Ship of fools

Blood and betrayal off the California coast.


directed by Peter Bogdanovich with Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, and Eddie Izzard opens April 26 at Seven Gables

HOLLYWOOD LOVES its own mythic history, which it seldom hesitates to burnish in movies-about-the-movies set in the Golden Age of Tinseltown. Unfortunately those self-tributes are seldom so entertaining as the occasional bouts of self-loathing—witness Sunset Blvd. or The Player.

You might expect the latter from Peter Bogdanovich, who famously flamed out and fell from industry favor after his early-'70s trifecta of The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon. In adapting a 1997 play about the actual 1924 death of a silent-era producer/director aboard a tycoon's yacht, he certainly has a vehicle to bite the hand of his old master, but The Cat's Meow is more tepid, elegiac kiss instead.

Don't look for drama in this treatment of the well-known scandal; read Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon if you want smutty speculation. We begin at the ending, with a funeral, then loop back to the dock where the yachting party embarks. We soon learn how the soon-to-be-dead guy, Thomas H. Ince (Cary Elwes), is a cad—not unlike Tim Robbins' character in The Player—who has it coming to him. The tycoon, William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann), emerges as a jealous, pathetic monster who wants only to be loved by his much younger, livelier girlfriend, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst).

Hearst's ill-fated party includes the rakish yet needy Charlie Chaplin (British comic Eddie Izzard), who naturally tries to seduce a not unwilling Davies. The resulting love triangle bears more than a trace of musty old Broadway with its purloined love letters and pocketed pistols. Bogdanovich hasn't got much more to work with than the murder mystery, whose pat, Agatha Christie tone Robert Altman spoofs to far better effect in Gosford Park.

With its burnished ship's cabins, bootleg gin, and spontaneous Charleston dancing, Meow is Bogdanovich's nostalgic paean to a lost Hollywood past when legends like Davies and Chaplin strode the sunny earth. The director got his start in the '60s as a film curator and journalist who lovingly cultivated the forgotten classics and old pros of Hollywood. Perhaps that's why he can't bring himself to be bitter about the system that spat him out.

Instead, surprisingly, Hearst is the most interesting and even sympathetic guy on the boat, a man whose irreconcilable needs for both love and control make him a tragic figure (as in Citizen Kane). Bogdanovich refuses to treat him as a simple straw man for big, bad Hollywood.

As a result, while Meow doesn't rise above typical PBS fare, it is a generous and humane work in keeping with Bogdanovich's earlier classics. Apart from a few black-and-white passages, Meow is shot in color, but the effect is pure sepia.

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