April 24, 2002


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The next picture show

Peter Bogdanovich resuscitates his off-kilter career with The Cat's Meow.

By Dennis Harvey

 

HIS LATE CLOSE friend and long-term houseguest Orson Welles aside, perhaps no major American director has traveled quite so precipitous a path from Hollywood outsider to insider to outcast as Peter Bogdanovich. In the early 1970s he followed an auspicious if little-seen debut (the atypically realist 1968 "horror" genre nod Targets, starring Boris Karloff) with three films at once masterfully cinephilic and brilliantly populist. Smash hits all, The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon each recycled silver nitrate nostalgia into new auteurist gold.

Bogdanovich and his model turned acting protegé Cybill Shepherd enjoyed this success so publicly that industry forces could hardly stifle their glee when the pair's subsequent features tanked – most notoriously At Long Last Love, a 1975 faux-'30s art deco musical that had Shepherd and Burt Reynolds singing Cole Porter songs live, on-set.

The director was pretty well banned thereafter from casting his girlfriend-starlet, whose career didn't find its own feet until TV's Moonlighting some years later. And his movies continued to get short shrift, some undeservedly (sly Saint Jack, solid stage-farce adaptation Noises Off), some less so (sad for-hire Rob Lowe vehicle Illegally Yours, disappointing Last Picture Show sequel Texasville).

The critical and box office triumph of 1985 seriocomedy Mask was offset by public mudslinging between Bogdanovich, star Cher, and the studio. Middling country-music-of-the-'90s wave-ride The Thing Called Love (1993) got buried in the aftermath of star River Phoenix's fatal O.D. Worse still, 1983's exquisite screwball-romance ensemble piece They All Laughed was released after the murder of Bogdanovich's new Playboy model turned acting protegé, Dorothy Stratten, by her jealous estranged husband, to no notice whatsoever; having poured most of his own money into the studio-abandoned film, Bogdanovich was broke. His later, self-serving print memoir of the death (The Killing of the Unicorn) didn't help. Nor did his marriage to Stratten's younger sister, Louise, thaw the industry's cold shoulder.

Still, it's hard to hate Peter Bogdanovich – at least without the benefit of personal contact. Those first four features remain terrific. Shepherd is better than anyone appreciated at the time in his severely underrated Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller. She's not half bad, either, in At Long Last Love, which, contrary to all Golden Turkey Awards mythology, has its charms too. They All Laughed, revived last year at the Roxie, is a near-perfect small classic in desperate need of rediscovery.

Bogdanovich still has friends in high places – like his What's Up Doc? star Barbra Streisand, who hired him for a few latter-day TV-movie assignments (among them the ill-sounding To Sir with Love 2 and Naked City: A Killer Christmas). He's also stayed busy writing film-history books and compiling yellowed interviews with golden age Hollywood directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford.

His first theatrical feature in a decade, The Cat's Meow, opens locally this week. It's classic Bogdanovich turf, being a dramatization of a fabled Hollywood back chapter, with yet another ethereally gorgeous young blond (Kirsten Dunst, who's presumably well past being vulnerable to any director's Svengali-style molding) in the lead.

Dunst plays Marion Davies, silent screen star and offscreen mistress of William Randolph Hearst. In the events fictitiously reimagined here, Davies, Hearst (Edward Herrmann), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Eurotrash-lit sexpert Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), and gossip maven Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) are aboard Hearst's yacht for a weekend in 1924. They're all under suspicion for the death of early industry kingpin Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) – whose birthday has provided the partying occasion and who may have been shot on board. In reality, the real Ince died several days later, with a quick cremation strongly suggesting a cover-up.

Was it suicide, heart failure, or murder? Steven Peros's ingenious screenplay, adapted from his stage text, provides one plausible explanation. But like another recent period piece-cum-whodunit, Gosford Park, The Cat's Meow's pulp-mystery aspect is almost incidental to its real, deeper pleasures. The movie captures a few days in the lives of the almost impossibly rich-and-famous with just the right mix of nostalgia, balloon pricking, and stupefaction. Nouveau riche ostentation and melancholy are as deftly revealed as in a Fitzgerald story. What's more, the legendary figures here are given such vivid internal life in writing and performance that celebrity mythology is soon forgotten. Ditto look-alikeness – Izzard is nobody's Chaplin ringer, yet his performance, like nearly everyone's here, feels offhandedly perfect. (I'd call the eternally shrill Tilly an exception, but admittedly her character is supposed to be obnoxious.)

Whether he's been mellowed by age or a passing flu bug, Bogdanovich himself is terrifically ingratiating in person – the alleged enfant terrible of yesteryear undetectable. (Still, he is so old-school director-as-artiste: the man actually appeared to be wearing a cravat.) During a recent S.F. press stop, he held forth.

While the screenplay landed in his lap unsolicited several years ago, Bogdanovich had heard all the original rumors decades earlier. "I got it originally from Orson Welles in 1969, when I was doing a book with him," he said. "He told me pretty much what you see [on-screen]. And he heard it from Charles Lederer, Marion Davies's nephew, who'd known about it since he was 12."

If the subject seemed a natural fit, and casting benefited from "an awful lot of luck, just dumb luck," the actual shooting wasn't nearly so smooth. Shooting exteriors in Greece, "we had terrible weather problems – it was raining all the time. So we lost three days, and that was a disaster [because] we had just 30 days, a drop-dead last day on December 22 because everybody was going home for Christmas. The studio got nervous, worrying we couldn't finish it. So I told the writers and producers, 'Cut every single fucking line of dialogue, anything we absolutely don't need, because I don't have time to shoot it.' Fifteen pages were eliminated."

"I don't think I've ever been as anxious," he added. "I just didn't know what we had. I wouldn't even look at the dailies; I thought they'd just depress me, since there was nothing I could do if I didn't like them. But a lot of things I thought were bad luck turned out to be good luck in the end." Likewise the 10 years since his last theatrical feature, a period "when I was going through a lot of emotional crap, financial things. I wanted and needed to keep working and wasn't getting offered features. But I did get offered some television and thought, 'What the hell.' It got me in touch again with a certain rhythm that's fast but not prohibitive. I had done it on Targets, my first film, which was shot in 23 days. The same rhythm was required on Cat's Meow."

Having been up and down the professional ladder several times already, Bogdanovich no longer seems especially concerned with where his stock stands, or where it's been. "I don't know where it's settled now; a lot depends on how Cat's Meow does at the box office," he said. "It didn't cost a lot – about six and a half million. Nobody believes it. Everybody took a pay cut; we cut corners here and there." As for all that water under the bridge, he shrugs. "Oh, everybody's misjudged. It comes with the territory. I'm not going to complain about it."

'The Cat's Meow' opens Fri/26 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.