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The Cat's Meow   A

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writer: Steven Peros (based on his play)
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Tilly.

Review by Rob Vaux

Hollywood finds some of its most potent material while navel-gazing. Nothing infatuates it so much as itself, and the stories littered through its history make better reading than the juiciest fiction. Case in point: newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and his lifelong mistress, actress Marion Davies. Hearst papers had an enormous influence on Hollywood, and Davies used him to further her own career. What makes them particularly intriguing is that they truly seemed to love each other -- they remained together for decades, separated only by Hearst's death -- which adds an extra wrinkle to their already-fascinating story. The pair has served as the subject for several motion pictures, including Citizen Kane, which Hearst actively tried to destroy. And now comes The Cat's Meow, a quietly brilliant film from director Peter Bogdanovich. Using Hearst and Davies as a staring point, it takes the standard-issue "sleaze beneath the glamour" story and transforms it into a glorious metaphor about the price of riches, the power of lies, and the Bacchanalian excesses of the Jazz Age.

Watching the film's elfin Davies (Kirsten Dunst) cuddle with the towering Hearst (Edward Herrmann) gives the impression of two mismatched souls who have finally found a mate. The action starts in 1924, when the pair throw a birthday party for movie producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) aboard their private yacht -- part of a weekend voyage from San Pedro to San Diego. It promises to be a truly debaucherous trip, with bootleg gin and loose women aplenty. The industry's pampered elite all come to celebrate, including Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Hearst film critic Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), novelist Eleanor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), and several Hearst cronies. Naturally, most of the guests have ulterior motives: Ince needs Hearst's support to revive his career; Chaplin has his lecherous eye on Davies; Parsons wants to escape New York for a position of influence on the West Coast. As the party kicks into full swing the ambition, desperation, and jealousy come bubbling to the surface. Before it's all over, someone will be shot dead.

Though based on historical circumstance, the film never purports to be history. It presents "the loudest whisper," as Lumley's acerbic narrator tells it, a semi-legend that reveals far deeper truths than who did what. The characters supposedly represent the cream of society, and yet their success has brought them nothing but panic and insecurity. Bogdanovich uses humor and intelligence to softly skewer their dilemma, painting the life they lead as a hollow dream. The Cat's Meow primarily attacks Hollywood (and its points remain applicable to today's celebrities as well as yesterday's), but its subjects could be any group of influential people anywhere in the world. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel presents Hearst's yacht as a gilded cage, opulent yet claustrophobic in its oppression. The revels aboard it have a distinctly Gatsby-esque quality, hiding human frailty beneath a sheen of pretense and ennui. The Cat's Meow brings these elements out on the edges, then slowly draws them closer until they dominate our perception.

At times, some of the characters appear too broad -- Parsons' self-serving insinuation, Chaplin's shameless skirt-chasing, Ince's desperation to close the deal -- but the performances all find the right note and Bogdanovich never allows them to lapse into caricature. Dunst's richly developed turn as Davies suggests that the talented young actress has only begun to come into her own. Herrmann, too, finds fertile ground, portraying Hearst as equal parts monster and teddy bear. Together, they bring real humanity to The Cat's Meow, coloring the satire with palpable emotion.

That sensibility is what keeps the film from becoming just another Swiftian sucker punch. We can feel the characters' despair and loneliness even as we laugh at their self-indulgent folly. Bogdanovich's real triumph is bringing a timeless feeling to this story without sacrificing its wonderful flapper sensibility. A Roaring Twenties morality tale may be far from the here and now, but The Cat's Meow makes it feel as fresh as today's headlines. It knows that fame and riches always fade, leaving empty people in their wake -- people who believe they can ignore their demons if only they dance a little faster.

Review published 04.12.2002.

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