According to Peter Bogdanovich, who died this week at the age of 82, it was Orson Welles who told him that William Randolph Hearst shot and killed silent film producer Thomas Ince. The road Bogdanovich told it, Herman J. Mankiewicz, co-author Borger Kane with Welles, including the unofficial – the rumor, you could call it – that Hearst had killed Ince, on Hearst’s yacht, during a voyage that was partly intended to celebrate Ince’s birthday, in the original script for sleigh. Welles, however, removed that part from the finished product and explained to Bogdanovich that “Kane was not a murderer.” Welles apparently thought Hearst was a killer, but he wanted people to understand that the character of Kane was not based solely on Hearst, which is what most audiences believe. On top of that, evidence for some of this – officially Ince died of a heart attack – is largely speculative.
Jump to 2001. Welles had been dead for 16 years, Hearst at 50 and Ince at 77. At this point, Peter Bogdanovich’s career experienced yet another of his many fortunes, but he was still able to get a film occasionally. the earth, and attract an impressive cast. In 1997, Steven Peros had written a play called Kattens miav, which promotes the theory that Hearst killed Ince; that idea proved irresistible to Bogdanovich, a former friend of his primary mentor Orson Welles. Nevertheless, Kattens miav found funding and got started.
The theory behind this version of Thomas Ince’s death, and the plot of Kattens miav, is basically this: Ince (Cary Elwes), who was once a Hollywood big man, is now fighting. At one point, he tells me that he used to make forty films, and now he’s lucky if he manages one. It is his hope, during this cruise, to gain the financial backing of Hearst (Edward Herrmann). Hearst is not particularly interested in Ince’s problems, but eventually Ince learns that Hearst’s lover, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), may be having an affair with Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), and Ince decides to use this as leverage. to get what he wants from Hearst. Needless to say, all of these people, and more – including Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and British author Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley, who talks about the beginning and end of the picture) – are on the yacht. As one might imagine, Ince’s plans backfire, and Hearst’s twisted jealousy does not draw him closer to the producer, but pushes him toward revenge. Eventually, through a mix-up, the crazy Hearst ends up shooting Ince in the back of the head, in the belief he’s shooting Chaplin.
Bogdanovich’s film is structured as a mystery. In the first scenes, through Lumley’s narrative, we learn that someone died on this boat trip and that no one really knows what happened. Lumley’s Glyn speaks to the audience many years after these events took place, and what she says in this prologue is the only suggestion, and an important suggestion, that the audience should not assume that what they are about to see is it proved. truth. Anyway, all Glyn is telling us at this point is that someone died on the yacht. Unless you are particularly well versed in Old Hollywood lore, we do not know who will die until that happens. This, of course, adds an underlying suspense to everything that happens in a film that, before the violence occurs, plays on a kind of comically exuberant level – lots of drinking, lots of drugs, lots of filth and so on. The only other hint of darkness that comes is to see how Hearst, even before Ince begins to pour poison into his ear, looks at Marion and Chaplin together.
The performances in Kattens miav is of course the key. The most controversial cast here must be Izzard as Chaplin, as no other character portrayed in the film is as commonly recognizable as Chaplin, and perhaps no one resembles Chaplin less than Eddie Izzard. But that kind of thing only occasionally sticks in my throat, and for some reason it does not in this case; I think Izzard’s performance is pretty good, as long as you can ignore the whole “he should be Chaplin” business. Elwes gets quite well over Ince’s sweaty desperation, as well as his substantial nature. (If it was actually Ince’s nature – the film is quite unfriendly towards Ince, even though his violent death is meant to be shocking and horrifying.)
Much more sympathetically portrayed is Marion Davies. As played by Kirsten Dunst, Davies is almost unbelievably charming and talented, and the kind of woman that any man can easily fall in love with. (This was also true in David Finchers Missing, where Amanda Seyfried’s captivating portrayal of Davies earned her an Oscar nomination.) One of the added pleasures of Kattens miav is Chaplin trying to pressure Hearst to let him star in Davies in one of his comedies. Hearst rejects Chaplin’s film, believing that Davies is destined for greatness in “important” films, but Bogdanovich and Dunst make sure to show that Chaplin is right that Davies should not be put in the box because she could bring great delight to the audience looking for a simple, well-made escape. Bogdanovich and Peros and Dunst show great respect for Davies. This is in a way a corrective to Borger Kane, where the Davies character was portrayed as talentless. In recent years, Orson Welles has expressed deep regret over this.
The best performer, however, is Edward Herrmann as Hearst. One thing that is particularly interesting about Kattens miav is how much more judgmental it is of Hearst than Borger Kane ever has been. So in a sense, the film is Bogdanovich backing up his friend against the attacks that met sleigh and basically hampered Welles’ career. But Herrmann does not play Hearst, nor does Bogdanovich film him as a one-tone villain. Because in the movie, Davies is to have an affair with Chaplin (though she does not love him and seems devoted to Hearst), and you can see the pain of this realization all over Herrmann’s face. However, the darkest gripping moments come after Hearst has shot Ince and realizes he has shot the wrong man. After Davies runs for help, Hearst squats over the fallen Ince and dabs the gunshot wound to the man’s backside with a handkerchief, pathetically believing that such a gesture could have any effect on the man’s healing at all. And later, when he talks to the ship’s doctor about Ince’s condition, Hearst finds out that Ince is still alive. The heart asks Hearst further, and the doctor says that Abraham Lincoln lived a few more days after he was shot in the head, and Hearst takes this as a hopeful sign, and remembers only when he repeats this trivia to Davies that Lincoln survived in fact not.
It’s the kind of detail that Bogdanovich could bring out in his films at his best, as texture, as character, as a complicating factor that can mess with the audience’s judgment. Kattens miav is a great, entertaining and complicated movie that deserves your attention.
Bill Ryan has also written for The Bulwark, RogerEbert.com and Oscilloscope Laboratories Musing blog. You can read his deep archive of film and literary criticism on his blog The kind of face you hate, and you can find him on Twitter: @faceyouhate