Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow , from a screenplay by Steven Peros, based on his play, meticulously takes us back to Nov. 15, 1924, the day William Randolph Hearst’s sumptuous yacht, the Oneida , set out on a fateful pleasure cruise with a boatload of celebrities, businessmen, party-girl starlets, entertainers and a full complement of crew members and servants. The ostensible occasion was a birthday party for Thomas Ince, once a major force in the industry, particularly in the evolution of the western genre, but at this date a fading figure desperately seeking an alliance with Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, which was dedicated to vehicles for Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies.
A murder is committed at sea, and the Oneida makes an emergency stop in San Diego to remove a seriously wounded passenger-Ince-who later dies on shore in his own bed and is quickly cremated before any autopsy can be performed. This scandalous episode in Hollywood’s history was completely hushed up until it was “exposed” in Kenneth Anger’s underground chronicle Hollywood Babylon , published more than 40 years ago, when I first read it. I’d never heard of the play by Mr. Peros, and he has not figured in any of the press about the movie. In one interview, Mr. Bogdanovich claims he first heard the story from Orson Welles, never mentioning Anger. But this is nothing new for the director, who remains, even in eclipse, the name-dropping star and total auteur of his own life story.
To put a point on it, Peter and I have managed to irritate one another over the years on the true origins of American auteurism, and the artistic worth of At Long Last Love (1975), and even his lucky break in scoring a box-office hit with his joylessly ritualistic reprise of Hawksian screwball comedy, What’s Up, Doc? (1972). And how often is that lovingly revived nowadays compared with Hawks’ commercial flop of 1938, Bringing Up Baby , now an acknowledged classic? When I first met Peter in the early 60′s, he’d never heard of Howard Hawks or seen any of his movies. Eugene Archer and I once had to fill him in on all the plots of a series of old movies our mutual sponsor Dan Talbot was showing at his New Yorker Theater, then a beacon of cinema on the Upper West Side. Peter, Eugene and I were among many contributors of program notes, for which Dan paid $100 apiece. Among the other contributors were Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag; yet of all the writers, Peter was the only one to copyright his contributions. Clearly, here was a man to watch in his seemingly meteoric rise to the top. Still, it never occurred to any of us auteurists that all we had to do was pick up the phone and call the directorial objects of our affections, and make enough contacts to begin making our own movies. I once told Polly Platt, Peter’s first wife, that I hated him for cashing in on something the rest of us did for the love of it.
The truth is that I envied Peter for his genius in organizing himself into a relentless career projectile. I gave him full credit for the somber intensity he summoned in The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973). I liked his wife Polly and his longtime girlfriend Cybill Shepherd, and was impressed that neither ever had an unkind word to say about him. I never met the Stratten sisters, and I didn’t rejoice when They All Laughed (1981), which I sort of liked despite-or because of-its very vulnerable and slightly sad romanticism, sank without a trace. But really, how can you hate someone who has lost $5 million?
Fortunately, The Cat’s Meow ultimately plays to Mr. Bogdanovich’s strength in correcting the injustice that Welles inflicted on the reputation of Marion Davies, through the shrill overdirection of Dorothy Comingore into a laughable caricature in Citizen Kane (1941). By contrast, Mr. Bogdanovich’s sensitive direction of Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies is everything the other critics have said, and more. Ms. Dunst is a new star in the making, combining the period flapper with the modern woman in a miracle of buoyancy and grace. As her loving patron, Edward Herrmann brings more passion and substance to his portrayal of a multifaceted Hearst than Welles could ever imagine under his tons of old-age makeup as the elderly Charles Foster Kane, who literally dodders in his last days. By contrast, Mr. Herrmann’s Hearst, facing his supreme crisis, manages to placate and pay off every possible incriminating witness to the crime. He thus demonstrates the managerial skills of a C.E.O. accustomed to making snap judgments and acting upon them without hesitation. As for Eddie Izzard’s Charles Chaplin, he doesn’t look the part in the beginning, but grows into it as the picture continues. Jennifer Tilly plays Louella Parsons much too broadly, with the wrong kind of clumsiness at first-at least for those of us old enough to remember Parsons’ “exclusives” on radio-but she comes through with the steel-trap Jennifer Tilly we all know and fear when the time comes for her to blackmail Hearst into a unique lifetime contract with his newspaper syndicate.
