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With: Edward Herrmann, Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Jennifer Tilly, Joanna Lumley
Written by: Steven Peros
Directed by: Peter Bogdanovich
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of violence and brief drug use
Running Time: 112
Date: 08/03/2001

The Cat's Meow (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hearst So Good

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The success of his great book, Who the Devil Made It, has proven Peter Bogdanovich as strong a film historian as he is a director. So it only makes sense that his first feature film in nine years, The Cat's Meow connects the two to become his most personal work -- the most purely Bogdanovich -- since perhaps Nickelodeon (1976).

The Cat's Meow, which opens today in Bay Area theaters, re-invents a fateful weekend in 1924 when William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) invited a boatload of Hollywood somebodies for a spin in his yacht.

Though the actual story has been covered up, twisted around, and massacred six ways to Sunday, Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros imagine that the passenger list included Hearst's mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and that pioneer of western films, producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), as well as many other rich friends and associates. Author Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) narrates the tale.

One of the passengers does not finish the trip alive, though who that might be and why is kept something of a mystery (unless the viewer already knows the story).

I don't want to give away what actually happens, but I will say that Bogdanovich does a remarkable job of building dread up to and following the crucial event. As soon as the first passengers arrive, we see Hearst squirreled away in his cabin and listening in on their conversation using a concealed microphone. Throughout the film, Bogdanovich reveals that not only does Hearst have the whole ship wired, but it's filled with secret peepholes as well. We never know when Hearst could be spying on someone.

Indeed, the film touches on several themes dear to anyone who loves movies: paranoia, greed, lust for power, lust for fame and sexual conquest. Many of these come out during a crucial dinner scene in which Hearst does not allow his guests the luxury of alcohol (they're allowed one drink). Characters exchange nervous or excited glances and say awkward things at just the wrong time. And no one can blame it on the booze.

Bogdanovich opens and closes the film with black-and-white footage (which he used to brilliant effect in both The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon) in order to provide a historical perspective. But though the rest of the film is in color, Bogdanovich manages to use a system he calls "black-and-white in color" in which characters simply wear lots of black and white. The result is striking, especially when a swatch of color enters into a scene for dramatic effect.

A good deal of the film's success comes from the great performances, most of all Dunst who deserves an Oscar nomination for her Marion Davies. She seems incapable of a false note, whether she's secretly drinking and carousing and flirting in someone's berth or whether she's professing her genuine love for W.R. She's especially good in a set of "dailies" from a somber silent film she's working on, which show that she's a magnificent comedienne. But Hearst will not have her laughed at. "She'll make important pictures," he demands. (A primitive thought process that sadly lingers to this day.)

Eddie Izzard has big shoes to fill not only playing Charlie Chaplin, but living up to Robert Downey Jr.'s brilliant performance in the 1992 biopic. Izzard makes up for it not by mining Chaplin's comedy films for nuggets, but by finding the center of the character, a lonely man constantly on the hunt for a companion to dominate. (The film takes place just after -- and contains numerous references to -- Chaplin's 1923 flop A Woman of Paris, which by all rights is a superb picture.)

I should also point out the very subtle Cary Elwes, who shows us a Thomas Ince at a down point in his career, desperate and cagey -- with a few quiet moments in which his eyes reveal his true despair to us. Not to mention that Herrmann makes a striking Hearst, a match for James Cromwell's Hearst in the otherwise awful RKO 281.

Best of all, Bogdanovich paints every single character with affection and respect. No one plays the fool or the fall guy or the sneering villain. Everyone has their flaws, but all within the boundaries of emotional truth.

The Cat's Meow is not only a reminder of how they used to make movies, but also how they sometimes still can be made.

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