear of ending up like his idol: His
good films made first. In his first and best, Welles took
William Randolph Hearst (among other moguls) to task in Citizen
Kane, so of course Bogdanovich is going to kick a little
more dirt on Hearst's grave. Hearst adopted the film career
of Marion Davies, using his wealth and influence to produce
several dramatic star-vehicles for her. The problem was that
Davies' natural talent was with comedy, but Hearst refused
to let her do anything but "worthy" work.
Here, I sense that Bogdanovich vents some frustration, and
perhaps apologizes for, some of his indescretion with Miss
Shepherd, whom he somewhat adopted as bother husband and paternal
figure. Unfortunately for us movie lovers, Bogdanovich ruined
one of the most promising film careers of any young American
director by shoving the stardom of Cybill Shepherd on us in
bombs like Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love
(co-starring Burt Reynolds and Madeline Kahn...how could he
have thought that a good idea?). Here, he paints a similar
relationship between Hearst (Edward Herrmann) and Davies (Kirsten
Dunst). Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), a sleazebag with a
curled mop on his head, tries to seduce Marion, but she stays
faithful to Hearst. "I love him," she tells us.
And when it's finally revealed what Hearst will do to keep
that love, you feel that Bogdanovich may be commenting on
what he did to his own career. I don't find the connection
a stretch: A man who wears his heart on his sleave such as
Peter Bogdanovich is bound to personalize his filmmaking.
It's easy to imagine Izzard's Charlie Chaplin trying out his
comedic ideas on the young, beautiful Miss Davies ("Do
you think that, if you were starving, you would eat your boots?")
in the same way a smarmy Bogdanovich probably seduced Playmate
of the Year Stratten into They All Laughed.
There's all sorts of other vagrancies on the boatit's
the kind of crowd that when things get tense, everyone breaks
into the Charleston. Kirsten Dunst bebops around, her spirit
cramped by the corridors, professionally fussing over the
small details of others' merrimentin other words, she's
a consumate bourgeios girlfriend. Dunst manages, from
frame to frame, to paint Davies as a deeply conflicted, fiercely
loyal, shrewd business, yet genuinely loving woman who wields
her carefree charm like a sword that slashes through all doubt
and discontent. Dunst is making a habit of these sorts
of layered performances: She uses her natural girl-next-door
looks as a mask for her character's suffering and and discontent.
She's an actress within an actress: Remember the scene
in Spider-Man in which, after revealing vulnerability
with Peter Parker, she skips off to her rich boyfriend's car?
Unlike the Spider-Man script, The Cat's Meow
gives her an entire film in which to explore this concept.
Few young actresses understand the subtext of the flirt as
deeply as Dunst, and it's this sort of performance that gives
buoyancy to Bogdanovich's bittersweet elegy to all the girls
he's loved before.