“Game shows are what life’s really like,” Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy Farrow philosophizes in one of director Peter Bogdanovich’s last picture shows, Texasville (1990). “You win things that look great at the time that turn out to be junk.”
Sometimes life — especially Bogdanovich’s — imitates art. For the price of your ticket you get The Cat’s Meow, the greatest example of the director’s art since his Golden Globe-sweeping Paper Moon (1973). But regardless of its visual quality and the treasures found in some of its performances, Bogdanovich’s re-enactment of a rumored murder among the royalty of Hollywood’s golden age is tarnished by the flawed plot and stagy dialogue of Steven Peros’ script.
The story is a Hollywood urban legend. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann, last starring in the forgotten Macaulay Culkin comedy Richie Rich) stages a lavish birthday party on his personal floating grand hotel, the Oneida, for producer Thomas Harper Ince (Cary Elwes, who seems to be making a sideline of playing historical cinema figures since portraying Hollywood hyphenate John Houseman in The Cradle Will Rock). Ince (the Henry Ford of the Hollywood studio system) is desperate for a comeback, his career on the rocks. His de rigueur mistress, silent-screen vamp Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison) in tow, he schemes a ride back to success on the deep-pocketed coattails of Hearst — and hitched to the rising, twinkling star of Hearst’s cherubic starlet mistress, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst, Crazy/Beautiful).
The plot thickens like blood when Charlie Chaplin (Emmy Award-winning stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard) boards the yacht. After having ambitiously abandoned what Hearst derogatorily calls the “baggy-pants comedy” of his Little Tramp character for a disappointing, weepy melodrama, Chaplin welcomes the opportunity to leave the smell of failure — and the paternity-case scandal involving the dud’s underage starlet — behind in Tinsel Town. Like Ince, Chaplin also has designs on Davies. He plans to uncover her potential not only as his comedic sidekick, but as his lover.
With its dramatic personae completed by Hearst newspaper movie columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly, The Crew), our appropriately cadaverous narrator, Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley, Shirley Valentine), the screenwriter for flapper sex symbol Clara Bow’s movies, and the rest, The Cat’s Meow leaves port for murder on the high seas.
But this is no murder mystery. We immediately know whodunit. Beneath the clichés, dull barbs and dry sexual double entendres there are ironies within both a weak melodramatic love triangle and a buried film-noir plot, with Davies as an unlikely femme fatale.
Dunst is the jewel within this misshapen crown. She’s Frankensteined a perfectly seamless assemblage of the best features of silent screen goddesses: combining Mary Pickford’s ingenuous American sweetheart with the smoldering, kohl-blackened eyes of Theda Bara’s vamps and Clara Bow’s lips. Her Davies may be attracted to the magnetism Izzard’s Chaplin generates through the potential difference of his sophistication and boyish ardor — but she would never toy with the affections of “Pops” (as she calls Hearst). She’s the latest model of the Bogdanovich blonde, his trademarked icon of tragic innocense since Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy Farrow in his Oscar-nominated directorial debut, The Last Picture Show (1971).
Bogdonovich consistently demonstrates a visual power lost perhaps since Paper Moon. The Cat’s Meow reincarnates “the Jazz Age” book-ended in low-contrast newsreel re-enactments that recall his friend Orson Welles’ auspicious debut, Citizen Kane. The black-and-white coffin and the whispering crowd attending the murder victim’s Hollywood funeral make what could be the longest dissolve in film history into the desaturated color of the Oneida’s world. The cinematic metaphor is subtle: True colors rise up and visually drown out black-and-white rumor. A coffin-shaped corridor adjoins the murder scene. Even the sound is significant. The crisp, snappy brass of Al Jolson’s singing and his jazz band on the sound track are exhumed from under the hiss, crackles and pops of dusty 78s and reverberate in the voices of the flappers deftly setting the time. The ’20s roar in the pumping engine of the Oneida masks and symbolizes the cries of the infidelities above and foreshadows murder in its dark drumming.
But it’s not enough. “The cat’s meow,” translated into today’s urban slang would be “it’s all that” — the one element that truly defines a thing. But The Cat’s Meow only defines the failure of magnificent cinematic ambition.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].