The Cat's Meow (2001) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of violence and drug use
Running Time: 110 min.
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Jennifer Tilly, Joanna Lumley, Claudia Harrison
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Screenplay: Steven Peros
Peter Bogdanovich's (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) first theatrical film in over eight years still sees the acclaimed director in fine form, with another cinematic dig at the mystique of William Randolph Hearst. Of course, Bogdanovich isn't merely a director, but a very respected historian and critic of film, especially of the old Hollywood days. One can see how such a wealth of 20s Hollywood icons in one place would appeal to him, with Steven Peros adapting his own play for the big screen. Having recently participated in a commentary track for Orson Welles' masterpiece, Citizen Kane, which also was inspired by the life of Hearst, the time would be right for Bogdanovich to hit a little closer to home, with a tale of vice and cover-up among the rich and powerful.
The Cat's Meow takes us back to Southern California in 1924, which has enjoyed a boom in the film industry which attracts some of the best and brightest talent from around the world. A mysterious occurrence took place on a yacht owned by media magnate William Randoph Hearst (Herrmann, Richie Rich), which received little media coverage and even fewer police investigations. Guests on board reportedly included Charlie Chaplin (Izzard, Shadow of the Vampire), Thomas Ince (Elwes, Kiss the Girls), Louella Parsons (Tilly, Liar Liar), and Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies (Dunst, Get Over It). This semi-true account explores the most widely reported rumor about what happened aboard the boat.
The Cat's Meow succeeds mostly due to Bogdanovich's impressive direction, as well as a solid cast of character actors that deliver memorable performances all around. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this endeavor comes from the ease by which such a large cast of characters can interact and not become too confusing for the audience to keep track of. Each person is sufficiently eccentric and interesting enough to leave a distinct impression, and Peros does a fine job in introducing the characters to us in a way that lets us know which are the important ones to follow, and concentrates solely on that which is vital to get a complete picture.
It's an interesting look back historically, probably more fascinating for its insights on a very schmoozy Hollywood and the paranoia of those with everything to lose, and even though the alleged heinous act is certainly an interesting turn of events, Peros wisely develops multilayered themes within The Cat's Meow to make the set-up much more substantial and interesting.
The primary audience which will find this appealing are those who love old Hollywood legends, particularly around famous and interesting characters like Hearst or Chaplin. Even if you aren't familiar with the subject, Peros and Bogdanovich do a nice job letting us know who the important people are and why, so it's worthy of a viewing if you just want to see a good period piece drama, a la Gosford Park.
©2003 Vince Leo