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Moriarty Thinks THE CAT'S MEOW Is The Bee's Knees!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

One of my biggest pet peeves about Los Angeles is that it's got no sense of history. I mean, there's history if you know where to look, but it's a city that seems almost ashamed of itself, that denies its own past, that doesn't take care of the historic sites that mark its evolution. Restaurants like Musso & Frank's are the closest thing we get to standing landmarks. And when it comes to knowing the history of film or having any appreciation for it, forget about it. Harry loves to tell me the story of the executive who he was talking to one day when the subject of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA came up. "Oh, yeah, I have to see that," the exec said. "I hear it's Spielberg's favorite film." He didn't want to see it because it's a towering achievement in cinema or because he's interested in rounding out his knowledge of what's come before; no, he wanted to see it because it might one day score him points with someone he could get something from. Such is the City of Angels.

When I meet someone who actually is in touch with the history of film, I feel like hugging them. Ron Haver was the curator of the film department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when I moved to town, and I got a chance to know him before his untimely passing. He was the coolest guy, always pushing people to expand their vocabulary, to fill in gaps in what they have or haven't seen. Ron's memory is one of the reasons I write for this page; he always said that it was important to pass your love and knowledge of film on to other people in any way you can, to make film something that's not just the films released to theaters this weekend, but the entire living history of cinema. There are other people I think of as inspirational in terms of the love of film that they've imparted over the years. One of those people is Peter Bogdanovich.

Now, if you click over to his page at the IMDb, you'll see that he's had a rough go of things in recent years. I'd go so far as to say that with the exception of MASK, his career as a feature director went on hiatus after the commercial failure of the wonderful SAINT JACK in 1979. That's 21 years he's been floating in limbo. I suppose NOISES OFF has some charm, and he was good in a supporting role on THE SOPRANOS last year, but come on... you can't call that working. Not after the highs this guy managed in the early days. PAPER MOON. THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. WHAT'S UP DOC? TARGETS. He was one of those guys who made a huge noise in the early '70s, only to see various problems sideline him, and it's always killed me.

There's one grace note during that long dry 21 years that makes up for anything else, no matter how bad *coughATLONGLASTLOVEcough* it got, and that's his writing about the history of film. In particular, there's a book he edited called WHO THE DEVIL MADE IT. It's made up of conversations that Bogdanovich had with artists like Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Edgar G. Ulmer, Leo McCarey, George Cukor, Chuck Jones, and Howard Hawks, who's responsible for the book's title. He comments at one point that he's a fan of any film that made you think about "who the devil made it." You can't get most of Bogdanovich's earlier books on film, but PICTURE SHOWS and PIECES OF TIME were earlier collections of his essays and interviews and musings on the history of the medium and the artists responsible for it. There's love and respect and reverence and real understanding in these things he's written, just like there is in those early movies like TARGETS, with the way it uses a movie screen to comment ironically on what's happening in the film itself, or THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, as pointed a movie about what movies mean to us as a community as you'll ever see, or NICKELODEON, a love letter to the lunatics who pioneered this industry.

This love and knowledge is the reason I'm betting on Bogdanovich to make his comeback in 2001 in a major way. God bless you, Lions Gate, for hiring him to direct the film version of THE CAT'S MEOW, an adaptation of a stage play by Steven Peros. The playwright has adapted his own work, and the script I just read is the shooting draft, a smart and savage 120 pages that could well be one of the great films about some of the giants in those early days of film.

When I first heard about this film, I sort of half-paid attention. It sounded like it was going to be a cross between RKO 281 and CHAPLIN, and it's easy to make that assumption. Both William Randolph Hearst and Charlie Chaplin are major characters in this film. But this isn't just a dry recreation of famous people's greatest hits, as is so often the case with these types of films. Instead, this has the potential to be a film like GODS & MONSTERS or ED WOOD, a movie that uses Hollywood history to get at something deeper, something universal. On the surface, it's the story of a weekend cruise organized by Hearst, ostensibly to show off his boat and to spend time with his mistress, Marion Davies. Thomas Ince, Louella Parsons, Chaplin, and a handful of other friends make up the guest list. Over the course of the trip, everyone's real motives for coming are revealed. Hearst suspects Chaplin and Marion of having an affair, and he wants to see them together. Louella Parsons wants her own syndicated column in Hearst's papers. Thomas Ince wants to merge his motion picture company with Hearst's. Ince's mistress Margaret wants to be recognized and accepted. Everyone's after something, and they all dance around each other all weekend long, playing every card they have until disaster finally strikes.

