You may have heard some things about William Randolph Hearst. That he was superrich and not a little tyrannical, publishing magnate and proponent of yellow journalism, Patty Hearst’s grandfather and a model for Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane. You may have also heard that he was, for years, devoted to his mistress, Marion Davies, endeavoring not only to design a film career for her, but also to ensure her fidelity to him — like, forever.
For years, a rumor circulated around Hollywood, with occasional seepage outside, concerning the bizarre and untimely death of a friend of Hearst, the cowboy picture producer Thomas Ince, during a November 1924 cruise on Hearst’s yacht, the Oneida. According to one rather legendary version of events — the one that is taken up by Peter Bogdanovich’s new film, The Cat’s Meow — on a dark night, Hearst mistook Ince for Charlie Chaplin, whom he understood to be dallying with Marion, and shot him in the head.
Being Hearst, he was able to have a doctor and private ambulance take Ince’s unconscious body home, where he died days later. And being Hearst, he was able to keep the press and the law at bay: the official word was that Ince died of something like “indigestion.” (Hearst’s biographer, David Nasaw, by the way, insists that there is no good reason to believe this story, any whichway).
Bogdanovich’s movie reimagines all this as it might have appeared to one of the guests on that fateful yachting trip, Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley). Though Elinor isn’t precisely a witness to what happens, she offers bits of memory and gossip, laced through with cautions about excess — of desire and wealth, fantasy and business. Glyn’s narration begins while at Ince’s funeral (which appears in the film in quaint, and rather elegant, black and white). As she gazes on the coffin, the shot dissolves to the yacht and fades into color: the distinction between past and present is at once harsh and hazy. Worst of all, The Cat’s Meow insists, you can’t go back to the good old days, because they were never so good as you think they were.
The yachting party, ironically conceived as a birthday celebration for Ince (Cary Elwes), begins as Glyn waits in her motorcar at the pier: though she has arrived before the other guests, she’ll be damned to make her actual appearance early. Immediately, then, the film asks you to be wary of your guide. No matter that Glyn is witty, self-aware, even, for fleeting moments, warm. She has a reputation for writing well about the rich and famous because is one of them.
For all the forgetting that goes on this film — willful and accidental, self-delusional and self-protective — you can’t forget this much. Glyn’s capacity to go along, not to mention feel nostalgic for this scene, is premised on her dedication to the cause. Or rather, as she herself describes it in a bit of writerly explication: she’s in thrall to the Curse, which strikes you “like a disease.” Once you succumb, you realize that Hollywood is “not a place at all, but a living creature, an evil wizard.” And soon you start believing what it tells you, that “you are the most important person in any room.”
This speech takes place at the first night’s dinner, and as the camera pans around the table, it’s clear that just about everyone in that room is thinking how important he or she is at that moment. This is how the business works, how lies and careers become codependent. And it’s exactly how the film sets up Hearst (Edward Hermann), as the King of This World, always the most important person in all rooms. He’s poofed up and soft, and deadly afraid that his lack (of knowledge, security, potency, juice) will be found out. And so his entire life is dedicated to putting up the front that he is absolutely, never ever afraid of any of it.
He’s introduced, tellingly, as less powerhouse publisher (“He controls more print than Jesus Christ,” observes one hanger-on). Peeping through a porthole on his yacht, he observes his guests and especially, keeps watch over Marion (Kirsten Dunst, who is tremendous in this role). Marion is a child next to Hearst, but also his grown up caretaker: when he frets that she’s going to leave him, or doesn’t appreciate the butterfly broach he’s given her, she assures him, at ease with her own will and love: “Shut up and keep me happy, Pops.” At times anxious because she knows he’s watching her, Marion maintains her stylish sailor-dress sunny-ness: she’s surely resilient, or maybe just terrified to let down her guard.
As this little show goes on in Hearst’s outpost/stateroom, the lower deck teems with performance. Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly, of the fingernails-on-chalkboard voice) appears as a young up-and-comer, not yet the gossip columnist with a lifetime contract with Hearst Papers (this comes about, according to The Cat’s Meow because Hearst must buy her silence regarding the Ince incident); a couple of flapper-party girls; Ince, his business manager-buddy-beard George (Victor Sleazak), and Ince’s mistress, Margaret (Claudia Harrison); the band members; and Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), all mill about expecting good times to rain down on them.
Though everyone knows the illicit nature of Hearst’s relationship with Marion, they all observe the pretense of propriety as if their lives depended on it. Ince, in particular, is worried “not to get on [Hearst’s] morally objectionable side,” as he’s hoping to strike up a lucrative movie-making deal with him, promising to take “good care” of Marion. Ince believes that his primary potential obstacles are 1) even getting Hearst’s attention, since the old man tends to be easily distracted, and 2) keeping the Margaret affair a secret. Of course, everyone already knows about the affair (he’s brought Margaret along for the trip), and frankly, it’s hard to believe that he’s so ignorant. But Ince’s density and self-absorption, matched only by Hearst’s own, become important plot points. And so, you settle in to listen to Margaret’s incessant complaints and his alarming indifference.
Given that he’s only one navel-gazer on a ship full of them, Ince’s problems (and annoyances) start looking minor, even though he’s actually the closest to losing his livelihood (and so, his sense of himself, or his sense of room-importance). Ince’s once lucrative Western films have fallen out of fashion, and he’s up against it. Louella is angling for a career; her early morning ping-pong game with an angry Margaret is part comedy and part tragedy: Lolly is dim beyond the pale.
Chaplin is also at something of a crossroads, as his film, A Woman of Paris (in which he did not appear), failed miserably at the box office, and his last conquest, teenaged Lita Grey, has turned up pregnant. He’s hopeful about Marion, but you’re not sure why. She, in turn, apparently quite in love with Hearst, is still not beyond imagining what it might be like to spend time with someone who might last more than 30 seconds on the dance floor. She’s also quite ready to believe Charlie when he tells her that her career path lies in comedy, as her historical dramas, which Hearst prefers because they are “respectable,” are mostly painful to watch.
Everyone is in some state of crisis, personal and professional, because these are the same thing, and because, crisis is the only way these folks know how to function (or not function). Still, this may be the least interesting way to read The Cat’s Meow. It’s hardly a newsflash to say that Hollywood is rife with corruption and selfishness. Neither does the film offer much in the way of plot of clever camerawork: such conventional movie elements have never appeared to interest Bogdanovich, and it shows, especially in his most successful films. Most sadly, perhaps, her protestations to Hearst — “Stop listening to whispers and listen to me!” — are rendered meaningless. The whispers in Hollywood are deafening.
But if The Cat’s Meow is regular in story and execution, that’s actually okay. Because it’s not about either. In fact, it’s less a narrative per se than a portrait of a moment that never really existed. Or better, it’s a series of portraits setting off its most eloquent and moving image, and that is, again and again, Marion Davies. Forgotten by film “history,” or worse, remembered as a victim of Hearst’s follies, here she comes alive. By film’s end, she looks too deer-in-the-headlights, unable to collapse or move. She’s seen the shooting and the work of the cover-up, and the next morning, she faces herself, in the form of the choices she does not have: to believe in Charlie Chaplin, or William Randolph Hearst.
Marion is here, in her blankness and horror, the most accurate register of the loss that lies at the center of this film, and by extension, this narcissistic culture. When she decides, at last, to stay with “Pops,” you’re left feeling as shell-shocked as she looks, waving to her departing guests from the deck, leaning into her hollow mountain of a man.