Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies: The Cat's Meow


I'll watch just about anything with Kirsten Dunst in it. And I've forgiven Edward Herrman any number of cinematic blunders, for the sake of his superbly comedic FDR in Annie. Throw in Cary Elwes, and Jennifer Tilly; spice it with Joanna Lumley and Eddie Izzard—how can you go wrong?

Well, to start with, the story of The Cat's Meow wanders aimlessly, never quite focusing on any character. William Randolph Hearst's affair with actress Marion Davies was an open secret in Hollywood. Charlie Chaplain's skirt-chasing was also well-known. And all we truly know about the death of Thomas Ince was that it followed several days after his presence on Hearst's yacht, the Oneida.

This movie attempts to explain the events that led to Ince's death by presenting Ince as a man desperate to regain power in Hollywood. Cary Elwes' Ince is the strongest portrait in the film; he is conniving, hypocritical and sleazy. As a result, we don't really care when Hearst (Herrman), his jealousy enraged by Ince's carefully-built innuendos about Davies and Chaplain, mistakes him for Chaplain (Izzard), and shoots Ince in the middle of the night.

I would love to say that Louella Parsons or Eleanor Glyn had a significant role in the tale, since only rumor places either of them on the yacht during the days that lead up to Ince's death. Unfortunately, Tilly's Parsons is a loud-mouthed climber, scatter-brained and spineless (until she chances upon the secret of her life, and parlays it into a lifetime contract with the Hearst papers). Lumley as Glyn is just as close-mouthed and supercilious as was Glyn in real life. Her role, however, is reduced to that of narrator.

Aside from Elwes, the movie is only redeemed (to the small extent that it is) by Dunst as Marion Davies. This is a nuanced role; we feel her many reasons for staying with the powerful media magnate, and also her attraction to a charismatic Chaplain. What a pity Izzard's Chaplain is flat, unappealing. It undercuts Dunst's portrayal; there is no tension here, because we can't believe Davies would trade even the pathetic Hearst (as Herrman plays him) for this amoral weasel.

Steve Peros, who wrote the screenplay, also wrote the stage play, and appears in the film as Glyn's driver. Two or three bits of his stage-craft make it into the movie—the ping-pong game between Parsons and Ince's disaffected mistress is particularly hilarious, as two maid-servants retrieve any ball that leaves the table while Parsons complains about how boring the game is. She never seems to notice that her opponent isn't even trying to hit the balls.

But after the third "decadent Hollywood" scene, you want to scream at the screen. We get it! OK? You're rich, you're careless, your lives are totally screwed up! There are no revelations here, no secrets laid bare. In the end, Meow is just another F. Scott Fitzgerald knock-off, without the faintest shred of real tinsel under the false glitter.

My advice? Instead, see RKO 281, about the making of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, widely supposed to be a pseudo-biography of Hearst and Davies.


Please join us at BlogCritics to comment on this review.


Blogger Chase McInerney said...

Hey, Dr. Pat -

I agree completely with regard to "The Cat's Meow." I had high hopes for it based on its cast and Bogdanovich, who I typically think is at least interesting, but it was a meandering bore.

Hollywood has done the decadence and shallownes of its Golden Era so many times, and to better effect. Have you ever seen "Day of the Locust"? That comes to mind...

Oh, and thanks for the comment on Blogcritics!

5/26/2005 5:27 AM  
Blogger samraat said...

4/03/2010 10:20 PM  

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