The Cat's Meow (12A)

Strange things happen at sea
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Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow is not so much the director's comeback so much as a belated felicitous afterthought to a turbulent career (made in 2001, it's also belatedly released). Bogdanovich was once among the brightest comets in the new Hollywood of the early Seventies, and it's remarkable how briefly his glory flared - from The Last Picture Show in 1971 to Paper Moon two years later, with sharp critical and commercial decline following. His recent filmography contains a slew of made-for-TV movies, most recently a biopic of the ill-fated star Natalie Wood - which suggests, like the Hollywood scandal recounted in The Cat's Meow, just how much Bogdanovich is himself drawn to stories of high-profile catastrophe.

Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow is not so much the director's comeback so much as a belated felicitous afterthought to a turbulent career (made in 2001, it's also belatedly released). Bogdanovich was once among the brightest comets in the new Hollywood of the early Seventies, and it's remarkable how briefly his glory flared - from The Last Picture Show in 1971 to Paper Moon two years later, with sharp critical and commercial decline following. His recent filmography contains a slew of made-for-TV movies, most recently a biopic of the ill-fated star Natalie Wood - which suggests, like the Hollywood scandal recounted in The Cat's Meow, just how much Bogdanovich is himself drawn to stories of high-profile catastrophe.

Few film-makers have had such spectacular rises and falls - perhaps only Orson Welles, Bogdanovich's enduring hero. Welles's shadow inevitably haunts The Cat's Meow, even if it doesn't directly involve him: the film shares its subject with Citizen Kane, its central figure being the news tycoon William Randolph Hearst. However, Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros - adapting his own play - have gone where Welles in 1941 was unable to, examining a shadowy episode considered too sensitive to allude to in Kane.

The incident took place in November 1924, on Hearst's yacht the Oneida, which set sail with a party of guests including Charlie Chaplin, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, pioneering film producer Thomas Ince, and Hearst's young mistress Marion Davies, whom he tried to promote on screen much as Welles's Kane pushed the luckless Susan Alexander into opera (the original "Rosebud", it's said, was no sledge, but Hearst's name for Davies's clitoris). The pleasure trip ended with one guest carried off the boat dying of a gunshot wound. If you know your Hollywood lore, especially as chronicled by Kenneth Anger, you'll know who the casualty was. Here, I'll respect the suspense of this celebrated story "written in whispers", as another boat guest, the novelist Elinor Glyn, puts in her voice-over.

The Cat's Meow is one of those stories that takes wildly unlikely combinations of characters and locks them into close confinement: the dramatis personae seem as nuttily yet plausibly "what if" as Terry Johnson's dream date of Einstein and Marilyn Monroe in his play Insignificance. Nonetheless, these people really did ride the Oneida together: that reality factor makes this movie stranger than invention. An unflashily executed chamber piece, The Cat's Meow is an opportunity for Bogdanovich and cast to show us familiar figures in a new light - not necessarily providing flashbulb revelations, but unfussily giving a fresh tinge to certain elements of common knowledge.

In Chaplin's case, the casting of Eddie Izzard - more convincing and at ease than he's ever been on film - seems improbable at first sight, but he conveys a fine sense of Chaplin as a self-aggrandising narcissist, a compulsive and callous Lothario who meets his downfall in Marion Davies.

Izzard plays him as a swaggering fop, dispensing too polished come-on lines, then astonishing himself by tripping over his genuine broken-hearted sincerity at every turn.

The least familiar character is Ince, played by Cary Elwes as a tattered social lion suddenly on his uppers and forced to suck up to Hearst, who could be his last meal ticket. When flattery won't do, playing Iago might. The Ince part is the least likely to afford a showy star turn, but in fact Elwes's performance is the most complex here - a picture of a social dragon finding himself disturbingly in his element playing the crawling serpent. The looks of self-sick doubt that flash across Elwes's tarnished matinee-idol looks are the film's most troubling notes.

The biggest surprise is the portrayal of the Hearst-Davies relationship, the quintessential Hollywood tale of a sugar daddy and his pampered, imprisoned poppet. Yet there's more to this pair here. A jealous Hearst spies on Davies and his guests through peepholes and hidden microphones, a habit Davies sweetly indulges and mocks: "Are you going to come down from Mount Olympus or what?" This Davies genuinely is fondly devoted to her Pops, tenderly weary of his spoiling of her, but apprehensive of the moment when perhaps she'll realise after all that she's been bought and is no longer for sale.

Far from the romantically flawed, overreaching tycoon of Kane, Edward Hermann's Hearst is an unwieldy, overgrown boy, a floppy manatee of a man, but not as endearing as his lumbering vulnerability might make him appear. He's as willing to crush his subjects as he is to pot-shot seagulls from the upper deck.

Kirsten Dunst's Marion, meanwhile, is no compliant house-pet, but a clever, playful spark troubled to find herself tempted away from Daddy. Perhaps she's most seduced by Chaplin seeing in her what Hearst can't - a natural irrepressible comedienne, wasted in lofty-toned historical pictures. An out-take shows Dunst's Davies trying to play regal on set, but sticking out her tongue as soon as the camera stops rolling. What Dunst gives us is a sense of sensual, smart joy, and her perfect 1920s moon-face - as creamy and old-fashioned as a Gouda cheese - is not the least of the film's pleasures. The film is so close to genuine tragedy at the end because we know that this is where Davies must stop smiling.

Among the perfectly pitched supporting parts is "Lolly" - yet to be gossip's venomous grande dame Louella Parsons - played first for laughs, then for cold hard chills by Jennifer Tilly. Joanna Lumley is Elinor Glyn, and it's her icily laconic, faintly louche hauteur that partly justifies the tag some have given the film - Gosford Park at sea. It's true that the film's style, with scraps of dialogue ricocheting below decks, has more than a slight Altman touch - yet Bogdanovich's modest directorial ambitions serve the story simply and effectively where you can imagine Altman overcooking the brew.

Beyond all the period Hollywood in-talk and catty bons mots, the film has the sense of a morbid ritual, of ghosts doing the old steps one last time before the exorcism - these are people who might once have spent the high season at Kubrick's Overlook Hotel, where Twenties Charlestons ring forever like a danse macabre.

For all its moral melancholy and its disapproval of Louella Parsons, the film works most successfully on the level of a fly-on-the-wall (or on-the-mouldering-feast) gossip piece. But as such, The Cat's Meow is sensitive and sharply judged. And, impersonal as it looks, it is arguably Bogdanovich's one true auteur film in years - not just because of his fascination with sudden falls, but because of his own history of playing Svengali, or Hearst, to Marion-like protégées: first Cybill Shepherd, then Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy model whom he unsuccessfully launched as a star before her murder. This, of course, is more tittle-tattle, germane to the appeal of The Cat's Meow only if you want it to be. But these phantom meanings surely bring the film an extra bitter poignancy: Hearst might not have appreciated it; Welles surely would.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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