Obsession, combined with jealousy, was the impetus for an incident that occurred in November of 1924, aboard the yacht of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and which in the years since has become the stuff of Hollywood legend and lore. The story has many versions, but the `whisper told most often,' is the one recounted in `The Cat's Meow,' directed by Peter Bogdanovich, a dramatization of what may or may not have happened during that extended weekend birthday-party cruise in honor of pioneer film director, Thomas Ince, which included an eclectic guest list of the rich, famous and powerful. What is known, is that the party ended with the death of one of the guests, and that foul play and an ensuing cover-up have long been suspected, but never proved. And one thing is certain: Not a single person aboard the yacht at the time has ever spoken of what happened, at least not publicly; but there are those who believe to this day, that someone just may have gotten away with murder.
Once a powerful force in a young Hollywood, Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes)-- who had formed Triangle Films with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett, and later founded Paramount Studios with Adolph Zukor-- has fallen on hard times. Once responsible for forty pictures a year, he now struggles to get a single film made. And, his birthday aside, he has decided to mix business with pleasure during this cruise, pitching an idea to Hearst (Edward Herrmann), to combine their resources and make movies together. Hearst, however, has other things on his mind; rumor has it that his mistress, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), is being courted by Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), and he has brought them together, here, to observe and decide for himself if anything untoward is going on between them. Hearst is not only in love with Davies, but is obsessed with her, as well as the course of her career, and he's not about to let this baggy-pants comic actor interfere. And Hearst, a powerful and controlling man, always gets what he wants-- and what he wants right now is for this business with Chaplin to disappear. So it is, that in the midst of celebration, paranoia overtakes the host of the party, and it's about to cast a pall over the proceedings and ultimately involve everyone aboard in one of the greatest unsolved mysteries ever to come out of Tinsel Town. It's a story that Hearst keeps out of the papers, making sure in his own way that dead men, indeed, tell no tales.
Bogdanovich successfully captures the era, as well as the mendacity of this rich assortment of characters, who are all the more intriguing for the fact that they are real people rather than the product of imagination; and it proves that fact is often more bizarre than fiction. The excesses and overindulgences of many within the Hollywood community during this period rivals anything happening today, and one of the most telling scenes in the film is when novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) offers her take on what Hollywood really is and what it does to those who dwell within. Glyn is also the narrator of the film; a wise choice, as it adds a balanced perspective to the events as they unfold, and are summarily grounded by her often wry and incisive observations. The final words of the film are hers, in fact; a final observation that encompasses so much in so few words, that it provides an impact that makes it the perfect ending. And it makes you realize what a terrific job Bogdanovich did with this film, and how well he brought this material (screenplay by Steven Paros, which he adapted from his own play) to life.
The film is highlighted by a number of excellent and memorable performances, beginning with Herrmann as Hearst. This is possibly the best work he's ever done in his career, perfectly capturing the many facets of this extremely complex man. There's a depth to his performance that conveys not only the bravura of a powerful individual-- and one who delights in using it-- but the vulnerability, as well. He also makes you cognizant of the fact that Hearst is a man capable of almost anything, including creating his own reality, and maintaining it with his limitless resources. It's one of the subtle, underlying nuances that Herrmann brings to his portrayal, which is altogether convincing and believable.
Kirsten Dunst also rises to the occasion, turning in a remarkable performance as Marion Davies. It's a concise reflection of a young actress caught up in a situation that is at once enviable and undesirable, who manages to tactfully negotiate the sensitive issues with which she is faced with a sensibility and maturity beyond her years. And through Dunst, we see the many layers of Davies' personality; the fun-loving girl, as well as the responsible woman, who finds herself in a perpetually tentative environment and selflessly refrains from playing the prima donna or attempting to act as if she is the center of the universe-- something to which too many others who have been swallowed up by the Hollywood lifestyle over the years are prone. It's a comprehensive and convincing performance that proves that Dunst has the stuff to fulfill the promise made by her work in previous films.
The performance that surpasses them all, however, is turned in by Eddie Izzard, as Chaplin. Izzard captures the very essence of Chaplin, physically and emotionally, with a detailed portrayal of the man, created through expression and astute introspection. This is not the on-screen persona, the `Little Tramp,' but Chaplin the complex individual and artist who is presented here. Izzard brings him to life with singular nuance and depth, and it's a performance that should, by all rights, earn him an Oscar nomination. Skillfully acted and presented, `The Cat's Meow' is a memorable film that offers some insights into a town and lifestyle that few have ever experienced.