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Review: 'Cat's Meow' fascinating, well done

Rooted in a 'whisper' of history

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Director Peter Bogdanovich has long been fascinated with Hollywood history. He's written numerous books about the subject, including a biography about his friend and mentor Orson Welles.

Welles, in turn, is best known for his film "Citizen Kane" (1941), which was loosely based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Now, with his first feature film in nine years, Bogdanovich also turns to the subject of Hearst with his delightful period piece, "The Cat's Meow."

Rumors have long swirled about a fateful trip aboard Hearst's private yacht, the Oneida, in November 1924, when one of his famous guests allegedly died mysteriously. (In keeping with the director's request, this review will not reveal who died.) Reportedly on board were Hearst's mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), Victorian novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) and silent film producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), among others. Edward Herrmann plays Hearst.

The real truth of what happened will never be known, but as Lumley says in voice-over at the beginning of the film, "Little evidence exist now, or exists at the time to support any version of those weekend events. History has been written in whispers. This is the whisper told most often."

Great care

Who died -- or was murdered -- is central to the plot. But even more important -- and fun -- is how Bogdanovich depicts the decadence and opulence of the times, the essence of what it was like to be as rich as Hearst or as famous as Chaplin.

Peter Bogdanovich on fame and fortune 



These filmmakers were making up the rules as they went along. The early silent film stars were gods and goddesses of the silver screen and even more mysterious since they didn't speak. And no one on the planet had ever been as instantly identifiable and famous. It's difficult to imagine their position, but Bogdanovich does a good job of conveying the attitude and feelings of that time.

Bogdanovich has chosen his material and his stars with great care. Screenwriter Steven Peros, who wrote three episodes of the American Movie Classics series "The Lot" -- also set in Hollywood's golden era -- knows his stuff. "The Cat's Meow," which began as a play by Peros, sparkles with witty dialogue, unexpected twists and clever characters.

The casting is eclectic. In the pivotal role of Hearst, Herrmann captures the magnate's social awkwardness, desperate love for his much younger mistress, and paranoia about people's motives regarding his great wealth. It's a much different light from the Hearst-like character in "Citizen Kane."

Dunst outstanding

But it's Dunst who steals the show in her first adult role as the carefree -- but wise beyond her years -- Davies, as a woman who's caught in a romantic triangle that ends in murder. Dunst is remarkable; dozens of emotions flicker across her beautiful face in the key scenes with Hearst and Chaplin. Only 19 (she turns 20 on April 30), Dunst is playing older than herself in a very complicated role. She's truly astounding.

Izzard, best known for his cross-dressing stand-up comedy, is pure perfection as the self-absorbed Chaplin, who's at a dangerous crossroads in his career. Elwes plays Ince as a man drowning in flop sweat and at the end of his rope. Lumley, known to millions as Patsy Stone in the British TV series "Absolutely Fabulous," plays Glyn with a delightful combination of world-weary sophistication mixed with old-fashioned street smarts.

Shot in only 31 days, the production values, set design, cinematography and costumes lend an important sense of reality to the film. Bogdanovich even begins and ends the film in black and white, which gives the film an almost documentary feel as we enter the story.

"The Cat's Meow" may not be total purr-fection, but it's great escapist fun that recreates a place and time that will never happen again.

"The Cat's Meow" has opened in a handful of cities April 12 and will slowly open wider across the country.




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