There was a time when director Peter Bogdanovich was himself “the cat’s meow,” boasting a string of successful films that started with Targets in 1968 and carried on with The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, only to falter with Daisy Miller in 1974. Then his career truly came tumbling down with the magnificent — yet far from ignoble — disaster of At Long Last Love in 1975. (An expensive period musical with Cole Porter songs warbled by Cybill Shepherd and Burt Reynolds was apparently just not what the world had been waiting for). It was a blow from which his career never fully recovered. After one more personal film, Nickelodeon, Bogdanovich seemed to wander through the film world as an infrequently employed hired hand. Apart from the unsuccessful attempt at recapturing The Last Picture Show with the sequel film, Texasville, in 1990, there’s been precious little in his post-1976 filmography that seems distinctively a “Peter Bogdanovich Film” — at least until now. The Cat’s Meow may not be the remaking of Peter Bogdanovich professionally (after all, it’s a specialized film with a relatively narrow target audience), but it certainly restakes his claim for artistic respectability. There’s a certain aptness in Bogdanovich tackling the story of what happened aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924. Bogdanovich started his career as a movie critic and film historian who became a friend of Orson Welles, and one of the chief defenders of Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, when critic Pauline Kael attempted to debunk the Welles’ “myth” with her Citizen Kane Book in the early 1970s. Since Citizen Kane was Welles’ thinly veiled take on William Randolph Hearst, what more natural than Bogdanovich tackling another aspect of the Hearst story? Indeed, Bogdanovich’s film even includes a scene in which Hearst (Edward Herrmann) furiously ransacks Marion Davies’ (Kirsten Dunst) cabin that is obviously patterned on the famous scene in Kane where Kane trashes his wife’s bedroom. It’s also hard not to notice a certain parallel between Bogdanovich himself and film pioneer Thomas H. Ince (Cary Elwes) as Ince is presented in The Cat’s Meow. Once one of the most powerful producers in the world, Ince had very much fallen on hard times by 1924 when he boarded Hearst’s yacht for the fateful weekend party that would end in his still mysterious death. According to the film, Ince was desperately trying to align his moviemaking interests with those of Hearst. It’s a situation that Bogdanovich is all too familiar with, and may account for how well he responded to the material afforded by The Cat’s Meow. Despite the curious business of starting the film with Al Jolson’s late 1940s Decca recording of “Avalon” rather than his more appropriate 1920 Columbia recording of the same song (doubly odd since the Columbia recording is heard elsewhere in the film), Bogdanovich’s film evidences an immediate feeling for the era and the people who inhabited it. The story is told by then-popular sexy novelist Elinor Glynn (a splendidly arch role for Joanna Lumley), a character who captures exactly the right combination of surface sophistication and intellect to make the speculative tale we witness seem plausible. Glynn — at least as presented here — also retains just enough basic humanity to not be wholly judgmental on the faults and foibles of the other characters, accepting them for what they are and finally admitting to be one of them. The plot is, of course, largely imagined. What we know is that Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Ince, Glynn, Davies, Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and a few other Hollywood folks boarded Hearst’s yacht, the Oneida, on Nov. 15, 1924. Before the cruise party was over, Ince was taken from the yacht by an ambulance and died a few days later at his home. What exactly happened will never be known, but the film makes a strong case for a possible scenario — one that certainly fits the known facts and makes sense in light of subsequent events. And it does so with wit, pathos and a generally fine sense of the era (let’s overlook the anachronistic two-letter state abbreviations in Hearst’s address book!). Bogdanovich has crafted a sumptuous-looking film with a notable gallery of performances. Eddie Izzard isn’t a perfect Chaplin (Robert Downey, Jr. still holds that title), but he’s good. Kirsten Dunst emerges as the fine actress she’s always promised to be. However, the film’s real star is Edward Herrmann as Hearst. He genuinely captures the man’s bizarre mix of shrewd media mogul and childishness. It’s an eerie performance you won’t soon forget — a portrait of a monster, but a sad, frightened, strangely likable monster. There are lots of reasons to see The Cat’s Meow, but Herrmann is at the top of that list. A word of warning: See the film now, because it’s on its way out this Friday.
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