THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Orson Welles was fascinated by William Randolph Hearst, who was the general inspiration for Citizen Kane. Welles liked to tell a particular story about Hearst, and one of the people he told it to was his friend, director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show). It was a tale that was in the first draft of the Kane screenplay but eventually removed by co-writer Herman Mankiewicz because it seemed atypical of the movie's character. No one knows if the story is true or not, but Bogdanovich has used it as the basis for The Cat's Meow, a fascinating what-if story of the rich and famous.

The focus is Hearst's November 1924 yacht trip during which one of the passengers died mysteriously. The death remains unsolved to this day. Aboard the yacht were Hearst (Edward Herrmann), his lover Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), and a slew of other Hollywood and publishing types. Hearst was quite a bit older than Davies, and he heard rumors that she was having an affair with Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). Part of the purpose of the cruise was to keep an eye on Chaplin, to make sure he wasn't moving in on the beautiful Davies. Also taking part in the voyage were film pioneer Thomas Ince (Carey Elwes), fledgling gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), and novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley).

Kirsten Dunst is Marion Davies and Eddie Izzard is Charlie Chaplin in The Cat's Meow.
As shown in the film, Hearst is not your typical all-powerful leader with a Messiah complex. Instead, he is portrayed as having power through insecurity; his neuroses are what drives his need for total control. During the course of the trip, drinks are consumed and secrets are revealed. Eventually, proof comes that Chaplin is indeed having an affair with Davies. Although the young actress professes to love the newspaper tycoon (and genuinely seems to), Hearst is ravaged by jealousy. He spots someone he believes is Chaplin sharing a moment with Davies and pulls out a gun, fatally shooting the individual. Except that it is not Chaplin. (Bogdanovich has requested that critics not reveal the victim's identity, so I will respect that wish.)

Did Hearst really kill someone, then use his influence with his guests to cover it up? Who knows, but The Cat's Meow certainly has a lot of fun speculating. When you have such well-known characters, it's not hard to get sucked into the story. The idea that one of the most powerful men in the country could have committed a crime of passion is undeniably compelling. This is a grand tale of American royalty at their most desperate.

Although the subject matter is as juicy as can be, the film's pace sags slightly in the mid-section. However, the performances continue to build, which helps keep us interested. Herrmann's take on Hearst - almost child-like in his emotional fragility - is so unexpected that it really works. Dunst is sensational as Marion Davies for two reasons: you understand why so many men would fall in love with her, and because she seems very sincere in her affection for both Hearst and Chaplin. Jennifer Tilly also makes some interesting choices as Louella Parsons. The film implies that she earned her "lifetime contract" by keeping silent on the murder. Tilly plays her as someone who is so annoying and brash that blackmail would be the only possible way anyone would ever keep her around. I also liked Eddie Izzard as Chaplin. He gets the right balance of bravado and romanticism that comes across in Chaplin's body of work.

The Cat's Meow reminds us at the end that this story is only conjecture. It's a legend, nothing more and nothing less. In fairness, the screenplay by Steven Peros never comes down on one side or another; it merely tantalizes you with the possibility. I, for one, found that approach impossible to resist.

( out of four)

The Cat's Meow is rated PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of violence and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.

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