Instead of using these famous names and faces as symbols or unknowable cyphers, though, the excellent script gives them recognizable hearts and souls, and I found myself fascinated by the interplay between Ince and Hearst, between Lolly Parsons and the people she writes about, between Chaplin and Marion, and between Hearst and the world at large. I like the fact that these people aren't idolized or demonized. It would be easy to do either with Chaplin, and Hearst is an easy target to hate. Instead, Peros has written them with depth, and he's given them some wonderful moments to play.

And just who will be playing these roles? Ahhh... here's where I get really excited. You see, Bogdanovich is only as good as the actors he's working with. When he has a cast like the one he did for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW or when he scores a coup like Eric Stoltz in MASK or Tatum and Ryan O'Neal in PAPER MOON, he can weave real magic. This time out, he may have the ammo he needs to do just that. Edward Hermann is playing Hearst. He's one of those great older character actors who I've been a fan of for a lot of years, since I first saw him on ST. ELSEWHERE. He's got the right presence, the right bearing to play that odd combination of insecurity and Old Testament fire that Hearst was capable of.

Marion Davies is one of those people who's become a bit of a punchline, a great target for cheap shots. The most legendary of those cheap shots was CITIZEN KANE, a brilliant dissection of her relationship with "Pops" Hearst, the sugar daddy to end all sugar daddies. The mythology that's sprung up around that film and its coded references to Davies and Hearst gave rise to my favorite (probably untrue) story, that "Rosebud" was actually Hearst's nickname for Davies because of the prominence of her clitoris, and that Orson Welles used the nickname to goad Hearst and to hurt Davies. Whether that detail is accurate or not, Welles was certainly roasting the couple with his film, and it's to the credit of Peros that he hasn't just recreated the couple from KANE. Instead, Davies is more aware of how she's seen, of what people say about her, and she's not a golddigger. She knows what the limitations of her love for Hearst are, and she's not sure she's willing to be with him forever. At the same time, she knows that no one else needs her in the same way, and she feels real tenderness for Hearst. This story takes place as she's getting older, really starting to examine her choices, and the role should provide the Kirsten Dunst with some of the most adult material she's had to date. The future Mrs. Moriarty has been proving herself steadily over the last few years as an able comic player, and that's important here. One of the things that draws Chaplin to her is the fact that she's genuinely funny, something she's never allowed to show in the films Hearst produces for her to star in. Chaplin wants to set her loose, to let that light inside her shine. Much of what draws him to her is potential, and I think Dunst is a great choice for that. She's an actress who seems capable of surprising us, and of losing herself in abandon on screen. There's a great little moment in SMALL SOLDIERS when she finally starts fighting her Barbie dolls that have come to life, and the sort of manic glee on her face as she bashes and destroys them is unexpected after how many times we've seen actors phone in stock reactions to CGI creatures. Even in her early work in INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, Dunst suggested hidden depth in a performance that seemed far beyond her years.

But the whole film, to my mind, hinges on the casting of the sad clown at the center of it, Chaplin himself. Robert Downey Jr. did a wonderful job in a miserable stinking wreck of a film, and I've always wondered what he could have done with that same characterization in a better picture. Before I knew who was playing the role, I read this script and saw Downey. Now that I know it's British comedian Eddie Izzard playing the role, I have had to reread the script again, imagining him instead. I think it's fairly brilliant, risky casting, as deeply correct as Willem Dafoe being cast to play Max Shreck in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, a film about early filmmaking that also contains a very good Izzard performance. One of the things that impresses me about Izzard is just how damn nervy he is as a performer. If you've seen him in any of his monologue performance shows like DRESSED TO KILL, then you know just how fearless and odd and sort of playful Izzard can be. It's the perfect combination to bring this interpretation of Chaplin to life, and I think they've done a better job at summing up this complicated artist and the way his passions ruled him than any simple laundry list of his work could do. I love the little touches, like him trying out material for THE GOLD RUSH on the other passengers all weekend long, asking them if this idea or that one is funny, fine-tuning and adjusting from person to person, until he finally tries it on Marion, only to have her fire back the idea he ends up using. When Chaplin and Hearst finally stand each other down, Hearst verbally dissects his romantic rival with a surgical precision, destroying Chaplin by simply holding up an unflinching mirror. For people who have placed Chaplin on a pedestal, it's going to be rough to watch. For people who are able to separate the art and the artist, it's a powerful portrait of a person unable to love any one person as much as he loves his work.

