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Awesome: 7.69%
Worth A Look: 11.54%
Pretty Bad: 15.38%
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6 reviews, 16 user ratings

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Cat's Meow, The
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by Collin Souter

"A fictional account of a tabloid half-truth"
3 stars

“Hollywood: A little island off the coast of the planet Earth,” our narrator tells us. Funny how Peter Bogdanavich’s latest movie, “The Cat’s Meow,” would describe its setting in that way. The movie has been filled with so many inside gossip stories, little of which would be of much interest to anyone but a film historian, that even one with a keen interest in its events would still feel far removed. I don’t mean to say that the film feels too inside, but it never steps outside its own ideas to fill the viewer in on the many possibilities the story leaves out.

“The Cat’s Meow” tells one of those “what if” stories. It takes real life characters, places them in a true setting and then twists some facts around to play up a “what if” scenario. It has been done well in the past (“The Hours and Times,” “Shadow of the Vampire,” “Shakespeare In Love”), and a truly great movie might have been made here, but there doesn’t appear to be much substance that would entice a person to check out some history books from the library in order to research the story and make up their own minds.

Here’s the truth: Newspaper tycoon millionaire William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) had an affair with a young starlet, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). They, along with a bunch of friends, set sail on Hearst’s yacht to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes). Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) and Hearst had been good friends for quite a while. The yacht trip had to be cut short due to Thomas Ince’s illness. Ince had been taken to Hearst’s home in Los Angeles. He died a couple weeks later.

Here’s the speculation: Chaplin and Davies had an affair, which fueled Hearsts’s jealous rage and paranoia. Ince, an ambitious filmmaker desperate to work for Hearst on the highest professional level, had all the dirt on the affair. Hearst reached his breaking point, took a gun and mistakenly shot Ince, who happened to be wearing Chaplin’s hat at the time. Hearst covered the accidental murder and convinced everyone on board to do the same by not talking to the press. Hearsts’s newspapers ended up being the only publication that did not sensationalize or theorize what could have happened on that boat, out at sea, late at night, while everyone slept soundly in their beds.

Here’s the problem: The British wit Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), our bookend narrator, tells us that no one wrote of this trip until years after Hearst’s death. The end of the movie sticks to its theory so closely that it 1) has very little in the way of suspense 2) doesn’t offer any insight as to what those involved said about that trip after Hearst’s death, thereby 3) blowing an opportunity to truly expose the hypocrisy which existed in Hollywood even in its infancy. We are meant to believe, at the end, that someone in this room lied about the whole thing. Ince’s death has remained a mystery because his body had been cremated two days after his death. An autopsy was never performed.

Chaplin himself only devoted one paragraph on the whole trip in his autobiography, which, in itself, makes for poor reference material for anyone wanting to uncover intimate revelations on the Little Tramp. In his book, Chaplin claims he was never there. Why didn’t this movie bother to take that into account, or at least mention it in the film’s coda? And what did gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) ever write about it? By only playing into the “most heard whisper” surrounding the trip, the movie short-changes itself. True, the story could very well have happened this way and there probably exists a lot of evidence to back it up, but what if Chaplin lied about it in his book (which is possible)? Did Hearst get away with murder or did they all get away with it?

Still, the movie has a lot going for it. The opulence on display has a beautiful authenticity about it, especially when lit in those green and yellow tints, the look that gave “Amelie” its other-worldly charm. Costume designers clearly had a field day getting the outfits together for its female cast.

Edward Herrmann, a character actor I’ve always liked, does the best he can as Hearst, a role I hear he received at the last minute. Though not quite as effective as James Cromwell’s in “RKO 281,” Herrmann does give Hearst the authority and sadness necessary for us to believe he could have committed a murder. Dunst also does okay, but her performance doesn’t stand out the way it should. Lumley has played her part before in the underrated “Cold Comfort Farm,” as the societal know-it-all, cynical wit who stands off the side of things with her stingy observations, Dorothy Parker style.

And Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin gives a great, yet somewhat frustrating, performance. A brilliantly funny, strange, interesting, and smart-as-all-hell comic, Izzard has only recently been getting roles in which he can disappear (Those who have seen him in his “male lesbian” Executive Transvestite mode on his HBO specials know what I mean). He also played real-life actor Gustov von Wangenheim in the aforementioned “Shadow of the Vampire” (Is he the go-to guy for these kinds of movies or what?) Even though he bares no physical resemblance to Chaplin, except maybe in height, he gives a great performance. He clearly studied for the part and mimicked Chaplin’s mannerisms perfectly, while also conveying his self-righteous smarminess as well as the sadness of a poet in a desperate search for his one true muse.

The movie misses another opportunity to depict the friendship between Hearst and Chaplin. In his autobiography, Chaplin wrote about a few of the conversations between him and Hearst, one in particular where Chaplin argued that women choose their men without the men even knowing it. Hearst vehemently disagreed. Such conversations would seem to be ideal fodder for a talky costume drama involving murder, jealousy, deceit and corruption.

“The Cat’s Meow” should have its viewers talking and theorizing once the credits roll, but it sidesteps one too many times. When all is said and done, one leaves the theater not thinking about much of anything. Instead, Bogdanovich casts us adrift away from Hollywood and back to our planet Earth, far from the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and closer to our tabloid TV junk culture where movies as idealistic as this can be found somewhere between VH-1 and E! True Hollywood Story.

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originally posted: 04/29/02 09:04:05
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User Comments

7/01/08 Danny Good cast makes it watchable, nothing more. Rather bland. 3 stars
4/30/08 Rosanna Excellent story; terrific acting; very entertaining movie 4 stars
5/23/06 Ashley Hinz I didn't like it. Good enough cast, if the script weren't so stupid. 2 stars
1/07/06 paolo enea Boring and predictable. Izzard is a nice guy but doesn't stand any comparison with Chaplin 2 stars
11/08/05 tatum Entertaining, with a great cast and look 4 stars
6/05/05 Dale Manoogian Great film in all categories. Don't miss it! 5 stars
1/27/04 Katie Malone One of the best movies I've ever seen! 5 stars
10/16/03 regina great story some good acting 4 stars
9/30/03 Hussein Dunst played Marian Davies just the way I imagined Davies would be. 4 stars
6/10/03 Goofy Maxwell Dunst is the next Jodie Foster--bright, choosy child-star-turned-miscast-stalked-starlet. 3 stars
12/31/02 John Aster Habig anything with Kirsten makes me horny 4 stars
11/28/02 Gaiia it's good, but at the end, you feel like it could've been better 3 stars
8/27/02 Phoenix I wanna fuck the living shit out of Kirsten Dunst. Really want to put my cock up her ass. 5 stars
5/27/02 Jenna The movie is fantastic...critics are just jelous actor wannabe's! 5 stars
5/25/02 Suzz Dunst is great and the film very entertaining. 4 stars
5/12/02 Teresa I wanted to love it but it needed better dialog or plot. 3 stars
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  12-Apr-2002 (PG-13)



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