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Cat's Meow (PG-13)
Lion's Gate Films
Official Site
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Producer: Carol Lewis & Kim Bieber
Written by: Steven Peros
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Edward Hermann, Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley, Cary Elwes, Jennifer Tilly

Rating: out of 5


In 1924, William Randolph Hearst (Hermann), magnate of the Hearst newspaper syndicate, hosted a weekend party aboard his yacht. It was one of those classic mythical Hollywood gatherings, attended by Tinseltown royalty, powerful studio moguls, and pop writers intent on joining a club of stars. So, during the course of one weekend, much food was eaten, much illegal alcohol was drunk (Prohibition was a real bitch, wasn’t it?), much illicit activity occurred (behind closed doors, where probing eyes couldn’t judge), and, in the end, something went horribly wrong – one of Hearst’s guests died.

Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow attempts to recreate that weekend and posit an already fairly popular theory as to the how’s and why’s of the, dare we say, “murder,” aboard Hearst’s yacht that weekend. Bogdanovich has requested that reviewers not reveal who gets shot in the film, despite the fact that the identity of the unfortunate guest is a matter of public record, so we’ll comply with that and just say that the film is constructed in such a way that the events leading up to the killing achieve a kind of karmic inevitability. When it finally happens it’s like a piñata splitting open, letting loose an assortment of action and reaction. It’s safe to say that this is my favorite film so far this year.

For years, we’ve ruefully wondered where Peter Bogdanovich went. In Paper Moon, What’s Up, Doc?, and especially The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich proved to be the 70s reigning master of merging a jaded outlook on life with the sentimentality that finds saving grace in the good in people. But then that talent seemed to disappear for a while, being drained in a number of subpar films, as well as that interesting late-90s stream of TV movies. But now, the cynic with a heart of jello brings that long-lost quality back in The Cat’s Meow. This is a film that, like many Hollywood exposés, lays bare the backbiting and the scandal of fame and fortune. But, in true Bogdanovich style, there’s more to it. It’s less a condemnation of Hollywood product than a reflection of a society whose very survival is dependent on that product.

There’s this idea throughout The Cat’s Meow that having a private life is something to be ashamed of, that these characters, real-life and larger-than-life at the same time, consider an existence away from the cameras as a kind of weakness. They are afraid that they will lack any kind of purpose when the cards are laid out and business can’t protect them from the simple definition as “people,” without the word “famous” tagged on.

As Charlie Chaplin, Eddie Izzard illustrates this idea beautifully. He digs deep to find another side of The Tramp, one that points at the frustration caused by living life in the public. This Chaplin is a man whose film persona is bigger than himself, and he finds it impossible to shake a public perception that insists he be who they know and love, his celluloid alter ego. His most recent film reaped cold reception precisely because he tried to stay behind the camera for once, to work as a serious craftsman. And the public wouldn’t have it. Izzard understands the toll this would take on a man who defines himself as the public does, whose happiness rests solely on how happy his audience is, a bunch of strangers that determine his course in life. It’s that old Hollywood adage, you’re only as good as your last picture, and this harsh truth stands tall throughout Izzard’s performance. Eddie Izzard is, in fact, only one member of an amazing cast that aims high and never misses the mark. Despite the true-life characters here, none of these performances are imitations. No, they avoid that altogether, instead creating the characters from scratch, not letting what we know get in the way of what they want us to know.

Kirsten Dunst’s performance as Marion Davies, the Hollywood starlet and mistress of Hearst, perfectly captures the silent-film-flapper aura, the charisma and the inscrutability that make a star. With this role, Dunst proves once and for all that she is the foremost actress of her generation. Her Marion is a vital presence among the other characters; she uses her youth to challenge everyone around her, and Dunst uses her own youth to channel a free spirit who wants everyone else to share in that freedom.

If Dunst’s Marion represents young Hollywood’s insistence on a good time, then Joanna Lumley’s performance as novelist Elinor Glyn is a study of restrained dignity and quiet morality that seems to sometimes crave a common life even in the wake of her fame and fortune. Lumley erases any memory of Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous with her incredibly measured and mature presence, the quiet, reserved center in a world gone totally mad. The same can be said for Cary Elwes, who, as legendary movie producer Thomas H. Ince, has never been better. His is a performance of reaction, one that uncovers Ince’s desire to have some kind of effect on the world around him, to somehow change things, even if just temporarily. He wants control, and his job as producer allows him this position. Elwes give us a look inside a very practical, financially driven man who sees his legacy slipping away, who sees the power in Hollywood gradually creeping out of his hands and into the hands of art. And Jennifer Tilly, who has made a career out of playing mousy, slightly annoying characters now uses those qualities to deepen her role as gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Tilly manages the part perfectly, outwardly playing Parsons as a star-struck “commoner” who looks to these people to provide her with the vicarious thrill of fame. But we get glimpses of the inner workings of Parsons’s mind, and that is where the brilliance of Tilly’s performance can be found. She very subtly shows how Parsons gains the trust of others, how she fools them into slipping up and benefiting her bid for a stardom by proxy.

But the heart of The Cat’s Meow has got to be Edward Hermann as Hearst. Hermann has always had a special talent for playing powerful men brought down by their own self-doubt. His Hearst has it all: money, power, a young, beautiful mistress, and a wife who doesn’t mind. But his power is only comfort food. His mounting paranoia throughout the film is only heightened by his fear of losing everything, and his role of host is only a way to calm that fear. But it doesn’t work. Hermann shows us how Hearst perceives himself as outsider to the circle of Hollywood, and how he only becomes more disappointed when he realizes that his power doesn’t have the effect he thought it did. It’s a terrific performance that thoughtfully confirms what we already know: that mighty people are people nonetheless.

Cole Sowell

 

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

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