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[whitespace] Cast of 'The Cat's Meow'
Photograph by Richard Foreman

Hearst Cursed: Joanna Lumley (left), Kirsten Dunst (center) and Jennifer Tilly play three guests on a fateful yachting trip hosted by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 'The Cat's Meow.'

The Hate Boat

Peter Bogdanovich's 'The Cat's Meow' puts a new spin on an old Hollywood rumor

By Richard von Busack

THE DEATH of pioneer film producer Thomas Ince, in 1924, remains one of Hollywood's most impenetrable mysteries. The well-titled but pale The Cat's Meow, Peter Bogdanovich's first film in almost a decade, does its best to obscure matters further.

Ince had been a guest at a floating party aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht, the Oneida, at the time of his death; the occasion was Ince's birthday. His death was the subject of much gossip: was it an accident or murder? Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and director Orson Welles had even considered including the matter in Citizen Kane--the butler who mentions knowing where Kane's "bodies are buried" would have known about a literal body.

There were rumors that Hearst was responsible for the death of Ince. But Hearst biographer W.A. Swanberg dismisses the rumors around Ince's death as "ridiculous." He suggests that Ince died of a ruined stomach after he got a bad pint. It's possible. No one was monitoring the quality of bootlegged booze during the United States' previous unsuccessful drug war, and sometimes drinkers woke up blind after a night carousing with wood alcohol.

But The Cat's Meow cooks up a conspiracy theory, ultimately blaming the tragedy on the poisonous Hollywood milieu. The film is an ax-grinder, but the only thrill comes if its story can be mistaken for the truth, revealed at last after all these years.

The narrator is Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), a guest on Hearst's yacht. It's too bad that the film doesn't give a real sense of what a flamboyant and somewhat ridiculous figure Glyn was. (The S.J. Perelman essay "Tuberoses and Tigers" gives a hilarious sample of the "marshmallow-filled" pages of her novel Three Weeks, which had been filmed the year of Ince's death.) Glyn is supposed to be the sage voice of European wisdom, though.

In this version of the legend, Ince (Cary Elwes) tries to lean on Hearst (Edward Herrmann) to revive his troubled career. Ince, one of the real inventors of the movie studio as we know it, is depicted as being desperate for a comeback. He believes he can get back on top by fixing the skidding film career of Davies (Kirsten Dunst). What Hearst doesn't know is that another famous party guest, Charlie Chaplin himself, is interested in Davies, but not in a professional way.

Chaplin is played by Eddie Izzard, who is supposed to be a scream onstage, although he's never been more than an uncomfortable presence onscreen. Here he gives a sparkle-free performance as Chaplin, who might have been in a slump at the time but still was just about the most famous man in the world. On the sidelines is Jennifer Tilly, overplaying the dimness as Hearst's gossip columnist-to-be, Louella O. Parsons. (Surely, the real Parsons was more than just the lucky moron Tilly makes her out to be.)

The Cat's Meow is adapted from a play--and looks it. Bogdanovich didn't have the budget to get much atmosphere--a ship set and a few snapshots of the Greek coast posing as San Pedro. It's about arch, camping people and narrated by one of the most sequiny novelists of all time, but there's no dialogue worthy of the gilded characters on this boat. The film is woven out of weak characterizations and some strained epigrams.

What The Cat's Meow can boast is a really memorable Hearst and Davies--if only they'd been paired in a different adventure. Dunst can look sweetly conniving when she needs to, a trick of that old/young face. When we first saw that face, Dunst was playing a vampire, a creature who had the form of a little girl but who was 50 years old. She can still don that mask of weariness with ease.

Dunst suggests Davies' impatience, her frustration at being a genuine gold-hearted chorus girl forced into costume pictures when she was best suited for Ginger Rogers roles. As her keeper, Hearst, Herrmann plays it very big: hulking, stuffy, yet light in the voice. Hearst's voice was "like the fragrance of violets made audible," said his editor Arthur Brisbane; Herrmann has those tones.

Bogdanovich catches some of the lore of Hearst: the ketchup bottles he set at his table next to the formal silverware, the cruel one-drink maximum he inflicted on his guests. But it's Herrman who fleshes out Hearst, who shows us how, in frivolous moments, this master of the world was as clumsy as a dancing bear.

Still, the film is most noteworthy as Bogdanovich's own comeback to feature work, although he has kept busy with TV movies, including a sugary version of Alan Gurganis' short story "Blessed Assurance." Unfortunately, this comeback isn't the event it's supposed to be.

We in the press are enjoined not to blow the ending, but I will anyway. The Cat's Meow concludes that the real murderer of Thomas Ince was the state of California. Glyn's speech about the "California Curse" has already been cited by Tad Friend in a recent New Yorker profile of Bogdanovich's as echoing the director's feelings toward Hollywood. The speech--meant to be a showstopper--cites how, on these heartlessly sunny shores, morality is soon sacrificed to the pull of ambition.

This speech seems to refer to Bogdanovich's failures and his fights with the studios--how he lost his way since making The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. In hindsight, I thought: Wait, Glyn's a Londoner, and Bogdanovich is a New Yorker, and both of them are talking about how status-seeking and ruthless California is?

The Cat's Meow (PG-13; 107 min.), directed by Peter Bogdanovich, written by Steven Peros, photographed by Bruno Delbonnel and starring Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard and Cary Elwes, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and the Guild in Menlo Park.

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From the April 25-May 1, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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