“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

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“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

There have been many accounts of the infamous November 1924 cruise held aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, in honor of Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince’s birthday. But the biggest . . . and probably the most fictionalized account was featured in “THE CAT’S MEOW”, Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of screenwriter Steven Peros’ stage play. 

The movie takes place aboard Hearst’s yacht on a weekend cruise celebrating Ince’s 42nd birthday. Among those in attendance include Hearst’s longtime companion and film actress Marion Davies, fellow actor Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, and actress Margaret Livingston. Many of the guests harbor agendas that revolve around Hearst and Davies. Chaplin, who has become infatuated with the actress, sees the weekend cruise as a chance to declare his feelings for her . . . and convince Davies to end her relationship with the publisher. Parsons sees the cruise as a chance to develop a stronger professional relationship with her boss, Hearst, and relocate from the East Coast to Hollywood. Faced with a bad financial situation and accompanied by his mistress Margaret Livingston, Ince hopes to convince Hearst to allow him to become a partner in the publisher’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Hearst suspects that Davies and Chaplin are engaged in an affair and has great difficulty in battling his jealousy. Thanks to this jealousy, a violent death ends the cruise, which becomes a subject of Hollywood legend.

After watching “THE CAT’S MEOW”, I realized that after so many years of documentaries and somewhat mediocre films, Peter Bogdanovich had maintained his touch as a first-rate director. At least back in 2000-2001. “THE CAT’S MEOW” struck me as a first-rate character study of a good number of film and publishing luminaries in the world of 1920s Hollywood. What I found interesting is that aside from one or two characters, most of them are not what I would call particularly sympathetic. Well, superficially, hardly any of them are sympathetic – including the very likable Marion Davies, who was not only Hearst’s official mistress, but who was doing a piss-poor job of hiding her attraction for Charlie Chaplin. But despite the lack of superficial charm, the movie managed to reveal the demons and desires of each major character. And thanks to Steven Peros’ screenplay and Bogdanovich’s direction, characters like Hearst, Davies, Chaplin and Ince rose above their superficial venality and ambiguity to be revealed as interesting and complex characters. The most interesting aspect of “THE CAT’S MEOW” was that many of the characters’ agendas either succeeded or failed, due to the romantic drama that surrounded Hearst, Davies and Chaplin.

For costume drama fans such as myself, “THE CAT’S MEOW” offered a tantalizing look into the world of Old Hollywood in the 1920s. Bogdanovich made a wise choice in hiring Jean-Vincent Puzos to serve as the movie’s production designer. In fact, I was so impressed by his re-creation of November 1924 that I felt rather disappointed that his efforts never received an Academy Award nomination. Puzos’ work was aided by the art direction team led by ChristianEisele and Daniele Drobny’s set decorations. But the second biggest contributor to the movie’s 1920s look were the gorgeous costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. I was extremely impressed by how the costumes closely adhered to the fashions worn during that particular decade. But de Vivaise did something special by designing all of the costumes in black and white – as some kind of homage to the photography used during that period in Hollywood. And if anyone is wondering whether de Vivaise won any awards or nominations for her work . . . she did not. What a travesty.

Bogdanovich gathered an impressive cast for his movie. “THE CAT’S MEOW” featured first-rate performances from the likes of Claudie Blakley and Chiara Schoras as a pair of fun-loving actresses that embodied the spirit of the 1920s flappers; Claudia Harrison as Ince’s frustrated mistress, actress Margaret Livingston; Ronan Vibert as one of Hearst’s minions, the stoic Joseph Willicombe; and Victor Slezak as Ince’s sardonic and witty colleague, George Thomas. But the more interesting performances came from Jennifer Tilly, who gave a delicious performance as the toadying and opportunistic columnist, Louella Parsons; Joanna Lumley as the wise and occasionally self-important novelist Elinor Glyn; and especially Eddie Izzard, who was surprisingly subtle and witty as the wise-cracking, yet passionate Charlie Chaplin.

