And then there's Peter Bogdanovich. One of the "jokes" in Hollywood Ending is about how Allen's Val got passed up for a TV movie in favor of Bogdanovich, yet another '70s director whose better days are behind him. Or are they? The Cat's Meow, his first feature film in nine years, suggests there's life left in a man whose first important film was titled, ironically enough, The Last Picture Show. Arrogance, phenomenal success and a tendency to run off with his leading ladies helped bring about Bogdanovich's downfall, but The Cat's Meow is about arrogance, phenomenal success and a tendency to run off with one's leading ladies. So, it's a match made, if not in heaven, then in that fat-cat sauna a couple of floors down. Back on the set, shouting "Action" and "Cut," Bogdanovich seems to be having a devilish good time.
So do the guests aboard William Randolph Hearst's 280-foot yacht, the Oneida, on Nov. 15, 1924. Based on a play by scriptwriter Steven Peros, The Cat's Meow comes up with its own explanation for the "mysterious" death of legendary film producer Thomas Ince that fateful weekend. It seems he didn't die of "heart failure as a result of acute indigestion," as the coroner's report suggested, but of a gunshot wound to the head, the gun fired by Hearst himself. The press baron, whom Orson Welles would one day transform into Charles Foster Kane, didn't mean to kill Ince. He meant to kill Charlie Chaplin, whom he suspected ' rightly, according to the movie ' of having an affair with his mistress, Marion Davies. Davies, you may recall, was the Hollywood actress whose you-know-what Hearst nicknamed Rosebud.
Tracing the parallels between Bogdanovich and Welles and Hearst could keep a cinema-studies major up all night. But the real pleasure of The Cat's Meow is in the catty dialogue and the hissing performances. As Davies, Kirsten Dunst brings out the tragicomic element in the life of the world's most well-kept woman. A talented comedian, Davies was forced by Hearst to appear in a succession of moldy dramas. No wonder she was drawn to Chaplin, who, if this gossip-mongering film happens to have stumbled onto the truth, was drawn to her. Eddie Izzard barely resembles Chaplin, and he doesn't have any of Chaplin's physical grace, but the performance is nevertheless moving ' a dead-on portrait of that rarest of creatures, a sincere rake. If Davies had run off with him, Chaplin would have loved her with all his heart...
...until the next starlet came along. And Davies knew this, according to The Cat's Meow. She was also genuinely in love with Hearst, who plucked her from the Ziegfeld Follies and, to the extent it was possible, never let her out of his sight thereafter. In the movie, Hearst's yacht is full of peepholes and hidden microphones. And Edward Herrmann gives the old buzzard just the right amount of cadaverous lust. Herrmann's Hearst is both king and fool ' powerful and pathetic. And that gives this chapter out of Hollywood Babylon a tragic undertow. Like Hearst, Bogdanovich throws a hell of a party when he sets his mind to it; the first half of The Cat's Meow is as light on its feet as Gosford Park. After the shooting, everybody sobers up for a while ' the movie too, alas. Meanwhile, Hearst gets a cover-up going.
Did any of this really happen? Who cares? Somebody pop open the champagne.