The Cat's Meow, director Peter Bogdanovich's first feature film in nearly a decade, proceeds from a choice scrap of Hollywood apocrypha. In November 1924, the story goes, a party of showbiz A-listers--including Charlie Chaplin, British novelist Elinor Glyn, gossip maven Louella Parsons, and silent-film star Marion Davies--gathered aboard the yacht of media magnate William Randolph Hearst for a jaunt down the California coast. The occasion was the birthday of Thomas Ince, the studio mogul credited with perfecting the assembly-line production of motion pictures. According to legend--or to "the whisper told most often," as Bogdanovich's film puts it--one of the partiers ended up with a bullet in his brain. The circumstances were, naturally, mysterious; and, it being Hearst's yacht, not a peep was heard in the press until long after, when rumors began to surface in Hollywood Babylon and other scandal primers. It was the Chappaquiddick of the Jazz Age.
No doubt Bogdanovich is ideally suited for such material--both because of his intimate acquaintance with Orson Welles, who first told him of the incident more than 30 years ago, and because of the director's own scandal-spotted voyage, which has taken him from obscure film buff to Esquire journalist to vaunted director of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon to Hollywood pariah and back again to obscurity.
The broad outline of Bogdanovich's parabolic career trajectory is well established: his rise to fame in the early Seventies as one of Hollywood's "movie brats" (Scorsese, Spielberg, et al.); his genuflection before Golden Age directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks; his Pygmalion-like cultivation of Cybill Shepherd; his seemingly endless series of cinematic duds (e.g., Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love, Nickelodeon); the grisly murder of his young girlfriend, Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten; his subsequent marriage to Stratten's (much) younger sister amid creepy, Vertigo-esque rumors that she'd been surgically altered to resemble the dead woman; his emotional and professional collapse. In some circles, the director's story has taken on the weight of a parable: a Hollywood Faust about an innocent seduced by bright lights and fast money, the cautionary yarn young filmmakers tell one another around the campfire. His cachet is such that, in a recent New Yorker profile, fellow film buff-turned-wunderkind director Quentin Tarantino was moved to assert that Bogdanovich "died for the sins" of all aspirant filmmakers. Perhaps the question to ask of The Cat's Meow, then, is not "Whodunit?" but whether this melancholy mystery might mark the nerdish auteur's second coming.
In town for the opening-night screening of his movie at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, Bogdanovich downplays his rise from the ash heap, noting that he has kept busy acting (in The Sopranos), writing (Who the Devil Made It, his volume of collected interviews with film giants), and directing (a half-dozen TV movies in the past decade). Nevertheless, the filmmaker evinces some satisfaction with having finally gotten back into the industry's good graces. "If it's a comeback, I'm happy," he says. "I feel awfully lucky. It's a relief that the picture works with audiences."
Wearing a blazer, and a blue handkerchief around his neck, ascot-style, Bogdanovich, 62, cuts the figure of a dandyish owl. In conversation, he comes off as slightly cagey, as though he has internalized the evasive maneuvers of the directors he once interviewed. (John Ford, for one, used to feign deafness to parry Bogdanovich's incessant trivia questions.) Though much of the exchange feels like canned shtick--akin to the Jimmy Stewart impression he dusts off for every speaking engagement, or the way he peppers his sentences with the names of famous people he has known--Bogdanovich does grow animated when discussing his readily apparent animus against Hollywood. "I was trying to make a picture that had a lot of contemporary reverberations," he says, "because life isn't that much different between then and now. People who were rich were all-powerful, could get away with murder.
"Success...fame...it's a commonplace that those are difficult things, that they're corrupting. You know, you learn in high school that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I think all those kinds of truisms apply to Hollywood. Let's put it this way: It's an easy place to get lost."
As if to underscore the point, The Cat's Meow begins with the burial of an unidentified filmmaker. Scoop-hungry reporters and assorted hangers-on, photographed in the grainy black and white of a Thirties newsreel, crowd the funeral like the pack of slavering morons from The Day of the Locust. From this punchy prelude, the film flashes back to Hearst's yacht, where, in one bravura sequence, Bogdanovich introduces us to his characters: Hearst, played by Edward Herrmann as a lumbering man-boy who spies on his guests through peepholes; Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Hearst's (much) younger mistress; renowned British comedian Eddie Izzard as renowned British comedian Charlie Chaplin, who's trying to bed Davies; Ince (Cary Elwes), who's trying to wed his flagging studio to Hearst's media empire; Parsons, played by Jennifer Tilly as an ill-bred interloper; and Glyn (Joanna Lumley), who speaks in apocalyptic Joan Didion-isms.
In the early scenes, Bogdanovich efficiently communicates his major theme: that the gilt façade these celebrities present scarcely covers the Byzantine corruption beneath. During one champagne-fueled bacchanal, Glyn explains the "California Curse" thus: "You see yourself as the most important person in any room; you accept money as the strongest force in nature; and, finally, your hold on morality vanishes without a trace."
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.
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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