INTERVIEW: Don't Call It a Comeback; Bogdanovich Returns with "The Cat's Meow"
by Guy V. Cimbalo
(indieWIRE/ 04.08.02) — While it is unlikely that Orson Welles will fade into obscurity anytime soon, it is somehow reassuring to know that Peter Bogdanovich is doing his damndest to keep us from forgetting the original wonderboy of cinema. In DVD commentary, monograph, manuscript or documentary, Bogdanovich is forever amplifying our understanding of the Welles’ canon.
With his new film “The Cat’s Meow,” Bogdanovich more obliquely gnaws on
Orson’s substantial form. Although Welles isn’t even mentioned in the film,
it Welles’ great inspiration, William Randolph Hearst, who takes center
stage. “The Cat’s Meow” concerns shadowy events that occurred on Hearst’s
luxury liner one November weekend in 1924, when an assortment of Hollywood
types, among them Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), and gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), set sail from San Pedro for a weekend’s festivities.
All of Bogdanovich’s films, “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?“
“Paper Moon,” or the Burt Reynolds musical (really) “At Long Last Love,” are fed by a Nickelodeon nostalgia and reinvention of cinema history. With “The Cat’s Meow,” however, Bogdanovich takes greater liberties than ever before.
Although the film is based in real life events, there is only one element in
the script that is without doubt — a funeral. All else occupies the realm
of whispered gossip and second hand fact. Its depiction in “The Cat’s Meow,”
we are informed in voice-over, is “the whisper most often told.” Bogdanovich talks with Guy V. Cimbalo about cross-dressing, the QE2 and, of course, Orson. Lions Gate releases the film on Friday.
indieWIRE: “The Cat’s Meow” may or may not be a true story. Were you aiming to tell a history?
Peter Bogdanovich: Definitely. We tried to be pretty scrupulous in trying to
tell what we thought would be the truth. You have to understand, I’d heard
about the story before. It was told to me 30 years ago by Orson Welles.
Orson got it from Charles Lederer, who was Marion Davies’ nephew. I met
Lederer later, in the seventies, and he confirmed it to me. The reason Orson
told me this story was not as an item of gossip, but in trying to show the
difference between Kane and Hearst. That Kane and Hearst weren’t really the
same person at all, but was rather a composite figure based on Hearst, a
Russian press lord, and an American press lord named McCormick who built the
Chicago Opera House for his girlfriend. So when he told me about this
“notorious” incident I had never heard of it, nor did I think anything about
making a movie of it, I just listened and found it amazing.
Thirty years later, one of the rare times I ever told the story, I was on
the QE2 going from New York to Southampton on an extended Telluride Film
Festival excursion. Over lunch I told Roger Ebert about the incident. He
hadn’t heard of it, and he said, “My God, it sounds like it would make a
good movie.” I get back from that fucking trip and on my desk is this
script. When I read it I thought I had to make it, and that was the
beginning of it.
iW: While the movie takes place during an extended party, the narrative is moved in asides, in whispers.
Bogdanovich: That’s just what it’s about. To me it’s a suspense movie. When
they asked me at Lions Gate, “What is this like?” I said it’s not Merchant
Ivory, this is not going to be a period piece, this is going to be a very
fast-moving suspense story. And that’s what we tried to make. Paced almost
like a comedy, very fast, to build the suspense and the suspense was out of
the little things that nobody saw, the letter in the wastebasket, the
movement between Chaplin and Marion that Hearst observes. These little
moments caught unawares, I thought it would build suspense.
iW: What is it about a boat…
Bogdanovich: …Or a train, it’s enclosure and yet you can walk around.
iW: At the same time, Hearst’s boat is hardly Das Boot. It’s bigger than any apartment I’ve ever lived in.
Bogdanovich: You can’t leave, you’re stuck. Unless you’re Jesus and you can
walk on water. Or a good swimmer. So that adds to the suspense also because
you can’t get out. Nobody can just say, “I’m leaving.” It’s one of the sad
things about movies, about society, that the train and the ship have become
anachronisms today; they’re wonderful for movies, suspense stories, or
iW: As a film historian ,were you worried about muddying the waters? By the time the story arrives on screen it’s three, four times removed. Was it more important for you to remain true to the facts or to the story?
Bogdanovich: I thought it was important to stay true to the characters. I’ve
been portrayed in a few movies, they’ve changed my name, but it was still
me, and I didn’t particularly like it because it wasn’t anything like me.
Having been burned by that, I thought it was incumbent on me to stay as
close to the truth as we could. And all the actors worked at that. They did
a lot of research, and this script was not written in stone. I brought
screenwriter Steven Peros with me to location and we rewrote a lot, all
based in the attempt to try to get it right, and the actors contributed to
that a lot.
iW: Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Marion Davies is so far from the expected. I assumed that she was going to be “Citizen Kane“‘s Susan Alexander, but she comes across as a strong, intelligent character.
Bogdanovich: Which, as Welles used to say, is the biggest libel in “Kane”
because she’s nothing like Susan Alexander. She’s not a singer, she’s a
comedienne. Davies played dramatic parts because Hearst wanted her to play
dramatic parts. That whole aspect of the singing — all that comes from the
guy named McCormick who built the Chicago Opera House. Did I tell you that?
Bogdanovich: So we all tried to get as close to the real people as we could.
We’d sit in rehearsal and read the scene, and Eddie [Izzard] would say, “I
don’t think Chaplin would say that,” or Kirsten would say, “Look, I don’t
think Marion would say anything here.” The last scene in the picture between
Hearst, Marion, and Chaplin — it was the most difficult scene to write and
we didn’t have it written as it’s seen until just before we shot it. We kept
changing that scene. It was a tough scene. But it all came from
understanding these people. Charlie that weekend especially was not Charlie
Chaplin — he was just a movie star on the make, and he wanted to nail
Marion. That’s what it was about for him. I’ve seen that in life, I’ve been
there in life, so why wouldn’t it happen to him? Even Charlie Chaplin, who
was the biggest star in movies, in the world, he had just had a failure,
“The Woman of Paris.” They’re all on a precipice.
iW: How did you cast characters so recognizable? Particularly Eddie Izzard — I never would have imagined him as Chaplin, but he pulls it off well.
Bogdanovich: With Chaplin it was just luck. We had a lot of trouble with
that part, trying to figure out who the fuck to go to. I didn’t want to use
an American actor. I think Bob Downey did a good job, but I felt we needed
an English actor. I wasn’t confident getting an American actor to do the
accent, to fill in those intangibles that only someone who’s English could
do. We sent it to a couple of people, not big big names, but big people, and
they said no. One afternoon, in June or July of 2000, my manager calls me up
and says, “What are you doing tonight? I got two tickets to Eddie Izzard at
Town Hall.” I said, “What’s that?” “No, it’s a he, he’s an English
comedian.” “Any good?” “He’s brilliant.” It was a hot day, there was
air-conditioning in the theater, so I thought “Fuck it, I’ll go.” I called
my wife at the time and asked her if she knew of him. “You won’t like him,”
she tells me. “He dresses like a woman.” I said, “What?” Anyway, when I went
to see him, he wasn’t dressed like a woman, just a little bit, somewhere in
between. And I’d been told he’s not gay, he just likes to dress as a woman.
OK, whatever, I’m not critical, I went. And within five minutes I was
screaming along with everybody else. Made me laugh, big time. And as I was
laughing I realized this guy is a brilliant actor of comedy, because this
guy, he doesn’t really do stand-up, he acts it. My point of view has always
been if you can play comedy, you can do just about anything. So it hit me
right then. I got in touch with him the next day, and he agreed immediately.