But in my opinion, the three best performances in “THE CAT’S MEOW” came from Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes and Kirsten Dunst.  The latter was the only member of the cast to earn an award (Best Actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival) for her performance as Hollywood starlet and W.R. Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. What made Dunst’s performance so remarkable was that she was the only one – as far as I know – who portrayed the actress as a complex and intelligent personality, instead of the one-note stereotype that director Orson Welles had introduced in his 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. I suppose one could credit screenwriter Steven Peros for writing a more realistic portrayal of Davies’ true nature. But it would have never worked without Dunst’s performance. Cary Elwes gave – in my opinion – the best performance of his career so far as the harried and ambitious movie producer, Thomas Ince. What made Elwes’ performance so impressive was the subtle manner in which he conveyed Ince’s desperation to save his career as a Hollywood producer through any means possible. But for me, the best performance came from Edward Herrmann as the wealthy and controlling William R. Hearst. Herrmann did a superb job in conveying some of the worst aspects of Hearst’s nature – sense of privilege, arrogance, his bullying and bad temper. Yet, Herrmann also managed to convey Hearst’s desperate love for Davies and vulnerabilities through the more unpleasant mask. It was a remarkable performance that failed to garner any real recognition. And this is more of a travesty to me than the lack of awards for production design or costumes.

I tried to recall anything about the movie that left a negative mark within me and could only come up with one or two matters. The movie seemed to be in danger of slowing down to a crawl, following the tragic shooting that followed Ince’s birthday party. I wonder if Bogdanovitch had tried too hard to reveal the details that led to the cover up of the incident. However, one particular scene really annoyed me to no end. It was the scene that featured Elinor Glyn’s theory about the “California Curse”:

“The California Curse strikes you like a disease the Minute you set foot into California..so pay close attention, my dear. You See this place you’ve arrived in, the place we call home…isn’t a place at all. But a living creature. Or more precisely an evil wizard like in the old stories. And we all live on him like fleas on the belly of a mutt. But unlike the helpless dog, this wizard is able to banish the true personalities of those he bewitches. Forcing them against their will to carry out his command, to forget the land of their birth, the purpose of their journey, and what ever principals they once held dear. The Curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following: You see yourself as the most important person in any room. You accept money as the strongest force in nature. And finally your morality vanashes without a trace.”

As far as I am concerned, Elinor Glyn was full of shit. She could have easily described any individual who forgets his or her principles, no matter where that person resided. And according to Ms. Glyn, the curse has three symptoms – seeing yourself as the focus of all conversations, using money as the most important measure of success, and the disappearance of all traces of morality. Why she seemed to believe that such a mindset only existed in Calfornia . . . or better yet, Hollywood, is beyond me. Anyone with too much ambition could acquire this curse in many other places in the world. Peros and Bogdanovich’s decision to include this crap in the movie damn near came close to ruining my enjoyment of the movie.

But in the end, I managed to overcome my annoyance of the so-called “California Curse”. Why? Because “THE CAT’S MEOW” remained a first-rate and entertaining movie about Old Hollywood that impresses me, even after ten years.“Hooray for Hollywood!”.

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“INFAMOUS” (2006) Review

“INFAMOUS” (2006) Review

I have heard a lot about the two movie biographies based upon Truman Capote’s experiences while working on his famous non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood”“CAPOTE” and “INFAMOUS”. I have watched them both, but have decided to discuss the second one . . . namely “INFAMOUS”, which was written and directed by Douglas McGrath. Although I could never compare the two movies, I might as talk about the one that featured British actor Toby Jones, as the diminutive writer.

To be honest, I did not know what to expect of “INFAMOUS”. Since it was the second Capote movie to be released, it failed to garner any prestigious critic awards or nominations – aside from an Independent Spirit Best Supporting Actor nod for Daniel Craig, who played one of the Clutters’ murderers, Perry Smith. After watching the movie, I found myself wondering why Toby Jones had failed to earn his own nomination. The man’s complex portrayal of Capote seemed all at once witty, sharp, manipulative, vulnerable and rather sad. In all, it was a brilliant performance. He seemed to revel in Capote’s legendary flamboyant wit and charm in all its glory. One of Jones’ funniest scenes involved Capote’s snappy repartees to prison inmates shouting lewd propositions at him, during his first visit to the prison. Yet at the same time, Jones also revealed the author’s talent for cold-blooded deception and manipulation, which he used to gain the trust of his New York friends, along with the citizens of Holcomb and the two killers, whose anecdotes he needed to complete his book. This talent for drawing out secrets . . . and disclosing them not only attracted the suspicion of Perry Smith, but also got Capote in hot water with his “swans” in the mid-1970s, thanks to an unpublished manuscript of his book, “Answered Prayers”. A few chapters managed to end up in the New York magazine, “Esquire”. But what is more interesting about Jones’ performance in the movie is that his experiences in Kansas ended up peeling away Capote’s flamboyant façade, forcing him to face the pain and sorrow created by an unhappy childhood.

