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The Cat's Meow

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
The Cat's Meow
from Film Forum, 05/02/02

Peter Bogdonavich (The Last Picture Show), who hasn't turned in a feature film since 1993's The Thing Called Love, is back with The Cat's Meow. Unlike this week's other releases, this movie can stimulate the mind as well as the emotions. Meow concocts a speculative story based on a famously unsolved murder that took place on the private boat of William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) while he was entertaining celebrity guests like Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). When Chaplin flirtatiously pursues the affections of silent film actress Marion Davies (the extraordinary Kirsten Dunst), who happens to be Hearst's mistress, filmmaker Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) ends up in a mistaken identity crisis that leads to catastrophic consequences. The well-mannered social exchanges surrounding the scandal only further emphasize the moral deterioration of the rich and powerful.

"Fans of Hollywood's silent film era will enjoy the period detail and talented performances," says Paul Bicking (Preview). He concludes that the film is "a fascinating portrayal of rumored events."

The USCCB's critic says, "A setup like this could have easily gotten muddled or overbearing. Yet Bogdanovich keeps the action moving along smoothly, feeding the audience narrative information while allowing the film to be a visual potpourri of glitz, charm and lavish luxury. Though a few biting remarks about Hollywood and its excess, class, and wealth are slipped in, the film is not a serious indictment of rampant corruption. Bogdanovich may disappoint his fans by having uncharacteristically chosen much lighter fare this time around. But The Cat's Meow has charm and presence even if it's mostly played as sporty fun."

Jerry Langford (Movieguide) writes that the film "wisely shows the pain and emptiness of these romanticized affairs." But he harshly criticizes its tale-spinning: "The Cat's Meow is truly despicable in that it converts historical speculation into believable images and portrayals. The narrator clarifies that this version is the whispers told 'most often' in Hollywood. A movie can be a powerful tool for convincing the uninformed public on any subject and Hollywood's amazing power is wielded recklessly here. The inclusion of the comment about 'whispers' merely provides free license to smear the dead."

Langford's argument might apply to most movies that are based on history, and perhaps even to Shakespeare's plays as well. Isn't spinning a good story out of the prevalent 'whispers' of history a longstanding tradition? Hearst's power plays and arrogance were a well-known phenomenon even as he was at the peak of his powers. Surely if the artist is good enough to present the story as speculation, audiences should be trusted to take the fiction with a grain of salt, and to investigate the truth for themselves, as suggested by Kevin Costner's character in midst of JFK's historical-revisionism.

Meanwhile, mainstream critics find it the finest of this week's new releases. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat (Spirituality and Health) say the film "provides us with another glimpse into Hollywood where, as one of the characters sadly concludes, morality vanishes without a trace."

MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) says, "These volatile personalities stew until they explode, and though The Cat's Meow just comes to a so-what ending and stops short, the getting there is delicious."

Ebert writes, "The film is darkly atmospheric, with Herrmann quietly suggesting the sadness and obsession beneath Hearst's forced avuncular chortles." He points out "easy to miss" details that give evidence of Hearst's power, which he used to advance his own agendas while lives crumbled around him. "Bogdanovich has an exact way of conveying the forced and metronomic gaiety on the yacht, where guests … seem to be living in an English country house mystery—Gosford Yacht."