Peter Bogdanovich is one of those directors who is always coming back, though back from where it is never quite clear. Flopsville, I guess. If so, his latest comeback, The Cat’s Meow, may at last make him commercial again. It is just about bad enough. A period piece about a cruise aboard William Randolph Hearst’s 220 foot yacht, the Oneida, in 1924, it tells what purports to be the true story of a death in suspicious circumstances while the yacht steamed from San Pedro Harbor, California to San Diego — a death which was afterwards hushed up. Or at least so it has been rumored in some circles ever since. Bogdanovich and his screenwriter, Steven Peros — whose script started out as a screenplay, was converted into a play, and has since been turned back into a screenplay — set out as if to tell us what really happened, though of course, their version can only be conjecture. But what does that matter? It makes a good story of the kind that audiences will want to hear.
In fact there is a very Hearstian sensibility to the whole enterprise. The filmmakers want to shock us with the secret depravity and corruption of the rich and powerful — particularly if they are dead and unable to exercise any power to the detriment of the filmmakers — because, well, because that is how we really want to believe that the rich and powerful are. Like an American version of Gosford Park — accordingly, the servants here are invisible — the movie not only supplies us with voyeuristic thrills, it also gives us an excuse for our jealousy and dislike of our social superiors. There is behind it, moreover, the urge of all Hollywood insiders to believe that the real insiders are much worse than they are, and to rip the veil off and show how awful, how outrageous, the whole movie industry is. Deliciously awful, in fact.
Bogdanovich’s narrator is the Victorian novelist, Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), who was on the fatal cruise, and who occasionally pops in with pungent voiceover criticisms of her fellow guests of Mr Hearst (Edward Herrmann). “Welcome to Hollywood,” she tells us at the beginning, “a land just off the coast of the planet earth.” And, on arriving at the dockside, “I’m never quite sure if I’m visiting the zoo, or if I am one of the animals in the cage.” It is precisely this wholly pleasurable (I imagine) ambiguity that is of the essence of Bogdanovich’s own position, and he quotes with approval Mrs Glyn’s celebrated aphorism about what she regards as “the California curse” — that is, her belief in the state as “a living creature, an evil wizard” on which the beautiful people “live on him like fleas on the belly of a dog.” The magic of this wizard, the curse, is to make all those who live on him “forget the land of their birth, the purpose of their journey and whatever principles they once held dear.”
Like the pleasurable contemplation of his own world’s outrageousness, and indeed a part of it, this is another bit of self-dramatization — which is, perhaps, the real California curse. Bogdanovich, like Robert Burns, professes surprise to “See social life and glee sit down/All joyous and unthinkin’/Till, quite transmaugrified, they’re grown/Debauchery and drinkin’” But, alas, where Burns has the glint of irony in his eye, poor Peter has none. He is in sober, dreary earnest, about the wickedness of these dead Hollywood aristocrats and really seems to expect us to be shocked by it.
So Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) comes aboard the boat in pursuit of Mr Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), determined to steal her right from under the old man’s nose. Ms Davies has enough sense to know her good fortune in being able to twist “Willie,” as she calls the boat’s proprietor, around her little finger, but she is also powerfully attracted to Charlie. Mrs Glyn, as the voice (such as it is) of reason and morality on the boat, tries to dissuade her from doing anything foolish. At the same time, Tom Ince (Cary Elwes), a once powerful Hollywood producer who is fallen on hard times and is proposing himself to Hearst to be in charge of his operations at Cosmopolitan pictures, gets it into his head that informing the boss of the intrigue between Chaplin and Miss Davies will advance his cause.
Meanwhile, Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), then a humble but duly appreciative film critic of Hearst’s films for Hearst’s newspapers, is watching the goings-on for her chance to become Hollywood’s premiere gossip columnist. Apart from a few of Hearst’s more respectable employees — including Mr and Mrs Barham (John C. Vennema and Ingrid Lacey) whose only purpose seems to be to remind us that, if the debauchees are not particularly admirable, neither are the sort of bluenoses who disapprove of such things — everything else on the boat is pretty much just for the sake of the debauchery-and-drinking side of things. We have to make sure that the conjectural but undoubtedly criminal act the film presents us with is part of a context of moral degeneracy which will persuade us of its plausibility.
It’s a sort of Gore Vidalish, paranoid view of the world, namely that the people who really run things are secretive and out-of-sight and only to be discovered by clever fellows like the author. Thus when some of the lackeys begin to think that Mr Hearst is in trouble, we hear this dialogue:
“God help us.”
“God is who we work for.”
“Then God’s in trouble.”
“Come on! Who do you think got Coolidge elected a couple of weeks ago?”
Oh yeah. We almost forgot. He can’t really be in trouble. And of course he isn’t. The funny thing is that this mention of “God” is intended (of course) to be ironic, yet Bogdanovich seems to share with the Hearst-minions the view that he really was a kind of god, and one with the magical properties attributed to the California curse. The point to which we’re getting is that of Mrs Glyn’s final voiceover, which accompanies flashback shots of the Charleston and conga line aboard the boat and in which she says that, while “watching how ridiculous everyone else looked” she came to “realize I looked like a fool too.” And yet the dance has to go on, for “if we stopped we’d have nothing.” Ah yes, the beautiful and the damned. That powerful, F. Scott Fitzgerald myth has always been at its most potent in Hollywood. But isn’t it, in the end, really just another form of the California curse, which is — remember? — self-dramatization?