A period piece set in the 1920s, a boatload of socialites exchanging droll repartee, and a devilish murder mystery based on a true story. Those are the makings for Peter Bogdanovich's new film "The Cat's Meow" and the prospect will strike you as either terribly delicious or infernally tedious, because that's just the way people fall out on these things. As it turns out "The Cat's Meow" has a little something for everyone. It is both tedious and delicious.
The 1920s were a golden age of scandal and one of the scandals that didn't get much press involved the man who owned the press, William Randoph Hearst. In 1924, Hearst hosted an excursion on board his 200 foot steamship. The guest list included Charlie Chaplin, film pioneer Thomas Ince, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, British Victorian novelist Elinor Glyn and Hearst's mistress, silent film actress Marion Davies. They are joined by smaller players of the day, their mistresses and in one odd case, even a husband and wife. Much was whispered about, including the increasingly tense love triangle brewing between Hearst, Chaplin and Davies, but the fact is that one of the players on the boat did not survive the trip, and for years insiders traded hushed speculation on the crime that was likely committed, and the cover-up that clearly took place at Hearst's behest.
Bogdanovich directs from a script by Steven Peros, based on his stage play. The film stars Edward Herrmann as Hearst, Kirsten Dunst as Davies, Eddie Izzard as Chaplin, Cary Elwes as Ince, Jennifer Tilly as Parsons, and Joanna Lumley as Elinor Glyn, who also provides the film's narration and much needed perspective. It's hard not to be conscious about this being a Peter Bogdanovich film, his first in several years. Bogdanovich is a devout student of early Hollywood, a veteran director of period pieces, and a man whose own tale of success, hubris, failure and tragedy might actually pale the cautionary tale he's telling. When Lumley as Glyn recites the symptoms of the Hollywood Curse one night at dinner - including the belief that you're the most important person in the room and the vanishing of any morals you once held dear - Bogdanovich must understand better than anyone.
Maybe that's why "The Cat's Meow" doesn't feel true until the last third of the film, when tragedy finally strikes. The first two thirds...the introductions, entaglements and droll repartee wear thin almost from the beginning. Some actors, like Edward Herrmann and Joanna Lumley, slip effortlessly into the larger than life mood and characters. Others, like Cary Elwes and Jennifer Tilly, revert to High School thespianism, making "The Cat's Meow" at times hard to watch. But if you have to choose only one act to get right, it might as well be the Third Act. The film ends at the victim's funeral, with Lumley's voiceover intoning the aftermath of that fateful voyage: the curious affect it had on the careers of the witnesses and the final rule of the Hollywood Curse...if you stop dancing and look in the mirror, you won't like what you see. It leaves the viewer with delicious speculation And perhaps a pang or two about the more riveting film "The Cat's Meow" might have been.
© 2002 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 4/24/02
The Cat's Meow
Canada/Germany/UK - 2001