Jennifer Tilly as Lolly Parsons and Cary Elwes as Thomas Ince add further flavor to the cast, both of them blessed with better roles than they've played in a long time, both of them perfect for what they've been asked to do. This really is one of those moments where all the right people were free, where everything looks like it's falling into place perfectly. There's a scene in the script that I fully expect will be popping up in every year-end round up we see at the end of 2001, one of those iconic moments that could well burn its way into the collective consciousness. It's from the midpoint of the film. A small party is underway in one of the cabins. Bathtub gin and marijuana cigarettes are being passed around, and there's a game of charades underway. Marion and Chaplin are a team, and they're given the clue, "A man discovers his reflection in a mirror." Anyone with any knowledge of film comedy has seen at least a dozen variations of that moment -- two people, one mirroring the other's actions. It's an actor's exercise, all about observing the person across from you, watching, reacting. Between these two people, though, what starts as a charade ends up stripping them of all artifice, all pretense, and it becomes a dance. It becomes foreplay, leading to a kiss in front of all the guests, a moment of reckless abandon that may just be the one perfect moment that these two will ever share. It's already great on the page, but if Bogdanovich captures these two actors working at peak form, and if it all builds to that moment properly and it pays off... my god, I get the shivers thinking about it.

Now, admittedly... I don't know that this will work. I haven't hauled the Time Machine out to take a peek at it. This is a big fat honkin' "what if" at the moment. But it's a glorious "what if," and there's all sorts of reasons it could be great. One of the men who Bogdanovich was closest to as a young man was Orson Welles, already in the decline of his career, and his glorious THIS IS ORSON WELLES is a collection of material about the director, including an amazing 300+ page interview that Bogdanovich conducted with him. Welles announced his genius with a film about Hearst, so it almost seems fitting that Bogdanovich would remind us of his own particular gifts with a film about Hearst now.

As this film moves forward, I'm hoping that we'll be able to bring you further peeks behind the scenes. Remember... I had Mongo and the other henchmen dig some rather serious tunnels beneath the VARIETY building on Wilshire where Lions Gate is located when I was looking for a copy of SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE. I may have to start looking for a photo of Izzard as Chaplin or maybe some dailies from the film to tide me over, or I may have to tap their phones to listen in on reports from the set. That's how willing I am to bet that THE CAT'S MEOW is something special, a worthwhile trip into this town's sordid past that has something powerful to say about who we are now, and who we can be as we enter this second century of film.

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback
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  • Dec. 1, 2000, 7:40 a.m. CST

    Holy novella Batman!

    by Funny Ha Ha

    I think I need to reread this prior to commenting...

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 7:47 a.m. CST

    I'm First and...

    by Mister M

    Thanks to Moriarty for this great writing. Bogdanovich is a great director and he really loves cinema. I think he can make a masterpiece with a script and a story like this. Cast is great,too. A big movie to watch for, I presume...

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 8:13 a.m. CST

    Damn, and I was hoping Bogdonovich would be directing more of th

    by Lance Rock

    Anyone see the Freaky Friday ripoff he did a while back for ABC? Ouch.

