Criterion Prediction #271: The Cat’s Meow, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Cat’s Meow
Cast: Kristen Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Carey Elwes, Jennifer Tilly, Joanna Lumley, Claudia Harrison.
Synopsis: Jealousy and tempers flare among WR Hearst (Herrmann), Marion Davies (Dunst), Charlie Chaplin (Izzard), Louella Parsons (Tilly), and novelist Elinor Glyn (Lumley), resulting in the death of studio mogul Thomas Ince (Elwes) while aboard the newspaper tycoon’s private yacht, the Oneida.
Critique: The Cat’s Meow is something of an anomaly in Peter Bogdanovich’s filmography. The zesty dialogue perfectly embodies the period but the post-90s cynicism and modern savvy edge the material from recreative posturing. All the while, with Bogdanovich’s direction and wit, we realize we’re in the hands of someone who knows Hollywood just as well as any of the people he’s showing on screen. It’s familiar but there’s a contemporary freshness. The Cat’s Meow works so well because it’s self-aware, not self-conscious. Bogdanovich interprets the fated journey on “William Randolph’s Hearse” (a delightful anecdote provided by Kenneth Anger’s beautifully bitchy Hollywood Babylon) and it’s evident from start to finish that he, like Anger, is having a ball dallying about in the bawdy playpen provided by the luminaries of Hollywood’s infancy. Bogdanovich is shrewd enough to capture the comedic nuances of gender and ironic clumsiness of sex with subtly incisive humor.
The ensemble cast is very much of its time and dates the film in a uniquely charming way; it’s an incidental parallel regarding the past, present, and future of cinema. Everyone’s in tune with the duality of their characters. The men are chesty in their feigned masculinity but there’s an ever-present degree of gawky insecurity. The women are prettified in that flouncy, pouty flapper manner but there’s an unsung expression of power among them. They know they wield more than superficial femininity and the occasional flourishes of that expression are a revelation.
The Cat’s Meow is comic, tragic, and affecting because it’s just true enough to hang on to for every minute but the miasma that precipitates its character’s wealth and power affords some playful license. It’s a film ahead of its time and would likely play to righteous aplomb alongside interest generated by the likes of Mank and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Despite the potential bandwagon impression this entry might give off, there’s no need to argue for the inclusion of a film by Bogdanovich, whose sole title in the Criterion Collection, The Last Picture Show, was part of the America Lost and Found Collection: The BBS Story. In terms of distribution, The Cat’s Meow is only available on DVD, which might contribute to its reduced visibility in terms of the director’s body of work.