The Cat's Meow

on April 12, 2002 by Annlee Ellingson
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   In crafting this mythical episode in the life of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and his movie-star friends, director Peter Bogdanovich, a Hollywood legend in his own right, and screenwriter Steven Peros got may of the details of Hearst's private life just right: the lavish dinner parties, the flashy costume balls, the private screenings of his mistress' latest film, his penchant for antiques, his distaste for alcohol. But the film itself deals with a very dicey subject--the murder of a powerful Tinseltown figure aboard Hearst's private yacht--that has existed only in whispers and quite possibly isn't true at all. Of course, that's the fun of it.

   It's November 1924, and Hearst (Edward Herrmann) and his lover Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) are hosting a weekend getaway aboard the Oneida. Their guests arrive with ulterior motives: Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), a powerful Hollywood producer who has seen his influence fade in recent years, hopes to merge with Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures for a needed infusion of capital. Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), a start-up gossip columnist, aspires to relocate to the West Coast for a more intimate relationship with the industry she covers. And Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), the notorious playboy, desires to steal Marion away from Hearst.

   The latter is the most pressing situation on Hearst's mind. In fact, he has invited Chaplin on the trip precisely to keep an eye on him. Marion realizes this and warns Chaplin to keep his distance, but he pursues her relentlessly, and she finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. By the end of the trip, the couple is conspiring as to how she might leave Pops.

   Hearst watches as his worst fears come true right before his very eyes and is eventually driven over the edge by a desperate Ince, who produces even more evidence of an affair, hoping to prove that his trusted partnership could extend to Hearst's personal life as well. Events spiral out of control, but the fatal outcome is quickly covered up--with no small number of career enhancements for the various passengers promised in exchange for keeping quiet.

   "The Cat's Meow" fuels the fire started by Orson Welles' seminal "Citizen Kane," the thinly veiled biography on Hearst that the media mogul tried to prevent from seeing the light of day. Neither picture portrays Hearst as the saint the tour guides at Hearst Castle would have you believe, and it's alluring to speculate on what his lifestyle must have been like. But unlike "Kane," which is famous for its unprecedented visuals, "The Cat's Meow's" filmmaking style is rather pedestrian, aside from a few dolly shots down narrow corridors. If it weren't for its intriguing what-if scenario, "The Cat's Meow" wouldn't be compelling at all--with the exception of some of the picture's performances. Still a teenager, Dunst tackles her most mature role yet, portraying Marion as fundamentally conflicted between her youth and her lavish life with Hearst, compared with her shallow, ditzy, gold-digger counterpart in "Kane." Herrmann as Hearst is equal parts hysterical (when he thinks he's lost Marion) and completely in control (when he's cleaning up the aftermath of his actions), illustrating both Hearst's sometimes juvenile motivations and the qualities that made Hearst as powerful as he was. While there is little physical resemblance between Tilly and Louella, the actress' interpretation of the character is exactly as we might imagine her early in her career.

   The only off note here is the casting of Izzard, through no fault of his own. His performance is fine, and there's real chemistry between him and Dunst, but he just doesn't look like Chaplin, and it's distracting. Whereas the other characters' likenesses aren't fixed into the average moviegoer's psyche, the Tramp is among the most recognized icons in the world. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Cary Elwes, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard and Jennifer Tilly. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Written by Steven Peros. Produced by Kim Bieber and Carol Lewis. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 112 min

Tags: Kirsten Dunst, Cary Elwes, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard and Jennifer Tilly. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Written by Steven Peros. Produced by Kim Bieber and Carol Lewis. A Lions Gate release. Drama, gold-differ, hysterical, alcohol, antiques
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