Bogdanovich a good fit for `Cat's Meow'

FILM

May 17, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Few Hollywood directors have a better grounding in, not to mention appreciation for, Hollywood history than Peter Bogdanovich.

Which, of course, makes him a natural for The Cat's Meow, a speculation on what really happened when producer-director Thomas Ince died in 1924, shortly after taking a trip on newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst's yacht.

The official story was that he died of heart failure after falling ill during the trip, but even then, few people were buying it. Popular legend -- as well as Bogdanovich's film -- maintains that Ince was shot onboard, possibly by an enraged Hearst aiming at Charlie Chaplin, whom he suspected of carrying on an affair with his mistress, actress Marion Davies.

All of the people who were onboard are long dead, and they took the story of what actually happened with them.

"I do think that's what happened," Bogdanovich says during a brief interview in Washington, where his film was being shown as the opening-night attraction of the annual Filmfest DC. "I first heard that story from Orson Welles sometime in 1969, who heard it from Marion Davies' nephew."

Of course, it's not surprising that this story of Hearst's complicity in Ince's death can be traced back to Welles. His 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane, was based on Hearst, and the picture it painted of him -- an egomaniacal blowhard corrupted by great power and great wealth -- wasn't exactly complimentary.

"Orson was trying to show me that Kane was not meant to be Hearst," says Bogdanovich, 62, a tiny smile creasing his face. "As an example, he told me of this incident."

True, Kane as murderer is nowhere in Welles' film. But insisting Hearst was responsible for Ince's death hardly does anything to bolster the man's reputation.

But The Cat's Meow -- screenplay by Steven Peros, adapting his play -- should bolster Bogdanovich as a student of Hollywood history and as a director who learned his craft at the feet of the old masters. Besides Welles, the young Bogdanovich was good friends with such legendary directors as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan and George Cukor. Conversations with many of them are collected in his 198-page book, Who the Devil Made It.

Not that he has much competition these days when it comes to the Hollywood of yore.

"No one in Hollywood gives a darn about anything that happened before 1990," Bogdanovich says, more in regret than anger. "Back in the '60s, there was an awful lot of interest in these older films, but now, it's like it's a buried treasure, and no one's looking for it."

The Cat's Meow, he says, was a good fit for his sensibilities. Besides Hearst, Ince, Chaplin and Davies (played, respectively, by Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard and Kirsten Dunst), the characters include legendary gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and writer and 1920s taste arbiter Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley).

Unseen forces also seem to have played a hand in Bogdanovich's name being attached to the film. He had just finished an ocean cruise, during which he'd discussed the Hearst-Ince affair with film critic Roger Ebert, when the script landed on his desk.

"I was the first person they sent the script to," he says. "It does seem like fate was somehow involved."

Teachers' `First Year'

It would be hard to imagine a documentary more equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting than Davis Guggenheim's The First Year, a look at five Los Angeles public-school teachers, all struggling to navigate their first year on the job.

Guggenheim's film is being shown at the Charles Theatre Tuesday evening in a benefit for Teach for America and Maryland's Initiative for New Teachers.

Predictably, all the rookie teachers face their share of horrible conditions, including disruptive students, a system that really doesn't seem to care and a chronic lack of materials. But what's so refreshing about The First Year is how none of the five use their problems as an excuse; instead, they rise to the challenge and somehow manage to get across to their kids in spite of all the obstacles.

Two students' stories stand out, so perfectly do they capture the rewards and frustrations of the job. Sixth-grader Marvin is all tough-guy nonchalance and who-cares attitude until Genevieve DeBose, a teacher who refuses to give up on him, meets with his parents. The facade cracks, the attitude softens, and Marvin starts achieving in school ... until his grandmother yanks him out of class, for reasons that go unexplained.

Then there's Tyquan, a kindergartner with a severe speech problem. Teacher Maurice Rabb refuses to let him slip through the cracks, even when a speech therapist fails to show up repeatedly to evaluate Tyquan, even when the school system fails for months to act on the evaluation she finally provides. The look on Tyquan's face when he receives his kindergarten diploma is what teaching is supposed to be all about.

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