Peter Bogdanovich loses it at the movies with 'The Cat's Meow'

Though Glyn, who narrates the film, is clearly the director's surrogate, Bogdanovich notes the striking similarities between himself and a number of the characters. "I could identify with most of the male characters on a certain level. I've been obsessed with a woman younger than me, so I know where Hearst is coming from. I've had ups and downs in my career like Ince. I've been desperate at times trying to get back. Also, essentially in this movie, Chaplin is a movie star on the make. I've certainly been there, too." (If Bogdanovich also identifies with Parsons, an inveterate gossip who flatters her way into Hollywood society, he doesn't say so.)

As an ingénue buffeted by the whims of powerful men, Davies should be a figure recognizable from Bogdanovich's past (though, unlike either Shepherd or Susan Alexander, Welles's mistress in Citizen Kane, Davies was a talented comedienne). Regardless, Dunst, in seraphic golden curls and cute flapper getup, creates one of the only appealing characters on this ship of fools. Dunst is literally a babe, a gamine with a kewpie-doll expression, but she also makes clear that Davies is being used to varying degrees by Hearst, Ince, and Chaplin--one for security, one for business, and one for pleasure. She's much younger than Davies was at the time, and the age difference between her and Herrmann, whose Hearst is more sad sack than monster, adds unsettling overtones to their intimate scenes. (Clearly, Rosebud wasn't just the name of a sled.) The other performers are somewhat less vivid. Izzard, famous for his drag standup act, actually seems less effeminate than Chaplin. Cary Elwes's Ince, who's meant as a sort of Iago to Hearst's Othello, has the personality of unbuttered toast; when he vanishes, it barely registers.

Agreeable as it is, The Cat's Meow also feels constrained, as though any extraneous material might break the bank. Even the lavish late-night banquets, which are meant to illustrate the staged gaiety of Hollywood society, feel rather staged themselves: At a predetermined point, everyone jumps up and starts doing the Charleston. The film's rather airless feel--there's no sense of life beyond the frame--might be due to its source as a stage play. It might also point to the limitations of Bogdanovich's tightly controlled technique. In his heyday, on pictures like Paper Moon (1973) or What's Up, Doc? (1972), Bogdanovich's scenes had a calculated effect: He was always evoking "atmosphere" in terms of Hitchcock or Ford rather than in terms of real life. (Later, in the likes of Nickelodeon, his homages became embarrassingly literal.) Even his masterpiece, The Last Picture Show (1971), gave the impression that he was less attracted by small-town anomie--which he knew nothing about, after all--than by the idea of eulogizing the epic Howard Hawks version of America on display at the town's movie theater.

Nipping it in the Rosebud: Peter Bogdanovich directs Kirsten Dunst on the set of 'The Cat's Meow'
Lions Gate Films
Nipping it in the Rosebud: Peter Bogdanovich directs Kirsten Dunst on the set of 'The Cat's Meow'

Bogdanovich's romance with the movies may be both the major preoccupation and defining limit of his own movies. Unlike the other movie brats of the Seventies, who drew on the tumultuous experience of the decade to make personal films (of radically variable merit), Bogdanovich was always glancing back ruefully at an idealized Hollywood fantasy. Eventually, the movies became the only lens through which he could see the world. Perhaps, then, Bogdanovich simply isn't equipped to satirize the Hollywood lifestyle in all its crazy and corrupt glory; that would take a streak of real, spiteful misanthropy, like Robert Altman's in The Player. Watching The Cat's Meow, you can tell Bogdanovich is still half in love with the idea of Old Hollywood, still pining after the larger-than-life icons he worshiped as a young man. And there's something slightly tragic about that: The film is a valentine from a jilted lover.

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