The Cat's Meow is set in 1924, but it might be Peter Bogdanovich's most personal film: a glamorous but melancholy look at the destructive lusts and quests for glory that prove irresistible in the land of Hollywood. The characters we see here are larger than life, but their dramas are painfully human: to behold the unrequited loves and power struggles enacted here is to witness gods and goddesses fall to earth.
During a voyage off the California coast on a yacht belonging to publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann), a coterie of stars (or wannabe stars) fuck, fight, and pine for more. There's Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), an actress whose knack for comedy is spoiled by her repeated casting in tragic melodramas; and cinema idol Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), an infamous playboy whose affections for Marion may or may not be sincere. Meanwhile, washed-up producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) manipulates those around him to reascend the heights of Hollywood, largely ignoring his spurned lover (Claudia Harrison). Bemused writer Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) observes it all with a sardonic eye, while up-and-coming gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) begins to learn the ropes of wheeling and dealing – a journey from innocence to jaded cynicism that's both amusing and devastating.
In all of these characters lie traces of Bogdanovich himself, whose tumultuous life story is now well-known to film lovers (thanks in part to TCM's The Plot Thickens podcast). After his feature debut Targets (1968), produced by Roger Corman, Bogdanovich had a string of successes from 1971-1973: The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon. After soaring to the summit of Hollywood fame came the inevitable backlash: a string of commercial and critical flops including Daisy Miller (1974), At Long Last Love (1975), and Nickelodeon (1976) suggested Bogdanovich as a pretentious diva who was difficult to work with. (Those movies are far from perfect but also didn't deserve their vitriolic reception; they were victims of Hollywood's turn from auteur cinema to blockbuster megahits, epitomized by Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977.) More heartache was to follow for Bogdanovich: after filming They All Laughed (1981) with his lover, Dorothy Stratten, in the lead role, she was murdered by her estranged husband; then, in 1988, the 49-year-old Bogdanovich married Dorothy's sister, 20-year-old Louise Stratten, sparking a tabloid frenzy. His directing career never fully recovered from these failures and scandals, though he continued making films (often for television or with lower budgets) for the next thirty or so years. Some of them are truly great: reminders of his visual mastery, his skill working with actors, his ability to balance humor and sadness, his power as both a storyteller and a philosopher of love and loss.
The Cat's Meow is his best late-career work, and by my estimation the best of his career; it's rare to find a film so funny on the surface, yet so genuinely anguished at its core. Bogdanovich displays no mockery towards these characters, no judgment towards their actions (in contrast to the disdainful attitude he displays towards some characters in The Last Picture Show or Saint Jack). He sees Marion as an exuberant and talented actress for whom loving more than one person at a time is not betrayal but a fact of life; similarly, the film presents Chaplin as, perhaps, a narcissistic cad, but also as someone who rose from poverty and is unable to resist the trappings of his massive celebrity (which includes the affection of beautiful women). The Cat's Meow's version of Hearst is not a controlling tyrant but a petulant and insecure man-child who happens to have all the power and money in the world; his would-be business partner Thomas Ince may manipulate his friends and lovers, but only to reclaim the success that used to be his. From Bogdanovich's life story, one would imagine he was guilty of all of these flaws and more, but to morally condemn him (or these characters) is to absurdly pretend that their fragile hopes and dreams aren't recognizably human.
The torrid dramas that play out on Hearst's yacht lead to murder and calculated cover-up, as happened in real life when a mysterious killing took place in November 1924. While allusions to this event have been offered by Orson Welles, John Houseman, and others over the last century, Hearst essentially demanded silence from everyone present for the rest of their lives (and paid some of them off to guarantee it), so it's impossible to know the specific details. The Cat's Meow's screenwriter, Steven Peros (who also wrote the play on which the movie is based), relies largely on conjecture, but the events we see here are utterly plausible: a manifestation of the glamor of Hollywood, which distorts nearly everyone who becomes mired within it.
There's a speech to this effect offered by Elinor Glyn, a British writer who provides the film's voiceover (and who, in her wry but compassionate attitude towards the reckless people around her, is a stand-in of sorts for Bogdanovich). At a luxurious dinner celebrating Ince's birthday, Glyn is asked to recite her tale of the "evil wizard" of Hollywood: you know the wizard has struck you with his curse if "you see yourself as the most important person in any room, you accept money as the strongest force in nature, and finally, your morality vanishes without a trace." It's a remarkable dialogue, one of the most evocative descriptions of Hollywood in any movie I've seen, and it's impossible not to think of Bogdanovich as she says these words, to imagine the director suffering from the wizard's spell himself. The connection is even more poignant in the film's final moments, a recurring dream that Elinor has, which I won't ruin here but which features a parade of carnivalesque souls, dancing obliviously in a manner reminiscent of Fellini's 8 ½.
As it is for many filmmakers, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane was a formative text for Bogdanovich: "It's the first modern film," Bogdanovich explained, "fragmented, not told straight ahead, jumping around... It's all become really decadent now, but it was certainly fresh then." Welles' masterpiece famously tells a story parallel to Hearst's (so parallel, in fact, that Hearst tried to block the release of the movie); Citizen Kane even includes the relationship between Kane/Hearst and his mistress-protégé-turned-wife, in this case named Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), though she's clearly modeled after Davies. In Welles' film, Susan is depicted in a somewhat shrewish, derisive manner, mostly talentless and miserable in her relationship (though much of that is certainly due to Kane's overbearing nature). In a way, Bogdanovich's reworking of the Hearst-Davies relationship in The Cat's Meow is a more generous depiction of the central antagonism from his favorite film. There is genuine affection between Hearst and Davies in The Cat's Meow, even if it's more paternal than it is romantic (and even if Hearst's wealth has something to do with it). David Fincher's Mank offered a similar depiction, portraying Marion Davies with a great deal of sympathy as she struggled to work against a patriarchal system, but The Cat's Meow's compassion for her is even more radical: in true Bogdanovich fashion, it acknowledges that love doesn't often work in the neat and tidy ways that we expect it to, and that the choice between morality and personal happiness is rarely a simple decision.
Much of this is due to Kirsten Dunst in the role of Marion, giving arguably her best performance in a career full of great ones: she's radiant but easily wounded, trying to fend off the emotional calamities that she seems to know await her. The rest of the cast is equally effective. Eddie Izzard makes a surprisingly nuanced Chaplin (more so than Robert Downey, Jr.'s depiction in the 1992 biopic), to the extent that we never really know what his true feelings for Marion are. Edward Herrmann, who has so often been relegated to minor comedic roles in Richie Rich and Gilmore Girls and the like, masterfully presents Hearst's tyranny as a desperate shield for his loneliness and insecurity. Jennifer Tilly, too, inhabits a role that's perfect for her: a naïve dreamer who discovers that duplicity is the surest route to success (her character's transformation could easily occupy the entirety of another film).
Bogdanovich had planned on shooting The Cat's Meow in black and white but, as with his 1976 film Nickelodeon, was prevented from doing so by the producers. In this case, though, the color cinematography is not a drawback: production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos is able to convey an extravagant world on a limited budget, and Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography makes powerful use of a quietly roaming camera, featuring numerous close-ups and POV shots. In this way, we come to know these larger-than-life figures with unnerving intimacy, emphasizing how human their stories are despite the star-studded environment. This is why Bogdanovich's career is one of the most unique in American cinema, and why his later work, though frequently less acclaimed, can be far more fascinating than his early hits: they exhibit the splendor of a master filmmaker along with the regret and mournfulness of someone who's learned life's harsh lessons firsthand.