Celebrities, gossip, jealousy, ambition, mystery and cover-up -- all elements of a potentially intriguing tale -- come together unevenly in The Catís Meow. Peter Bogdanovich directed this film version of an incident on William Randolph Hearstís yacht that resulted in the death of one of his passengers back in 1924. The movie is notable mostly for Kirsten Dunstís superb portrayal of Marion Davies, Hearstís mistress. When introducing his film at its Telluride Film Festival premiere, Bogdanovich referred to Dunstís performance as ďa gift to us all.Ē I agree. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the rest of the film.
With the exception of Dunst, I found it difficult to accept the casting decisions here. I realize itís tough for anyone to follow Orson Welles as Hearst (we all know his Citizen Kane was really Citizen Hearst), but Edward Herrmann, a fine actor in many other films, comes across as more pathetic than powerful in this key role. Hearstís passengers on the fateful cruise include comic Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), writer Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), and author Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley). Izzard, so perfectly cast in Shadow of the Vampire, projects none of Chaplinís charisma; Tilly mumbles lines (which Parsons never did -- yes, Iím old enough to have heard her); Elwes hams it up a bit too much in some scenes; and Lumley, though very elegant as Glyn, is not as absolutely fabulous as I wanted her to be.
Watching Dunst play a talented actress dominated by the older, wealthy Hearst almost makes The Catís Meow worth its ticket price. Davies could have been an even bigger star if she took on comedy roles, as Chaplin recommended. But Hearst was determined she should be a great dramatic actress. Dunst, who endows her character with humor, compassion and intelligence, shines in scenes with Izzard as they discuss plans for Daviesí future. The liaison between Chaplin and Davies does not go unnoticed, and it sets off a chain of events leading to a tragic death and subsequent cover-up. (Although most people already know who died on the cruise, Bogdanovich has asked critics not to reveal that info in their reviews, so Iím happy to oblige one of my favorite directors -- hey, I even enjoyed At Long Last Love.)
What really happened aboard The Oneida? And did Hearst give Parsons a life-time contract with his newspapers in exchange for her help in making sure the true story didnít get out? I guess weíll never know. While The Catís Meow, based on a play by Steven Peros, offers only one interpretation of these strange events, it left me with little curiosity to find out the truth, probably because of the many unsympathetic characters involved.
(Released by Lions Gate Films and rated ďPG-13Ē for sexuality, a scene of violence and brief drug use.)