review by Cynthia Fuchs, 3 May 2002
You may have
heard some things about William Randolph Hearst. That he was
superrich and not a little tyrannical, publishing magnate and
proponent of yellow journalism, Patty Hearst's grandfather and a
model for Orson Welles' (and co-screenwriter William J. Mankiewicz's)
Charles Foster Kane. You may have also heard that he was, for years,
devoted to his mistress, Marion Davies, endeavoring not only to
design a film career for her, but also to ensure her fidelity to him
-- like, forever.
For years, a
rumor circulated around Hollywood, with occasional seepage outside,
concerning the bizarre and untimely death of a friend of Hearst, the
cowboy picture producer Thomas Ince, during a November 1924 cruise
on Hearst's yacht, the Oneida. According to one rather legendary
version of events -- the one that is taken up by Peter Bogdanovich's
new film, The Cat's Meow -- on a dark night, Hearst mistook
Ince for Charlie Chaplin, whom he understood to be dallying with
Marion, and shot him in the head. Being Hearst, he was able to have
a doctor and private ambulance take Ince's unconscious body home,
where he died days later. And being Hearst, he was able to keep the
press and the law at bay: the official word was that Ince died of
something like "indigestion." (Hearst's biographer, David Nasaw, by
the way, insists that there is no good reason to believe this story,
any which way).
movie re-imagines all this as it might have appeared to one of the
guests on that fateful yachting trip, Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley).
Though Elinor isn't precisely a witness to what happens, she offers
bits of memory and gossip, laced through with cautions about excess
-- of desire and wealth, fantasy and business. Glyn's narration
begins while at Ince's funeral (which appears in the film in quaint,
and rather elegant, black and white). As she gazes on the coffin,
the shot dissolves to the yacht and fades into color: the
distinction between past and present is at once harsh and hazy.
Worst of all, The Cat's Meow insists, you can't go back to
the good old days, because they were never so good as you think they
party, ironically conceived as a birthday celebration for Ince (Cary
Elwes), begins as Glyn waits in her motorcar at the pier: though she
has arrived before the other guests, she'll be damned to make her
actual appearance early. Immediately, then, the film asks you
to be wary of your guide. No matter that Glyn is witty, self-aware,
even, for fleeting moments, warm. She has a reputation for writing
well about the rich and famous because is one of them.
For all the
forgetting that goes on this film -- willful and accidental,
self-delusional and self-protective -- you can't forget this much.
Glyn's capacity to go along, not to mention feel nostalgic for this
scene, is premised on her dedication to the cause. Or rather, as she
herself describes it in a bit of writerly explication: she's in
thrall to the Curse, which strikes you "like a disease." Once you
succumb, you realize that Hollywood is "not a place at all, but a
living creature, an evil wizard." And soon you start believing what
it tells you, that "you are the most important person in any room."
takes place at the first night's dinner, and as the camera pans
around the table, it's clear that just about everyone in that room
is thinking how important he or she is at that moment. This is how
the business works, how lies and careers become codependent. And
it's exactly how the film sets up Hearst (Edward Hermann), as the
King of This World, always the most important person in all rooms.
He's poofed up and soft, and deadly afraid that his lack (of
knowledge, security, potency, juice) will be found out. And so his
entire life is dedicated to putting up the front that he is
absolutely, never ever afraid of any of it.
introduced, tellingly, as less powerhouse publisher ("He controls
more print than Jesus Christ," observes one hanger-on). Peeping
through a porthole on his yacht, he observes his guests and
especially, keeps watch over Marion (Kirsten Dunst, who is
tremendous in this role). Marion is a child next to Hearst, but also
his grown up caretaker: when he frets that she's going to leave him,
or doesn't appreciate the butterfly broach he's given her, she
assures him, at ease with her own will and love: "Shut up and keep
me happy, Pops." At times anxious because she knows he's watching
her, Marion maintains her stylish sailor-dress sunny-ness: she's
surely resilient, or maybe just terrified to let down her guard.
