A welcome return to form by once-disgraced '70s director Peter Bogdanovich, The Cat's Meow is a fascinating conjecture at what might have happened in one of silent era-Hollywood's most controversial and infamous real-life dramas.
In 1924, Hollywood producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) was found dead, shortly after embarking on a cruise aboard the yacht of tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrman). According to the film's version of events (as what really happened will forever remain in dispute), Hearst shot and killed Ince after mistaking him for Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), whom Hearst suspected of carrying on an affair with his mistress, the silent film actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). The film, quite astutely, calls this theory the whisper most often heard.
The consummate Hollywood historian (as evidenced by his books about film criticism and about Orson Welles), Bogdanovich is the perfect man to direct such a film. Of course, at its very core The Cat's Meow is the story of backstabbing, infidelity, and eventually murder among the Hollywood elite, all of which Bogdanovich became intimately familiar with during his A-List days (he infamously left his wife for Cybill Shepherd early in his career, and later his girlfriend Dorothy Stratten was murdered; his career, in the meantime, declined precipitously.)
What's surprising is the skill in which Bogdanovich directs the picture - the camera movements and style echo his 1971 masterwork The Last Picture Show; the yacht set never feels cramped, yet we never forget the characters are actually on a boat. He also uses his personal experiences to skewer the Hollywood culture that abandoned him in a way that is reminiscent of Robert Altman with The Player. The director is clearly arguing that the values (or lack thereof) that shaped Hollywood in the '20s are not much different than those of the '70s, or for that matter today. This is especially apparent in a speech about the California Curse - one that causes all those who go to Hollywood to suddenly lose any and all sense of morality.
At the heart of The Cat's Meow is an astonishing performance by Edward Herrman as Hearst. The most powerful media tycoon of the time, someone seemingly with the entire world at his beck and call, is portrayed by Herrman as a man racked by insecurities, mostly dealing with his jealousy of Chaplin and fear over losing his mistress Davies. But Herrman's performance renders Hearst a not altogether unsympathetic character - the world's most powerful man as sad sack. This is best demonstrated in a brilliant scene in which Hearst talks to Ince on the deck of the boat while unsuccessfully shooting at a succession of overhead birds.
Also impressive is Eddie Izzard, in a convincing portrayal of Charlie Chaplin that is at once nothing like Chaplin's known screen persona, nothing like Izzard's usual act, and nothing like Robert Downey, Jr.'s interpretation in the film Chaplin. Kirsten Dunst proves again that she's got talent and sophistication to go with her looks, and Jennifer Tilly eats up a juicy role as Hollywood gossip Louella Parsons.
Citizen Kane, of course, hovers over the film like a ghost, due to Hearst and Davies' involvement, and especially in a scene where the tycoon trashes his mistress' belongings; one weakness of Cat's Meow is that we know Hearst and Davies must end the film together, because they have to still be together in 1941 to be skewered by Welles in 'Kane.'
The recent spate of Old Hollywood re-enactment films, after all, have a strange way of fitting together: the Kane dramatization RKO 281, set in 1941, depicted the famous battle between Hearst and Welles, Tim Robbins' '30s opus Cradle Will Rock's ensemble made room for both men without their ever interacting, and now we get a '20s version of Hearst, in a film directed by Welles' protégé, Bogdanovich.
Peter Bogdanovich may not have shaken all of his demons from the past, but he has gotten his filmmaking touch back, in a film that pays tribute to and trashes Old Hollywood (and New Hollywood) all at the same time. Orson would be proud.