Peter Bogdanovich is perfectly suited to take on the myths and legends of Old Hollywood. Not only did he get close to many of the giants of yesteryear, he also entered the annals of Hollywood Babylon legend himself when his girlfriend, Playboy model Dorothy Stratten, was brutally murdered in 1980.
At that point in his career, Bogdanovich had already metamorphosed from a golden boy of the '70s, acclaimed for The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973), to a somewhat tarnished maverick making independent movies (such as They All Laughed ) that rarely reached large audiences.
From very early on, Bogdanovich's movies held a strange fascination as a murky mirror of his life. The end of the marriage to his gifted collaborator, Polly Platt, was followed by the Cybill Shepherd era, and a series of projects showcasing her (including Daisy Miller ) which effectively derailed his career.
Post Stratten's death, the Bogdanovich story takes on perverse shadings. In 1989, he married Stratten's younger sister. One of his many telemovie assignments of the '90s was a version of Cornell Woolrich's story "Death is My Dancing Partner", about a man whose romanticism has a morbid, necrophilic leaning.
The Cat's Meow is being touted as Bogdanovich's big screen comeback after a long absence. The dark aura of legend that surrounds him obscures the facts that he has really never stopped working, and that his features of the '90s, Texasville (1990) and The Thing Called Love (1993), are among his finest achievements.
The plot of The Cat's Meow is partly inspired by a theory privately entrusted to Bogdanovich by Orson Welles about the death of director Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) aboard the luxury yacht of William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) in 1924. Speculation has long surrounded this mysterious incident. Many intrigues gathered on that boat. Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), was the apple in the eye of Charles Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). Ince was keen to tie up a deal with Hearts. Fledgling showbiz columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) was looking to secure a future in journalism.
Bogdanovich subtly works in allusions to other shady Hollywood tales and figures. Hearst, for instance, was the secret subject of Welles' classic Citizen Kane (1941), so here he becomes a typical Wellesian "power baby", a childlike tyrant who cannot bear to lose control of the woman he possesses. Chaplin's own extravagant rise to fame and fall from grace in America is prefigured in these microcosmic events.
Steven Peros' script is sometimes too keen to spell out the meanings and ambiguities of proceedings, particularly whenever the jaded novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) sashays into a scene. But Bogdanovich, working with a modest budget and a wonderful cast, has ample opportunity to display his best directorial skill.
Every important undertone in this movie is communicated through looks, postures and gestures, the dramatic diagram of how people stand, sit or move in relation to one other. The Cat's Meow is, in its quiet, moody way, a captivating companion piece to that other arthouse mystery movie of its year, Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001).
© Adrian Martin September 2002