Poor William Randolph Hearst. The snapping dogs of Hollywood just won't leave the guy alone. It's been barely 60 years since a little epic called Citizen Kane portrayed the great newspaper tycoon as a ruthless dictator who degenerated into an emotional basket case, and already there's more bad publicity in the works. In his first theatrical feature in eight years, a savage piece of entertainment called The Cat's Meow, director Peter Bogdanovich speculates that Hearst was also a murderer -- or at least a manslaughterer. Not only that, he was worthless in the bedroom.
This may not be great moviemaking -- for an Orson Welles rookie card, a collector might have to part with a dozen Bogdanovichs -- but it's vastly enjoyable in a lowdown, scandal-mongering way. It's also rife with real-life ironies, especially if you're a hidebound movie buff. Just for a start, consider the celebrated cast of characters Bogdanovich and playwright Steven Peros put aboard Hearst's 220-foot yacht in November 1924. There's good old W.R. himself, of course, in the craggy, ill-tempered person of Edward Herrmann, and his blonde "protégée," Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). The guest list also includes the silent-movie pioneer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), the great comedian Charles Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), actress Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), the sharp-tongued novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) and a screechy, barely literate young gossip columnist by the name of Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly).
In the course of their meandering voyage down the Pacific Coast toward San Diego, these principals and a supplement of hangers-on eat lavishly, drink bootleg liquor, do the Charleston and partake in the occasional orgy. Early on, mean old Willie Hearst stands on deck and shoots an unlucky seagull out of the sky with his automatic pistol. This is what they call in the lit biz a foreboding: Our yachtsman is just getting started in the gunplay department.
As any student of Hollywood scandal lore can tell you, what actually happened next aboard the Hearstian ship of fools remains a matter of conjecture even now. What we do know is that Thomas Ince wound up dead and that a questionable coroner's report attributed his demise to "heart failure as a result of acute indigestion." Like three generations of celebrity gossips, Bogdanovich and writer Peros have other ideas. In their scheme of things, maid Marion was conducting an affair with Chaplin, an inveterate swordsman. Hearst found out about the lovers, took a jealous potshot at the back of a figure he thought was Chaplin and gravely wounded Ince instead. Predictably, the newspaper baron used threats and bribes to quiet his suspicious shipmates forever. Louella Parsons made out best: For her silence, it says here, she exacted a lifetime contract with the Hearst chain and became the most powerful scribbler in Hollywood.
It doesn't matter much at this point whether Meow's bloody speculations are dead-on or a crock. Thomas Ince may have produced the silent classic Civilization and helped launch an industry, but hardly anyone today knows or cares who he was. As for Hearst, who died in 1951, the realities of his life (whatever they were) are still so dwarfed by the dark fictions of Kane that not even renewed accusations of murder are likely to alter his Wellesian image in the popular imagination. Besides, anybody who's ever bought popcorn knows by now that "Rosebud" wasn't just Kane's sled but Hearst's pet name for Davies' private parts.
The real attractions of The Cat's Meow, then, lie in its scathing portrayals of vintage Hollywood decadents at play. These are not especially original, but Bogdanovich dispenses them with relish, and his talented cast clearly has a ball playing their corrupted forebears. We glimpse paranoid Willie Hearst spying on his guests through a peephole, then donning an actual fool's cap, complete with dangling bells. Oily Ince schemes to prop up his flagging career by dipping into the Hearst empire, and we scarcely grieve his passing. Self-serving Davies markets herself to the most powerful bidder, Chaplin indulges his unbound id even as his 16-year-old mistress remains at home, pregnant and bereft. In this company, Tilly's crude, grabby Louella Parsons seems almost innocent.
She's not innocent, of course. No one is. The movie's conscience is supposed to be Lumley's sharply drawn Elinor Glyn, yet another smart, witty novelist who's wandered into the Hollywood circus tent and found the show revolting. "Hollywood -- a land just off the coast of the planet Earth," Glyn proclaims. The place is "an evil wizard" where greed and self-importance overwhelm decency and principle. Well, yes. And if Bogdanovich, who is a learned film historian and a elegant writer as well as a director, identifies with Glyn and shares her bemusement, he likely has his reasons -- along with some regrets. After all, his own filmmaking prospects collapsed after the murder of his paramour Dorothy Stratten, a former Playboy Playmate, and the disastrous lawsuit he brought against Universal Studios over music rights to his 1981 film They All Laughed. In the past two decades, Bogdanovich has directed only four features. So if the ex-wunderkind who gave us The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon now imagines himself a latter-day Thomas Ince, figuratively shot in the back of the head by sheer ignorant power, we can go down that road with him. At least part of the way.
As for Bogdanovich's boyhood inspiration and early career mentor, Orson Welles, the tragic story of how the "evil wizard" reduced that boy wonder's career to a shambles in the years after Citizen Kane is one Bogdanovich can relate in minute detail. The irony of Bogdanovich's taking his own shot at William Randolph Hearst in 2002 is almost too rich to digest. Little wonder that this entertaining but ineffably sad rehash of the old Hollywood excesses and the ancient corruptions of power ends with the ancient pop tune "After You've Gone" warbling away on the track. It sounds less like vengeance than sorrow.