The Cat's Meow
Screenplay : Steven Peros (based on his play)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Kirsten Dunst (Marion Davies), Edward Herrmann (William Randolph Hearst), Eddie Izzard (Charlie Chaplin), Cary Elwes (Thomas Ince), Joanna Lumley (Elinor Glyn), Jennifer Tilly (Louella Parsons), Claudia Harrison (Margaret Livingston), Ronan Vibert (Joseph Willcombe), Victor Slezak (George Thomas), Claudie Blakley (Didi), Chiara Schoras (Celia), Ingrid Lacey (Mrs. Barham), John C. Vennema (Mr. Barham), James Laurenson (Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman)
There is virtually no chance that we will ever know what happened aboard the Oneida, media baron William Randolph Hearst's luxury yacht, on the night of November 18, 1924. We do know that a movie producer named Thomas Ince was taken off the yacht the next morning and he died a few hours later. The official story was that it was heart failure caused by acute indigestion, but if you moved in the right circles you would have heard whispering that he had, in fact, been shot. How Thomas Ince really died will remain one of the great Hollywood mysteries, and it was only after Hearst's death in 1951 that anyone began discussing it in the open. People can talk and theorize and gossip as they have been for five decades, but we will never know.
The events of that weekend are the subject of Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow, which was adapted by Steven Peros from his stageplay. As the tagline says, the movie's imaginative reconstruction of what happened on the Oneida that night is based on "what was whispered about most." In other words, there is no shred of factual evidence to support Peros' conjecture except for the long-blowing winds of gossip and rumor. Not that that means it couldn't be true ...
The Oneida was sailing that weekend along the California coast. To give some idea of just how enigmatic this event is, there is no agreed-upon list of who was even on the yacht that night. Hearst (Edward Herrmann), who at that time was one of the most powerful media moguls on the planet, controlling a publishing empire of newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and movie production companies, was hosting a 42nd birthday party for Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), a pioneering film producer whose career was in a slump and was trying to merge his production company with one of Hearst's.
Also on board was Hearst's 27-year-old mistress, the actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), about whom he was very possessive and jealous, and Ince's mistress, another actress named Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison). Two writers, British novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), who serves as the film's narrator, and East Coast movie gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), were also there, as was screen legend Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), although he always denied having been on the yacht. Chaplin's presence, whether historically factual or not, is crucial to Peros' version of the story because he and Davies are the key figures--Hearst was sure that they were having an affair, and the story goes that he invited Chaplin on-board just so he could observe the two of them together.
What is fascinating about The Cat's Meow and what makes it so watchable is not necessarily its take on the events of that night--after all, anyone who knows anything about the darker side of Hollywood history will not find much of surprise here--but rather its depiction of these well-known historical characters. Bogdanovich, who was a well-connected film historian and scholar before he became a director in the late 1960s, takes great care in developing the various characters within the confined spaces of the yacht, turning them into true flesh-and-blood creations, rather than two-dimensional historical fillers. Some of this may be at the expense of historical veracity, but because virtually nothing is known about the events of that weekend, it's hard to deny the appeal of imagining what if ...?
When we first see Hearst, he is lurking in his dark, wood-paneled office, spying on the guests as they enter the yacht. He is immediately confirmed as being control-fixated and jealous, yet Bogdanovich renders him in complex shades, allowing a deeply vulnerable humanity to emerge in his most insanely jealous moments. Bogdanovich shows that Hearst truly loved Marion Davies, even if he sometimes tended to treat her like a valuable object to be shielded from the grubby paws of others, particularly a womanizing scoundrel like Chaplin, who is here depicted as a narcissistic smooth operator who, like Hearst, finds that he is vulnerable when around Davies. Despite the fact that the tabloids are having a field day with the fact that Chaplin has recently impregnated a 16-year-old costar, Eddie Izzard makes us believe that he is genuinely in love with Davies, even if he doesn't know precisely how to express such emotions.
For her part, Kirsten Dunst is wonderful as Davies. Although she looks a bit too young for the part (the 27-year-old Davies was significantly younger than Hearst, but she was not a teenager, as Dunst is in real life), she shines in the role, suggesting that Davies is truly concerned and devoted to Hearst, even if her heart sometimes leads her in other directions. Flirty and flighty, she is nonetheless a compelling character, particularly because the infamous events of that weekend are presented as being centered on the romantic rivalry between Hearst and Chaplin.
It is ultimately the pain of a broken heart that results in poor Ince taking a bullet in the back of his head, although the narrative slyly suggests that he may have deserved it because he was so instrumental in goading Hearst's jealousy as a way to get into his good graces. In the end, the movie posits that Ince died because his plan to suck up to the media baron backfired, which is somewhat sad considering how shoddily Ince has been historically treated. After all, he was a true film pioneer who will always be remembered not for his accomplishments in furthering the motion picture medium, but for the mysterious circumstances of his death.
There is also a good deal of focus on Louella Parsons, who is played by the high-pitched Jennifer Tilly in a jokey performance that gets some of the movie's biggest laughs. That is, until she becomes one of the chief witnesses and is able to twist Hearst into giving her a lifetime contract and wider syndication, which suggests that her overzealous ditzy persona was more of an act than anything else, perhaps to lure Hollywood royalty into saying juicy things around her.
Bogdanovich and production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos pay great attention to period detail--the movie submerges you in the posh world of the Hollywood elite in the roaring '20s, which is both decadent and slightly absurd. There is a fantastically funny sequence in which Louella Parsons and Margaret Livingston are playing ping-pong while two harried maids scurry back and forth to pick up all the balls that are continually falling off the table. The joke is not only in the visual gag of how bad the two women are at ping-pong, but also in their self-absorbed inability to see the ridiculous amount of work they're creating for the hired help. The party itself is a lavish ordeal, complete with massive dinners and a jazz band, not to mention some behind-closed-doors hanky panky involving the drinking of then-prohibited alcohol, something of which Hearst was not particularly fond.
Some critics have called The Cat's Meow a murder mystery, even going so far as to compare it to something by Agatha Christie. Yes, Christie would have set one of her stories in such surroundings, but there is no murder mystery here. There is no "whodunit," as there is nothing to be solved--the movie's events of what happened that night play out cleanly and unambiguously before the camera. Instead, it is better thought of as an imaginative reconstruction of one of the great "what if?" scenarios in Hollywood history. While we will never know how and why Thomas Ince really died, The Cat's Meow is an intriguing stab at imagining how the unimaginable can happen and the rich and powerful can get away with it--not because they're cunning or prepared--but simply because they are rich and powerful.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick