Ms. Dunst catches the blend of smarts and servitude that Davies apparently brought to her life with Hearst.
An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis
The first frames of “The Cat’s Meow” promise a grand, gossipy tale of early Hollywood. The opening credits roll to the strains of “Avalon” pouring forth from an old-fashioned gramophone. We are about to step into a true episode from the life of William Randolph Hearst, and it looks as if the filmmakers are going to get it right. Unfortunately, they don’t.
It is 1924 and Hearst’s yacht “The Oneida” stands dockside, ready to go to sea with a mix of important people and those who will do anything to be close to them. The political games they play are a joke because Hearst’s money and power make sycophants of everyone. He amuses himself by controlling them. They are puppets on his stage. Very few people in America could stand up to Hearst in 1924.
The tycoon’s vulnerability lies in his constant suspicion that Marion Davies, his long time mistress, may be casting her eyes toward younger men – on this cruise in particular, toward Charlie Chaplin. One by one, the guests board the yacht while their conversations are bugged and beamed to Hearst’s stateroom for his listening pleasure. Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), fledgling gossip columnist for Hearst newspapers, Charlie Chaplin, about to make “The Gold Rush,” Tom Ince, famed producer and Hollywood innovator, and Eleanor Glyn, British writer – all aboard.
Aspiring desperately to celebrity and money, these manipulators of glamour go into performance mode each time they step out the doors of their staterooms into the verbal competition that is their mainstay. Watch for the delicious sight of a ping-pong game with aproned maids retrieving balls for two bored women.
And so goes the cruise until a murder galvanizes crew and guests into a collusion of silence that holds fast under Hearst’s iron fist. The story should be a marvelous period piece, but director Peter Bogdanovich and most of his actors never find the feeling of the period or the rhythm of the story. For a tale rooted in gossip and treachery, there is no pizzazz, no momentum, no wit. Only the period details trigger a smile.
The one performance that comes close to working is that of Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies. Ms. Dunst catches the blend of smarts and servitude that Davies apparently brought to her life with Hearst, and she is fun to watch in a wardrobe of glorious flapper dresses. Edward Herrmann strikes out as Hearst. When his suspicions about his paramour overwhelm him, he becomes a buffoon tearing out drawers and closets in search of proof. Shifting between credibility and silliness, his performance is uneven at best.
Jennifer Tilly catches the astoundingly awful human being we know Louella Parsons grew to be throughout her thirty years of tabloid prominence. We learn how she did it, and it is a measure of the movie that the episode falls flat. Good material and fine photography can’t save a film from people who don’t understand the flavor of an era.