Cat's Meow, The (2001) ****
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Written by Steven Peros from his play. Photography, Bruno Delbonnel. Editing, Edward G. Norris. Production design, Jean-Vincent Puzos. Costumes, Caroline de Vivaise. Music, Ian Whitcomb. Cast: Kirtsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Tilly, Claudia Harrison, et al. Produced by Julie Baines, Ernie Barbarash, Kim Bieber, Carol Lewis, Dieter Meyer, et al. A Lions Gate release. 110 minutes. PG-13. At the Art Theater. (opens May 17)
Peter Bogdanovich is one terrific film-person. The first review I ever wrote for a now defunct movie magazine was for his "Directed by John Ford," a splendid documentary on that great director --and Peter's friend. Orson Welles (another friend of Peter's) narrated. I had already seen Bogdanovich's directorial debut feature "Targets" (1968) which starred Boris Karloff in his last movie. It was produced by the amazing Roger Corman whose low-budget flicks (think dimes rather than dollars) made with lightning speed (think days rather than months) opened door after door for then fledgling directors, writers and actors, now celebrities." Targets" became a sort of cult movie for many cinephiles.
Three years later Bogdanovich and his "The Last Picture Show" became rightly famous, garnered major nominations and awards. The screwball "What's Up, Doc?" confirmed his versatility. Then came "Paper Moon," a gem that was unlike any other film, including movies starring kids. Tatum O'Neal (9 or so when the film was shot) was Oscared as best supporting actress; won the Best Foreign Actress prize at the David di Donatello Awards (Italy); the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer. At the San Sebastian Festival Peter B won two major awards. His handling of young people caused many of us in the U.S.A to think "Now we have our own, "echt"-American Truffaut!"
At the Berlin Festival "Nickelodeon" was nominated for the top prize. That's where I first met Peter B. Surrounded by reporters who asked overly serious, solemn questions at the press conference, Bogdanovich managed to elude them, not because he had anything to hide but because he was far more interested in talking - colorfully, intelligently and sensitively - about filmmakers he knew well, admired, appreciated and understood fully: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles and others.. Such altruistic love of cinema at the expense of self-promotion was and still remains astounding and unique.
As a film-lover, scholar, critic, essayist, interviewer, etc. Peter B. is wonderfully astute, informative and knowledgeable. Check him up on the Web. Read any of his intelligent, fine-honed writings. Get his prize-winning book "Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors"(1998) and his 1999 book "Peter Bogdanovich's Movie of the Week." You'll bask in them.
His private life, times and tragedies are familiar to many and will not be referred to here. What matters are his "lean" years. These have been exaggerated. Several films of that period deserve re-evaluation. Some are superior yet little known and overlooked. For instance that excellent, original "Saint Jack," made in Singapore and starring Ben Gazzara and Denholm Elliott in superior performances; the also original, unusual and heart-rending "Mask," with Cher and Eric Stolz; "Noises Off," the American adaptation of Brit playwright Michael Frayn's funny play about stage actors; .
In many capacities and media Bogdanovich has been steadily busy over the years. True, the old, big spotlight of celebrity did elude him for some time. Now however, with the very good reception of "The Cat's Meow" there's much talk of a comeback. But then, Peter B. had never left.
"The Cat's Meow" is a true story. In November 1924 mogul William Randolph Hearst, then 61 and familiarly called "W.R.") in his circle, went on an West Coast nautical excursion on his splendiferous yacht "Oneida." A bevvy of guests came mostly from among Hollywood's Who's Who. W.R. (the prototype of "Citizen Kane") is magnificently played by Edward Herrmann.
Nominally the gathering is to celebrate the birthday --a bit belatedly if you check your dates-- of Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) that great film pioneer, producer, director and more. He is not accompanied by his wife but by a lover, the ambitious small-time actress Margaret Livingstone (Claudia Harrison.)
