`Cat's Meow' walks in on heavy paws

Director goes overboard in tale of Hearst, Tinseltown

Movie Review

May 17, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In The Cat's Meow, Edward Herrmann's William Randolph Hearst tries to play the fun-loving host of a yacht party for the likes of Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). But from the start he moves with the stricken and bewildered heaviness of a wounded elephant.

Herrmann and his director, Peter Bogdanovich, and his screenwriter, Steven Peros, have transformed the tale of Hearst's most disastrous pleasure cruise into a masochistic, histrionic showcase on the order of The Blue Angel.

Hermann's Hearst is an emotionally needy monarch in a jester's hat who turns menacing when he learns that his beloved mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) has a thing for Chaplin. Herrmann is a trouper, but a little of his romantic hurt goes a very long way. When it comes to screen images of Hearst, bring me back my Kane.

Bogdanovich, of course, was a pal of Citizen Kane's creator, Orson Welles. The director has said that long before Peros' script landed on his desk, Welles told him the story of a murder committed on Hearst's yacht and then swiftly covered up. But The Cat's Meow is a period piece devoid of buoyancy and purpose.

At first, it's fun to see the guests assemble: Joanna Lumley as Elinor Glyn, the romance novelist and socialite about to create the concept of the It Girl; Jennifer Tilly as Louella Parsons, then a raw, New York-based columnist hoping to go Hollywood; Cary Elwes as Thomas Ince, the pioneering filmmaker and studio honcho, fallen on hard times; and Claudia Harrison as Margaret Livingstone, an actress who is also Ince's mistress -- and is desperate for everyone to know it.

The dialogue suggests that this glittery gathering is a microcosm of the Jazz Age. But these people are hardly (to borrow James Agee's good words) the "hedonistic jazz-babies tangoing along primrose paths to disreputable ends": They're artists and/or careerists and/or moguls, with a few party-loving hangers-on. In this crowd, when someone calls for a Charleston, as Davies and Hearst each do once, it's not a spontaneous outbreak, but a move to break the tension at the dinner table.

If the point is to present an off-site picture of the spirit-killing stresses of Hollywood -- with Hearst as the money-man who gets whatever he wants, Chaplin as the colossal star who needn't fear him, and Ince as a fallen giant in need of backing -- the portrait is all broad strokes. Power-brokering gets reduced to blackmail and extortion.

Nonetheless, the movie may re-introduce today's financiers to the talents of Bogdanovich. He can't enliven the heavy action at the core. But he deftly conjures a homegrown Agatha Christie atmosphere with guests straying through gloomy brown corridors in handsome black and white evening clothes -- giddy dancers in the dark.

And he cooks up an authentic '20s atmosphere: for example, the Charleston has a ricky-ticky carnival feel to it, devoid of the swing that later arrangers used to jazz it up.

But Bogdanovich's greatest gift, once again, is to spotlight up-and-coming performers (as he did most spectacularly with Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Randy Quaid and Cybill Shepherd in The Last Picture Show). Spider-Man cutie Kirsten Dunst has a bubbling euphoria as Davies. This movie's biggest contribution to film history will be resurrecting Davies' reputation as a natural comedian stuck in deadly costume pictures because her lover wanted her placed on a pedestal. Izzard may be physically miscast as Chaplin, but he embodies all of the comic's randiness and inspired vulgarity. He and Dunst together are one crackerjack comedy team -- and Dunst is overpowering enough to turn Izzard into the straight man.

The Cat's Meow

Starring Edward Herrmann, Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Tilly, Cary Elwes

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Rated PG-13

Released by Lions Gate Films

Running time 112 minutes

SUN SCORE: **

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