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Peter Bogdanovich used “The Cat’s Meow” to help repair the damage that “Citizen Kane” caused to Marion Davies’ reputation

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Peter Bogdanovich used “The Cat’s Meow” to help repair the damage that “Citizen Kane” caused to Marion Davies’ reputation

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According to Peter Bogdanovich, who died this week at the age of 82, it was Orson Welles who told him that William Randolph Hearst shot silent film producer Thomas Ince. The way Bogdanovich put it, Herman J. Mankiewicz, who co-wrote Citizen Kane with Welles, including the unofficial – the rumor, you might call it – that Hearst had killed Ince, on Hearst’s yacht, on a trip that was in part intended to celebrate Ince’s birthday, in the original screenplay of Kane. However, Welles withdrew that part of the finished product, explaining to Bogdanovich that “Kane was not a murderer”. Welles obviously believed Hearst to be a murderer, but he wanted people to understand that Kane’s character was not based solely on Hearst, which most viewers believe. On top of that, the evidence for all of this – officially, Ince died of a heart attack – is largely speculative.

Go to 2001. Welles had been dead for 16 years, Hearst for 50 years, and Ince for 77 years. At this point, Peter Bogdanovich’s career was experiencing another of its many drops in fortune, but he was still able to get the occasional movie off the ground, and attract an impressive cast. In 1997, Steven Peros wrote a play called The cat’s meow, which promotes the theory that Hearst killed Ince; this idea turned out to be irresistible to Bogdanovich, a former friend of his main mentor Orson Welles. Anyway, The cat’s meow found funding and got started.

The theory behind this version of Thomas Ince’s death and the plot of The cat’s meow, is basically this: Ince (Cary Elwes), once a Hollywood hunk, is now in trouble. At one point he says he made forty movies, and now he’s lucky if he pulls one off. He hopes, during this cruise, to obtain the financial support of Hearst (Edward Herrmann). Hearst isn’t particularly interested in Ince’s issues, but eventually Ince gets wind of evidence that Hearst’s lover, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), may be having an affair with Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), and Ince decides to use that as leverage to get what he wants from Hearst. Needless to say, all of these people, and more – including Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and British novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley, who recounts the start and end of the pic) – are on the yacht. As one can imagine, Ince’s plans backfire and Hearst’s twisted jealousy does not bring him closer to the producer, but pushes him to take revenge. Finally, due to confusion, the Hearst madman ends up shooting Ince in the back of the head, believing he is shooting Chaplin.

Peter Bogdanovich used “The Cat’s Meow” to help repair the damage that “Citizen Kane” caused to Marion Davies’ reputation

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From L to R: Edward Herrmann, Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard and Joanna Lumley.Photo: Everett Collection

Bogdanovich’s film is structured like a mystery. In the opening scenes, through Lumley’s narration, we learn that someone died on that boat trip, and no one really knows what happened. Glyn of Lumley is speaking to the public many years after these events took place, and what she says in this prologue is the only suggestion, and an important suggestion, that the public should not assume that what he is about to watch is the proof truth. Anyway, all Glyn tells us at this point is that someone died on the yacht. Unless you’re particularly familiar with the lore of old Hollywood, we don’t know who dies until it happens. This, of course, adds an underlying tension to everything that happens in a movie that, before the violence happens, plays out on some sort of comedic level of debauchery – a lot of alcohol, a lot of drugs, a lot. of philandering, and so on. The only other sign of darkness to come is to see the way Hearst, before Ince even starts to pour poison in her ear, is looking at Marion and Chaplin together.

Representations in The cat’s meow are, of course, the key. The most controversial cast here has to be Izzard as Chaplin, as no other figure portrayed in the film is as widely recognizable as Chaplin, and perhaps no one else looks less like Chaplin than Eddie Izzard. But that sort of thing only stays in my belly occasionally, and for some reason in this case, it doesn’t; I think Izzard’s performance is pretty good, as long as you can ignore the whole “he’s supposed to be Chaplin” thing. Elwes understands Ince’s sweaty despair quite well, as well as her weasel nature. (If, in fact, that was Ince’s nature – the movie is pretty mean to Ince, though her violent death is meant to shock and horrify.)

Marion Davies is portrayed in a much nicer manner. Played by Kirsten Dunst, Davies is almost incredibly charming and talented, and the kind of woman any man could easily fall in love with. (This was also true in David Fincher’s book man, where Davies’ endearing portrayal of Amanda Seyfried earned her an Oscar nomination.) One of the side pleasures of The cat’s meow Chaplin tries to get Hearst to let him cast Davies in one of his comedies. Hearst despises Chaplin’s films, believing Davies is destined for greatness in “important” films, but Bogdanovich and Dunst are careful to show that Chaplin is right, that Davies should not be cataloged, as she could bring great joy. to the public looking for a simple and well-made escape. Bogdanovich and Peros, and Dunst, show great respect for Davies. This is sort of a fix Citizen Kane, in which Davies’ character was portrayed as talentless. Years later, Orson Welles expressed deep regret for this.

Peter Bogdanovich used “The Cat’s Meow” to help repair the damage that “Citizen Kane” caused to Marion Davies’ reputation

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© Lions Gate / Courtesy of Everett Co

The best performance, however, is Edward Herrmann as Hearst. One thing that is particularly interesting about The cat’s meow this is how overwhelming he is of Hearst than Citizen Kane never has been. So, in a sense, the film is Bogdanovich supporting his friend against the attacks that greeted Kane and fundamentally hampered Welles’ career. But Herrmann doesn’t play Hearst, and Bogdanovich doesn’t film him, like a one-note villain. Because in the movie Davies is having an affair with Chaplin (although she doesn’t like him and seems devoted to Hearst), and you can see the pain of that realization on Herrmann’s face. However, the darkest, most poignant moments come after Hearst shoots Ince and realizes he shot the wrong man. After Davies calls for help, Hearst crouched down on the fallen Ince and dabbed the gunshot wound on the back of the man’s head with a handkerchief, pathetically believing that such a move could have an impact. any effect on human recovery. And later, chatting with Ince’s State Ship’s medic, Hearst learns that Ince is still alive. Encouraged, Hearst inquires further, and the doctor says, well, Abraham Lincoln lived a few more days after being shot in the head, and Hearst takes that as a sign of hope, only remembering, when he repeats this anecdote to Davies, that Lincoln did not really survive.

These are the kinds of details that Bogdanovich, at his best, could put forth in his films, as texture, as character, as complicating factor that can disrupt audiences’ judgment. The cat’s meow is a great, entertaining and complicated film that deserves your attention.

Bill Ryan has also written for The Bulwark blog, RogerEbert.com and Oscilloscope Laboratories Musings. You can read his extensive archive of film and literary reviews on his blog The Kind of Face You Hate, and you can find it on Twitter: @faceyouhate



Peter Bogdanovich used “The Cat’s Meow” to help repair the damage that “Citizen Kane” caused to Marion Davies’ reputation

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