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The Cat’s Meow (Peter Bogdanovich) 2002


    Since Peter Bogdanovich has always taken it upon himself to be a gatekeeper of sorts to bygone Hollywood, his attraction to the events in The Cat’s Meow isn’t especially surprising. The infamous boat ride that the film obsesses about allows him the chance to place many of Old Hollywood’s elite in compromising positions. Its portrayal of William Randolph Hearst, who’s more popularly known as Citizen Kane these days, as a man more worried about the column space devoted to an illicit affair than the tryst itself would have made Orson Welles, Bogdanovich’s mentor of sorts, proud. The director’s inability to make us feel that these events say something larger about society and the glaring tonal inconsistencies that eventually cause this ship to sink are a bit more surprising, however.


    Although the atmosphere that the director sometimes manages to hint that wilder antics are going on behind closed doors, one can’t help but feel that things have been reigned in here to create an air of respectability. Bogdanovich seems at once in awe of his subjects’ class and convinced that he’s showing us a modern Babylon. Any attempts to attain some sort of legitimacy fails here though, since we’re cursed with the knowledge that everything on screen is informed most by speculation and probably a good deal of wishful thinking. Everything that we see has been fabricated, as the narration tells us this more than once, and just in case, we’re still believers, a disclaimer reassures us that the film’s characters are fictional, making the experience roughly akin to a trip to David Lynch’s Club Silencio where the audience is repeatedly told that everything they see phony and then expected to lap it up emotionally.


    Since we can’t trust what we see, it’s hard to look at the The Cat Meow’s portrayal of its characters as anything other than caricature. Still, the implication that Thomas Ince was a mini-Iago seems somewhat slanderous. Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Marion Davies seems to have been conceived with more heart than Welles ever allowed her doppelganger in Kane to have (sorry, no references to her “rosebud” here), but her character lacks the complexity to make her truly compelling. We’re unsure that there’s ever anything ticking in her head at all. Likewise, Jennifer Tilly’s Louella Parsons is painted both as a half-wit and a schemer, but the two feel mutually exclusive, to the film’s detriment. Ironically, the character that feels most fleshed out is Hearst (Edward Herrmann). At least his rage and paranoia don’t feel compromised by a cartoonish portrayal. Though he seems tremendously vulnerable early on, once we see him spinning the events that occurred on the boat, we can finally understand a little about the man’s power.


    The performances that Bogdanovich coaxes out his actors are all interesting, but they each seem to exist in a vacuum, bearing little relationship to each other. The resultant clash in acting styles undermines many of the movie’s dramatic moments, since one character’s droll mannerisms hint at another’s ennui. Tilly and Joanna Lumley turn in the sort of mannered performances that can spark up a film that’s been more capably directed (witness Maggie Smith’s scenery chewing in Gosford Park), but here they distract from the movie’s more serious heart. The witty retorts that start the film off with a fair degree of energy only take things so far, and eventually, they begin to feel entirely detrimental. The problem seems to lie in Bogdanovich’s desire to paint the cruise as an example of Hollywood’s decay á la Sunset Blvd. Most of the decay seems to have taken place in Bogdanovich’s directing skills, however (it’s been nearly a decade since his last feature), and the closing monologue’s attempts to paint the Hollywood game as a massive farce feel forced at best. Still, just as Hearst’s life seems to be defined more by Welles’ film than by the facts themselves, The Cat’s Meow, which is narrated by a gossip columnist, demonstrates the way that hearsay can segue quietly into fact.


* * 1/2


Jeremy Heilman