Hearst's mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) then 27 --the relationship lasted 30 years-- was a fine actress, apparently a very nice person, and nothing like the dud Susan Alexander of "Citizen Kane."
Of the several guests, many wanted something from Hearst. As Ince's career had slipped, he was desperately angling for a partnership with W.R. To put it politely, Ince's manoeuvering ranged from insidious to snaky.
Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) then 43, was a New York-based writer for the Hearst papers. She wanted W.R. to relocate her in Hollywood. It is rumored that by craftily blackmailing the tycoon "Lolly" won a lifetime contract. She went on to become a powerful, feared, fawned-upon, take-no-prisoners gossip columnist.
What Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) wanted was simple. This active womanizer, satirical on the screen and, as some say, a satyr off it, lusted after Marion Davies.
The witty British writer Elinor Glyn (attractive Joanna Lumley) was 60 then but doesn't look a day over 50. A novelist who climbed to fame and fortune only after she had a "succes de scandale" book. It propelled her to Hollywood screenplays and into the in-crowd. From a single screening I can only guess that she wanted nothing specific from Hearst except to consolidate her image. Rather subtly she also acts as chorus. And so it goes.
The movie is impeccably cast, performed, designed, edited, rich in period jazz, handsomely photographed by the little-known Frenchman who shot "Amelie from Montmartre." Oddly, the film's locations were Germany and Greece.
The picture would have justified its existence had it been limited to the shenanigans, carousing, silliness, drug-taking, sexual and other excesses of the rich and famous plus their entourages. The atmosphere is gaudy, rather vulgar, interspersed with savage verisimilitudes. But it cleverly goes beyond all that.
W.R. reigns dictatorially. Some of his warts, and many of his insecurities concerning Davies, are colorfully yet convincingly depicted--with a deftness and relative lightness (kudos for script, direction, casting and acting) that avoids cliches even if several characters were cliches in real life. And it eschews any simplistic attempts or cheap psychology that analyze the guests. It is especially "cool" when it comes to figuring out what makes W.R. tick and run. This could be another "W.R. Mysteries of the Organism." But there's another thread to it.
In actual fact, that de luxe sea voyage from San Pedro to San Diego with all its currents and undercurrents came to an abrupt halt when Thomas Ince died, or at least was mortally wounded, or suffered from other ills. The whole thing, including cover-ups, became an enduring object of speculations and one of the most cloudy mysteries in the motion picture world.
Curiously, there are small echoes of another, earlier (1922) unsolved murder, that of famous actor-director William Desmond Taylor. (He had worked with Ince, too).
The path chosen by the film is that insecure and insanely jealous W.R., suspects an affair between Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin. He sees his mistress and a man sitting on a stairway, wearing --as I remember it--Chaplin's hat, chatting with-- or chatting up --Marion. Since W.R. sees the couple from the back, he automatically assumes that the fellow is Chaplin, and with his automatic revolver he shoots him. But the man whom W.R. expedites to movie heaven was not Chaplin, but Ince.
The opening scenes are of a funeral, filmed in black-and-white, not unlike a silent March of Time (remember "Citizen Kane"?) Then comes the long flashback of the movie proper, in beautiful colors.
Everything is period, from animate objects (the Hollywoodians and their retinues) to inanimate ones (artifacts and decors), all enhanced by its clever lighting strategies. They combine realism, symbolism and impressionism most effectively. Yet, closer to Jean Renoir's tactics than to those of Orson Welles, they do not call attention to themselves.
Bogdanovich retains full control of people, actions and things, and of course, the spectators' attention. In one sense, the film is his comeback, but not for those of us who think that Peter B. had never left.
What this film accomplishes is to be many things beautifully rolled up into one coherent whole. It is a thriller, an expose, a slice of cinema history, an authentic-looking and sounding re-creation of the past its people, its atmosphere, its mores. What more do you want? Well, one thing: recognition for a work that makes so many of today's crops of formulaic, special-effects, simple-minded productions look like intellectual and artistic drop-outs.