“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review
There have been many accounts of the infamous November 1924 cruise held aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, in honor of Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince’s birthday. But the biggest . . . and probably the most fictionalized account was featured in “THE CAT’S MEOW”, Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of screenwriter Steven Peros’ stage play.
The movie takes place aboard Hearst’s yacht on a weekend cruise celebrating Ince’s 42nd birthday. Among those in attendance include Hearst’s longtime companion and film actress Marion Davies, fellow actor Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, and actress Margaret Livingston. Many of the guests harbor agendas that revolve around Hearst and Davies. Chaplin, who has become infatuated with the actress, sees the weekend cruise as a chance to declare his feelings for her . . . and convince Davies to end her relationship with the publisher. Parsons sees the cruise as a chance to develop a stronger professional relationship with her boss, Hearst, and relocate from the East Coast to Hollywood. Faced with a bad financial situation and accompanied by his mistress Margaret Livingston, Ince hopes to convince Hearst to allow him to become a partner in the publisher’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Hearst suspects that Davies and Chaplin are engaged in an affair and has great difficulty in battling his jealousy. Thanks to this jealousy, a violent death ends the cruise, which becomes a subject of Hollywood legend.
After watching “THE CAT’S MEOW”, I realized that after so many years of documentaries and somewhat mediocre films, Peter Bogdanovich had maintained his touch as a first-rate director. At least back in 2000-2001. “THE CAT’S MEOW” struck me as a first-rate character study of a good number of film and publishing luminaries in the world of 1920s Hollywood. What I found interesting is that aside from one or two characters, most of them are not what I would call particularly sympathetic. Well, superficially, hardly any of them are sympathetic – including the very likable Marion Davies, who was not only Hearst’s official mistress, but who was doing a piss-poor job of hiding her attraction for Charlie Chaplin. But despite the lack of superficial charm, the movie managed to reveal the demons and desires of each major character. And thanks to Steven Peros’ screenplay and Bogdanovich’s direction, characters like Hearst, Davies, Chaplin and Ince rose above their superficial venality and ambiguity to be revealed as interesting and complex characters. The most interesting aspect of “THE CAT’S MEOW” was that many of the characters’ agendas either succeeded or failed, due to the romantic drama that surrounded Hearst, Davies and Chaplin.
For costume drama fans such as myself, “THE CAT’S MEOW” offered a tantalizing look into the world of Old Hollywood in the 1920s. Bogdanovich made a wise choice in hiring Jean-Vincent Puzos to serve as the movie’s production designer. In fact, I was so impressed by his re-creation of November 1924 that I felt rather disappointed that his efforts never received an Academy Award nomination. Puzos’ work was aided by the art direction team led by Christian Eisele and Daniele Drobny’s set decorations. But the second biggest contributor to the movie’s 1920s look were the gorgeous costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. I was extremely impressed by how the costumes closely adhered to the fashions worn during that particular decade. But de Vivaise did something special by designing all of the costumes in black and white – as some kind of homage to the photography used during that period in Hollywood. And if anyone is wondering whether de Vivaise won any awards or nominations for her work . . . she did not. What a travesty.
Bogdanovich gathered an impressive cast for his movie. “THE CAT’S MEOW” featured first-rate performances from the likes of Claudie Blakley and Chiara Schoras as a pair of fun-loving actresses that embodied the spirit of the 1920s flappers; Claudia Harrison as Ince’s frustrated mistress, actress Margaret Livingston; Ronan Vibert as one of Hearst’s minions, the stoic Joseph Willicombe; and Victor Slezak as Ince’s sardonic and witty colleague, George Thomas. But the more interesting performances came from Jennifer Tilly, who gave a delicious performance as the toadying and opportunistic columnist, Louella Parsons; Joanna Lumley as the wise and occasionally self-important novelist Elinor Glyn; and especially Eddie Izzard, who was surprisingly subtle and witty as the wise-cracking, yet passionate Charlie Chaplin.
But in my opinion, the three best performances in “THE CAT’S MEOW” came from Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes and Kirsten Dunst. The latter was the only member of the cast to earn an award (Best Actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival) for her performance as Hollywood starlet and W.R. Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. What made Dunst’s performance so remarkable was that she was the only one – as far as I know – who portrayed the actress as a complex and intelligent personality, instead of the one-note stereotype that director Orson Welles had introduced in his 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. I suppose one could credit screenwriter Steven Peros for writing a more realistic portrayal of Davies’ true nature. But it would have never worked without Dunst’s performance. Cary Elwes gave – in my opinion – the best performance of his career so far as the harried and ambitious movie producer, Thomas Ince. What made Elwes’ performance so impressive was the subtle manner in which he conveyed Ince’s desperation to save his career as a Hollywood producer through any means possible. But for me, the best performance came from Edward Herrmann as the wealthy and controlling William R. Hearst. Herrmann did a superb job in conveying some of the worst aspects of Hearst’s nature – sense of privilege, arrogance, his bullying and bad temper. Yet, Herrmann also managed to convey Hearst’s desperate love for Davies and vulnerabilities through the more unpleasant mask. It was a remarkable performance that failed to garner any real recognition. And this is more of a travesty to me than the lack of awards for production design or costumes.
I tried to recall anything about the movie that left a negative mark within me and could only come up with one or two matters. The movie seemed to be in danger of slowing down to a crawl, following the tragic shooting that followed Ince’s birthday party. I wonder if Bogdanovitch had tried too hard to reveal the details that led to the cover up of the incident. However, one particular scene really annoyed me to no end. It was the scene that featured Elinor Glyn’s theory about the “California Curse”:
“The California Curse strikes you like a disease the Minute you set foot into California … so pay close attention, my dear. You see this place you’ve arrived in, the place we call home…isn’t a place at all. But a living creature. Or more precisely an evil wizard like in the old stories. And we all live on him like fleas on the belly of a mutt. But unlike the helpless dog, this wizard is able to banish the true personalities of those he bewitches. Forcing them against their will to carry out his command, to forget the land of their birth, the purpose of their journey, and what ever principals they once held dear. The Curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following: You see yourself as the most important person in any room. You accept money as the strongest force in nature. And finally your morality vanashes without a trace.”
As far as I am concerned, Elinor Glyn was full of shit. She could have easily described any individual who forgets his or her principles, no matter where that person resided. And according to Ms. Glyn, the curse has three symptoms – seeing yourself as the focus of all conversations, using money as the most important measure of success, and the disappearance of all traces of morality. Why did she seemed to believe that such a mindset only existed in Calfornia . . . or better yet, Hollywood, is beyond me. Anyone with too much ambition could acquire this curse in many other places in the world. Peros and Bogdanovich’s decision to include this crap in the movie damn near came close to ruining my enjoyment of the movie.
But in the end, I managed to overcome my annoyance of the so-called “California Curse”. Why? Because “THE CAT’S MEOW” remained a first-rate and entertaining movie about Old Hollywood that impresses me, even after sixteen years.“Hooray for Hollywood!”.