As this little
show goes on in Hearst's outpost/stateroom, the lower deck teems
with performance. Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly, of the
fingernails-on-chalkboard voice) appears as a young up-and-comer,
not yet the gossip columnist with a lifetime contract with Hearst
Papers (this comes about, according to The Cat's Meow,because
Hearst must buy her silence regarding the Ince incident); a couple
of flapper-party girls; Ince, his business manager-buddy-beard
George (Victor Sleazak), and Ince's mistress, Margaret (Claudia
Harrison); the band members; and Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), all mill
about expecting good times to rain down on them.
knows the illicit nature of Hearst's relationship with Marion, they
all observe the pretense of propriety as if their lives depended on
it. Ince, in particular, is worried "not to get on [Hearst's]
morally objectionable side," as he's hoping to strike up a lucrative
movie-making deal with him, promising to take "good care" of Marion.
Ince believes that his primary potential obstacles are 1) even
getting Hearst's attention, since the old man tends to be easily
distracted, and 2) keeping the Margaret affair a secret. Of course,
everyone already knows about the affair (he's brought Margaret along
for the trip), and frankly, it's hard to believe that he's so
ignorant. But Ince's density and self-absorption, matched only by
Hearst's own, become important plot points. And so, you settle in to
listen to Margaret's incessant complaints and his alarming
Given that he's
only one navel-gazer on a ship full of them, Ince's problems (and
annoyances) start looking minor, even though he's actually the
closest to losing his livelihood (and so, his sense of himself, or
his sense of room-importance). Ince's once lucrative Western films
have fallen out of fashion, and he's up against it. Louella is
angling for a career; her early morning ping-pong game with an angry
Margaret is part comedy and part tragedy: Lolly is dim beyond the
Chaplin is also
at something of a crossroads, as his film, A Woman of Paris
(in which he did not appear), failed miserably at the box office,
and his last conquest, teenaged Lita Grey, has turned up pregnant.
He's hopeful about Marion, but you're not sure why. She, in turn,
apparently quite in love with Hearst, is still not beyond imagining
what it might be like to spend time with someone who might last more
than thirty seconds on the dance floor. She's also quite ready to
believe Charlie when he tells her that her career path lies in
comedy, as her historical dramas, which Hearst prefers because they
are "respectable," are mostly painful to watch.
Everyone is in
some state of crisis, personal and professional, because these are
the same thing, and because, crisis is the only way these folks know
how to function (or not function). Still, this may be the least
interesting way to read The Cat's Meow. It's hardly a
newsflash to say that Hollywood is rife with corruption and
selfishness. Neither does the film offer much in the way of plot of
clever camerawork: such conventional movie elements have never
appeared to interest Bogdanovich, and it shows, especially in his
most successful films. Most sadly, perhaps, her protestations to
Hearst -- "Stop listening to whispers and listen to me!" -- are
rendered meaningless. The whispers in Hollywood are deafening.
But if The
Cat's Meow is regular in story and execution, that's actually
okay. Because it's not about either. In fact, it's less a narrative
per se than a portrait of a moment that never really existed. Or
better, it's a series of portraits setting off its most eloquent and
moving image, and that is, again and again, Marion Davies. Forgotten
by film "history," or worse, remembered as a victim of Hearst's
follies, here she comes alive. By film's end, she looks too
deer-in-the-headlights, unable to collapse or move. She's seen the
shooting and the work of the cover-up, and the next morning, she
faces herself, in the form of the choices she does not have: to
believe in Charlie Chaplin, or William Randolph Hearst.
Marion is here,
in her blankness and horror, the most accurate register of the loss
that lies at the center of this film, and by extension, this
narcissistic culture. When she decides, at last, to stay with
"Pops," you're left feeling as shell-shocked as she looks, waving to
her departing guests from the deck, leaning into her hollow mountain
of a man.
Click here to read the The
Cat's Meow interview.
PG-13 - Parents
material may be
children under 13.