The Cat's Meow

Starring:
  • That Little Girl Who Kissed Brad Pitt in the Vampire Movie
  • Charlie Chaplin With a Tragic Soft Spot for Little Teenage Tramps
  • William Randolph Kane

 

 
Directed by Dororthy Stratten's Sister's Ex-Husband

"Don't tell me Tobey asked you to wear that outfit for the Pussy Posse."

To All the Girls He's Loved Before...

Certainly the most annoying thing about Peter Bogdanovich—and the contenders are many—is 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 movies—he 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 boat—it'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' merriment—in 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.

The Pitch:
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1 The Last Picture Show
Plus
 
1 Charles Foster Kane
Plus
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1 Gosford Park
Equals
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3 The Cat's Meow
See It For:
Peter Bogdanovich showing Kirsten his album of Cybill Shepherd nude photos.