Ironically, it was Capote’s encounters with convicted murderer, Perry Smith, which forced the author to face his personal demons. What can I say about Daniel Craig’s performance? Other than the British actor not only deserved his Independent Spirit Award nomination, but like Jones, he also deserved both a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination. His Perry Smith was a brooding, quiet man who projected vulnerability, intelligence and brutal menace. It was easy to see how Capote and Smith had developed a close relationship. Both shared a taste for intellectual and artistic pursuits that allowed them to hide from unhappy childhoods that included suicidal mothers. Both actors created an dynamic screen chemistry through two contrasting personalities that seemed to share similar childhood experiences. Craig brilliantly projected Smith’s varying personalities in two scenes – one in which he expressed polite distaste at Capote’s gift of pornographic magazines; and in another, his terrifying anger at the “In Cold Blood” title, which led to a threat of rape of the author.

“INFAMOUS” could boast a first-class supporting cast led by Sandra Bullock, who portrayed Capote’s close friend and fellow author, Harper Lee (“To Kill a Mockingbird”). Many critics seemed surprised by Bullock’s excellent portrayal of the warm and wryly amused Alabama author. Apparently, they must have been deluded by some belief that Bullock was only capable of light comedy. The actress was given to showcase her dramatic chops in one “documentary” interview scene in which she expressed Lee’s bitter anger at the public’s demand for an endless supply of entertainment by talented artists. I also enjoyed Jeff Daniels’ wry and sardonic portrayal of the Kansas Bureau Investigations officer in charge of the Clutter case, whose family eventually befriended Capote. His performance was highlighted in a favorite scene of mine that featured the development of Capote and Dewey’s friendship over an arm wrestling match.

Lee Pace portrayed Dick Hickock, Smith’s partner and the alleged brains behind the attempt to rob the Clutters. I found his performance rather humorous and gregarious, yet there were times it threatened to be a touch frantic. Since “INFAMOUS” gave the audience a wide glimpse into Capote’s New York lifestyle, the movie also included his circle of “swans”, whom he developed a close relationship until his disclosure of their secrets in the mid-70s. Those “swans” included Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) – the wife of CBS baron Bill Paley; Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), the fashion magazine editor; Slim Keith (Hope Davis), the woman who was married to Howard Hawks and Leland Hayward; and Marella Agnelli (Isabella Rossellini), Italian-American princess who became a furniture designer and tastemaker. Also included in that group were publisher Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich), novelist and Capote’s rival Gore Vidal (Michael Panes). I was especially amused by Stevenson’s humorous portrayal of the vivacious Vreeland, who seemed proud of her own eccentric nature and appreciative of Capote’s attitude toward it.

Some reviews have criticized McGrath’s tendency to switch the movie’s setting between Capote’s glittering New York world and the somber atmosphere of Holcomb, Kansas. I understood why he did it. Both settings seemed like metaphors for the writer’s contrasting psyche during those six years he worked on “In Cold Blood”. It started out with a glittering night with Capote and Babe Paley at the El Morocco nightclub (with a sultry Gwenyth Paltrow singing “What Is This Thing Called Love”) and ended with Capote unable to keep the dark memories of Kansas out of his mind. In fact, once Capote had finally set eyes upon Smith, Holcomb’s bleak setting slowly threatened to puncture the frivolous façade he had created, whenever he was in New York. The emotional cost from the book and his relationship with Smith resulted in his inability to write his next book – “Answered Prayers”, as shown in the movie’s final scene.

The only problems I had with “INFAMOUS” were “documentary” interviews shown during the movie’s first half-hour. Frankly, I believe that the movie could have started out with these interviews, before segueing into the story. And aside from Capote’s tour of the Clutters’ home, I found the sequence featuring his interviews with some of Holcomb’s citizens a little dull and hard to watch. Fortunately, the arrival of Smith and Hickcock ended the dull sequence and from there, my interest in the movie remained constant until the end.

Whether you are a fan of the Philip Seymour Hoffman film, “CAPOTE”, I do recommend that you watch “INFAMOUS” . . . or at least give it a chance. Hopefully, you will discover that in its own way, it is just as fascinating as the 2005 Oscar-winning film.

9/10 stars