THE CAT'S MEOW (2001)
Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
Watching Peter Bogdanovich's take on that day in November in 1924 when certain movie stars and moguls were involved in a scandalous murder, I was reminded of the lurid details films often confront nowadays. A murder is not just detailed, it is shown in extreme close-ups with the kind of frantic cutting you might see on TV's "C.S.I." So it is an unmistakable privilege to see a film whose focus is not so much murder as much the people behind the murder. "The Cat's Meow" is like taking a chill pill - it is quiet, toned-down, restrained cinema that is unlikely to cause much of a ruckus but it will please folks who feel words speak louder than actions. Think of it as an Agatha Christie mystery, only this is a true story.
Set almost entirely aboard a yacht, "The Cat's Meow" sets its eye on Hollywood in the Prohibition Era. William Randolph Hearst (played with real vigor by Edward Herrmann) has a private yacht, a 280-footer named the "Oneida," where he invites all kinds of luminaries and movie stars. They include the renown Charles Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) whose latest film, "A Woman in Paris," flopped due to his non-appearance; a Hollywood producer named Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), known as the "Father of the Western"; an interminably whiny gossip columnist, Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), and others. Hearst is of course having a highly publicized affair with Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), another movie star who is also having an affair with Chaplin. When Hearst discovers this indiscreet affair, murder enters his mind. Unfortunately, he kills Ince, the studio head, whom he mistakes for Chaplin. "Murder of a Hollywood Producer" is the screaming headline we can imagine aboard this yacht - a tale of scandalous proportions that seems to have sprung from Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon" book (it is covered in-depth in the first volume).
Ultimately, "The Cat's Meow" is not a lurid melodrama but rather a sophisticated, dryly witty comedy-drama. The comedy may fly over most people's heads since it consists of asides thrown by the major characters without the exclamation points to make the sure everyone gets the joke. Like Altman's recent "Gosford Park," "The Cat's Meow" is more concerned with the characters and their own flaws and faults than an actual murder mystery. Hearst, as is well known, was already married despite having an affair with Marion Davies, so it is hypocritical of him to despise her fling with Chaplin. Chaplin was already known for dalliances with many women, and had decided to leave his pregnant teenage fiancee behind just to party and continue his love affair with Marion.
The film merely doesn't cover the conflict between Hearst, Marion and Chaplin but also sneaks a peek at other secondary characters. The wittiest is Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), the British romance novelist and screenwriter who delivers quips and putdowns with tremendous ease. Particularly enjoyable is her retort towards the omnipresent Parsons, who keeps talking past beyond the point of anybody listening. Cary Elwes is appropriately arrogant as Tom Ince, who is aching for a box-office hit and hopes Hearst can help him. Unfortunately, other characters such as Ince's business manager and his mistress merely exist as decoration - their limited screen time reduces them to cardboard cutouts. They lack the juice and vitality of the principal characters and, thus, slow down the action.
"The Cat's Meow" is fitfully entertaining and pleasant, and doesn't aspire to be anything more. For director Peter Bogdanovich, it is certainly a return to form after doing TV sequels like "To Sir, With Love Part 2." And for those of us interested in Hollywood scandals galore, this sparkling film should fit the bill.