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The Cat's Meow

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Cat's Meow

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Cary Elwes
Director: Edward Herrmann
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 107 Minutes
Release Date: April 2002
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley, James Laurenson, Ronan Vibert, Edward Herrmann

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Harvey Karten review follows ---
2.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie review

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If you called a teenager's baggy pants "the cat's meow" he'd think you were awfully uncool, and yet, ironically, the term "cool" is itself a direct descendant of the feline expression that was all the rage during the roaring twenties. And how appropriate that Peter Bogdanovich's new film is so called because "The Cat's Meow" is not only a riveting recreation of one of America's most exciting decades seen in the microcosm of William Randolph Hearst's huge yacht but is a terrific showcase for some actors who are not all that well known to Americans and yet are exquisite in their roles. Most notable of all is the twenty-year-old Kirsten Dunst, up from comic roles in teen movies such as "Dick," "Drop Dead Gorgeous," and "Bring It On" now performing as Marion Davies--who at the age of twenty-seven actually took part in the festivities on the Hearst yacht in November of 1924. Dunst is so drop dead gorgeous in this absorbing picture that she could wipe out the whole popularity of toga parties among college guys today who would cheerfully replace them with '20's themes. If the real Ms. Davies looked anything like Ms. Dunst, one could see how Orson Wells got the inspiration for "Citizen Kane," still considered by connoisseurs to be the greatest American film of all time, in part about the romantic affair between Davies and Mr. Hearst.

Peter Bogdanovich is in his element a man noted for directing period dramas like his notable "The Last Picture Show" in 1971 (about how characters' lives intertwine in a Texas town during the 1950s), and the less-than-successful "Daisy Miller" three years later (brought down by Cybill Shepherd's mediocre performance and an altogether cold ambience),

The story is based on an actual event that took place on William Randolph Hearst's yacht in November 1924, an endless party featuring guests who are prominent in various fields and who join the newspaper magnate for a cruise around the California coast (with outdoor scenes actually filmed off the southern Peloponnesian town of Kiparissia). Hearst, one of the richest men in the world at the time, was prominent not only in the newspaper business and the instigator (through the news media reports of brutalities) of the Spanish-American War, but had formed Cosmopolitan Pictures for the sole purpose of producing films starring the love of his life, Marion Davies whom he had met in 1917 and with whom he maintained a long, sincere relationship marred by Hearst's wife's refusal to grant the man a divorce.

Played stunningly by Edward Hermann who looks quite a bit like Hearst at the age of sixty-one the large, powerful man keeps an eye on his passengers, principally Ms. Davies (Kirsten Dunst), but also on famed producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), who had made his reputation producing expensive Westerns but whose prominence had sunk of late; Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), who was to become the most celebrated gossip columnist of her day; Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), madly in love with Marion Davies, who is attracted in turn but refuses to chuck her relationship with Hearst; and British novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), the Maggie Smith of the movie who feeds us acerbic one-liners.

Through the interaction of the personalities on deck, we become aware of Mr. Bogdanovich's theme: Hollywood (like the corporate world in general) is corrupt. Sincere friendships are rare. Individuals are out to milk one another for what they get, offering something in return that they hope will satisfy those who can favor them with privilege, power and money. Ince, for example, is down on his luck and wants Hearst to merge his studio with Ince's and promises, in return, to keep on eye on Davies who appears to be tight with Chaplin. Davies, of course, wants to continue leading the rich life and particularly to keep the parts coming to her from Hearst's studio though her affection for the large man is sincere. Parsons, who acts the bimbo for most of the tour around the California coast, wants to leave her job with a paper in New York to cover the Hollywood scene for a Hearst paper on the West Coast.

As the group of favored persons dance frenetically to Charlestons, party and orgy the night away with the help of bootleg booze and marijuana, a shot rings out. A guest is shot in the head and Hearst's entire career is about to go down the tubes. Unless...unless...

As stated, the story is based on truth. A murder actually did take place in that very vessel, one which was superficially examined by the San Diego authorities but which the Los Angeles police department refused to investigate further. Hearst is off the hook, but a viewer of this astonishing picture which, like Steven Peros's play on which it is based has to wonder how the estates of some of these Hollywood personalities will take it. Did Louella Parsons really become famous because she manipulated Hearst into granting her a lifetime job in L.A.? Is William Randolph Hearst actually a murderer? Did Thomas Ince, who produced the masterpiece "Civilization" a pacifist allegory in support of President Wilson's international policy sink so low that he sought Hearst's backing only to offer his services as a private eye in return?

Whatever the fallout after the movie's April 2002 U.S. opening, the story's significance as an exposition of some fascinating cinema history may slip your mind, but you're likely not to forget Kirsten Dunst's intense, convincing, gorgeous performance. Meow.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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