I may as well let the cat all the way out of the bag by revealing that Hearst shot Ince in a fit of jealously, thinking he was shooting Chaplin. But how do you stage this genuine accident? Though I heard the story decades ago, I could never visualize how Hearst had shot the wrong man. A bad shot caused by the blindness of jealousy? Here I must credit Mr. Bogdanovich and Mr. Peros with having contrived a plausible scenario consistent with the chaotic mise en scène aboard the Oneida . Of course, no one at the time could imagine the enormity of what might have happened if the gods weren’t looking out for Charlie aboard the Oneida . No The Gold Rush in 1925, no The Circus in 1928, no City Lights in 1931, no Modern Times in 1936, no The Great Dictator in 1940, no Monsieur Verdoux in 1947, no Limelight in 1952-in short, Charlie Chaplin with a huge slice of his immortality denied him. One can’t expect the other passengers on the Oneida to have appreciated the genius in their midst, who had just experienced his first flop with A Woman of Paris , which Charlie directed but did not appear in.
Still, Mr. Bogdanovich is no Robert Altman when it comes to maneuvering a crowded ensemble. Not only does he reduce everyone but the leads to colorless extras, he often underestimates the ability of his audience to slide into the past without being prodded by overly expository dialogue and wisecracks and laboriously mounted period detail-like the obscure slang of the movie’s unsatisfactory title.
Joanna Lumley’s Elinor Glyn lends her authoritative British accent to narrate the flashback framing of the story, and to participate in the dance-fools-dance Charleston processionals that keep the movie kinetic in an otherwise cramped space. Yet neither Mr. Bogdanovich nor the revelers ever lose themselves in rapturous abandon. The trouble is the lack of any stylistic build-up to the mobile Charlestons. Mr. Bogdanovich’s furiously moving camera has kept all the characters too much on edge, with no real hope of emotional relief or redemption.
As is so often the case with Mr. Bogdanovich, he is least effective when he mistakes flippancy for humor. For example, his running gags about the visual jokes Chaplin proposes for his then work-in-progress, The Gold Rush , fall flat time and again. People who know The Gold Rush will be put off by the cheap exploitation of the failed “inside” references, and people who don’t know The Gold Rush will simply be puzzled.
Nonetheless, as it stands, The Cat’s Meow is Mr. Bogdanovich’s best film since Mask (1985), and in this period the frantic farce Noises Off (1992) is one of his worst. This should give him a hint as to what he should do next if he gets the chance. Unfortunately, the commercial prognosis for The Cat’s Meow is cloudy-not because of anything Mr. Bogdanovich has done or not done, but because movies about movies or movie people have never done well at the box office.
Sweet Smell of Success Held Over … at Movies
Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), from a screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, is being returned to Film Forum for an extended run after its recent successful two-week revival. Please see it if you haven’t already, and don’t be put off by its cult status after failing at the box office on its initial release. At the time, my friends and I were startled most by the brilliant performance of Tony Curtis in his much-ridiculed “my foddah, da caliph” period. Mr. Curtis’ Sidney Falco feeds items to Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker, a power-hungry right-wing gossip columnist modeled after Walter Winchell. Acting honors go also to Emile Meyer as a crooked police detective at least a decade before his time. Falco and the detective form an uneasy alliance to frame jazz musician Martin Milner on a drug rap to end his relationship with Hunsecker’s nubile sister, played by Susan Harrison. The intimations of covert incest on the part of Hunsecker toward his sister was another taboo-breaker. But the main incentive to see this movie is its witty, pungent and idiomatic dialogue, such as you never hear on the screen anymore in this age of special-effects illiteracy.