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Lady And The Tramp

Chaplin-Davies-Hearst Affair

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It's a no-brainer to figure out why faddish film players like Pauly Shore and Yahoo Serious disappear from the cinema scene almost as quickly as they arrive, but what to make of the strange case of Peter Bogdanovich? A former film critic who parlayed his connections into a Hollywood career, Bogdanovich helmed three beloved works in the early 70s (The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc? and Paper Moon) before flaming out with a series of notorious flops. He pops up like a hiccup every now and then to remind us he's still alive (directing the Cher weepie Mask, acting in various episodes of The Sopranos), but these days he's better known as Orson Welles' biographer than as an accomplished filmmaker.

The Cat's Meow will in no way thrust him back into any sort of limelight, but its minor pleasures will be appreciated by those who take delight in Hollywood insider pieces. A fictional spin on a factual event, The Cat's Meow finds Bogdanovich almost serving as an apologist for his idol Orson Welles. Citizen Kane, Welles' masterpiece, was loosely based on the life of the all-powerful publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and, among other things, included a character based on Hearst's longtime mistress, actress Marion Davies -- the mogul was so incensed by the mere existence of the film that he unsuccessfully tried to purchase it from the studio with the sole intention of destroying it before anyone could see it.

Bogdanovich's new film includes Hearst and Davies among its central characters, and affords them characterizations that, to a certain extent, present them in a sympathetic light. Based on Steven Peros' stage play, the movie focuses on an event that took place in November 1924, when Hearst invited a group of colorful characters aboard his yacht for a pleasure-filled cruise. But what started out as fun and games eventually turned serious, with one of the party guests turning up dead. With a whole publishing empire at his disposal, Hearst was able to cover up the details of the death: The victim's body was cremated before an autopsy could take place, and to this day no one has ever known for sure what happened aboard that yacht.

In a statement to the press, Bogdanovich has requested that "anyone writing about the film refrain from revealing the murder victim." In one sense, this is a silly plea, since the victim's identity is a matter of historical record -- in theory, it'd be like Oliver Stone requesting that anyone writing about the film JFK "refrain from revealing the fate of President Kennedy." On the other hand, Bogdanovich doubtless realizes that for most modern audiences, Hollywood only sprang from the ashes circa the time of The Godfather or maybe Jaws, so why spoil the fun unless absolutely necessary?

In any event, the boat is filled with potential victims. In addition to Hearst (Edward Herrmann) and Davies (Kirsten Dunst), others onboard include film legend Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), who's just coming off his first box office flop (A Woman of Paris); film pioneer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), who, despite being one of the originators of the studio system, finds his career in serious decline; gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), a rising star in the Hearst empire; and Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), a tart-tongued British novelist. Peros' script forwards the oft-discussed theory that the death was an accident, a "wrong place at the wrong time" scenario that came about because of Hearst's jealous rage when he found out that Chaplin, a notorious womanizer, was putting the moves on his beloved Marion.

Whether this is really what happened will never be known, but as the basis for a motion picture, it's a heckuva zinger, providing plenty of fodder for oversized characterizations and inventive bits of trivia. It's been long acknowledged, for example, that Davies was more adept at screwball comedy than anything else, but feeling that the genre would denigrate his mistress's image, Hearst insisted on repeatedly casting her in inert costume dramas. The film pointedly addresses the issue in a couple of sharply etched scenes that actually end up revealing more about Hearst than Davies.

Looking like a great unmade bed, Edward Herrmann handles the story's trickiest role with all the complexity it requires: His William Randolph Hearst may be a manmade monster (the man being himself), but he's also recognizably vulnerable in the scenes in which his overflowing love for Marion Davies is as palpable as the yacht itself. As Davies, Kirsten Dunst again proves that she's one of the best actresses of her generation (her only real competition may be Anna Paquin, Julia Stiles and Thora Birch); rather than portray Davies as a golddigger (or, as Dorothy Parker once reportedly referred to her, "the glamorous whore"), she makes her a street-smart realist whose genuine affection for her benefactor couldn't completely dispel her youthful urges -- it's an unexpectedly touching portrayal. British comedian Eddie Izzard doesn't look much like Chaplin, but as the picture progresses, that becomes a non-issue, as he nails both the air of arrogant aristocracy and the flair of sly sexuality that were always tied to Chaplin's name. And as Louella Parsons, one of the most odious people ever associated with the motion picture industry -- well, what better way to immediately set audiences on edge than by casting that walking nail-on-a-chalkboard, Jennifer Tilly?

True to its stage origins, The Cat's Meow is such a confined, one-set work, it's impossible to gauge how much Bogdanovich's skills have eroded over the years: Marion Davies once said, "With me, it was 5 percent talent and 95 percent publicity." Whether those numbers also accurately reflect Bogdanovich's long, twisting, and often sad career is up for discussion, but if so, it's safe to say that The Cat's Meow is feeding off that five percent.

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