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 8:39 a.m. CST

    Hey, I'm there!

    by Theta

    This sounds really, really good! Maybe it's just Moriarty's incredible hype skills, but it does sound excellent. Just a digression...I like to imagine Moriarty as an ex-studio marketing head, atoning for years of blowing plots and forcing crap down our throats by guiding us to movies worth watching. Probably bullshit, but who knows? :-)

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 9:23 a.m. CST

    HollyWood Circles...

    by Roger U. Roundly

    I heard that Bogdanovich has been staying with Quentin Tarentino, just like Orson Welles lived with Bogdanovich when he (Welles) had been consigned to the Hollywood scrapheap. It's just a shame that welles never had a chance to make his own comeback. Movieland Hollywood is a small community. However, we no longer live in an age where the same handful of men control entire studios for 30 or forty years. So maybe grudges or bad reputations (which can be based on the most ridiculous details) don't last as long. I Wonder If Welles would have gotten another shot in the current climate. In this referenial, postmodern climate, where many filmakers (and execs) list STAR WARS as their introduction to the movies as opposed to HIGH NOON or CASABLANCA, I think Welles would have gotten another shot. As for comparisons to Bogdanovich, well, It's not like he's been completely out of the game, doing voice-overs for frozen peas or anything. I only bring up the Welles-Bogdanovich / Bogdanovich-Tarentino thing, because it will probably be trotted out by all the critics when this Movie comes out. Personally, I'll judge it on it's merits, with just enough hope in my heart to be one step ahead of the bottom liners.

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 9:53 a.m. CST

    Yeah for Kirsten Dunst!

    by LeoBluhm

    I hope this becomes the movie that really makes Hollywood sit up and take notice of her amazing talent. I know some will disagree, but I think that she is one of the most talented young actresses working in movies today. Her and Christina Ricci are my hope for a brighter movie future. And I agree with Moriarty on her performance in INTERVIEW... as the tantrum-prone Claudia. She showed a maturity well beyond her age in a role that specifically called for just that very thing. The end result is one of the most powerful movie performances by a child actor, IMHO. I have loved watching her work ever since then, including the giddily fun DICK (walnuts, anyone?). She even managed to perform feats of acting brilliance on TV's ER. She needs another high-profile performance (like the one this movie would offer) to really show that she can do more than bubble-gum fare like BRING IT ON. I have no doubt that if this movie is made, she will make me fall in love with her all over again.

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 10:15 a.m. CST

    "Oh, yeah, I have to see that," the exec said. "I hear it's Spie

    by IAmLegolas

    Um, not to defend a movie exec or nothing, but sometimes some of us don't know everything like you guys do. It took the movie FEAR IN LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS to make the novel known to me and want to go and read it. I wanted to go see Akira Kurosawa films because most of the "great" directors hold him as one of their main influences. I am 90% sure most of you saw HIDDEN FORTERESS only because it was the basis for STAR WARS. I only started reading INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE a year before the movie came out. I didn't read SILENCE OF THE LAMBS until 5 years after the movie came out. I grew up in the 80's and anything that came before, I didn't know shit about, because I wasn't from that age. It takes others "from that age" to fill me in on it. Maybe the exec was just making casual conversation, and a big DUH that most of them don't know anything about movies. It's a rare thing that anybody in jobs like that DO know anything about what they are doing. Get off your high horses.

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 11:27 a.m. CST

    what Moriarty fails to realize...

    by nelson

    ...or neglects to realize that film in this country (and LA) is NOT considered art...it considered ENTERTAINMENT. Sorry for the rude awakening. It's a business.

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 12:06 p.m. CST

    Oh yeah, and props to my mom for taking me to see JAWS when I wa

    by IAmLegolas

    Aw hell yeah!

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 2:19 p.m. CST

    Edward Herrmann rules

    by Smilin'Jack Ruby

    Anybody else see him in that Richard Nelson one-man piece that was filmed for PBS? Also, his Mr. Kilroy in that TV-version of "Don't Drink the Water" was coolsville.

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 3:01 p.m. CST

    Picture Shows.

    by Shrevie

    Movie execs deserve all the slamming in the world, especially over Lawrence of Arabia. I know it's a business but so is literature, painting, and music. Does that mean someone in a decision-making position should be forgiven for not knowing Hemingway, Picasso, or The Beatles? My favorite joke about Hollywood is about the executive who was asked if he liked a script and he replied, "I don't know. I'm the only one that's read it."

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 3:27 p.m. CST

    Why all the executive-bashing?

    by Keyser195

    Now, I know it's vogue to bash on studio execs because they know nothing about movies. Often, this is a lamentably true fact. Many of the people who are in charge of getting movies made know dick about the history of film. I worked for a production company once, and one of the leading production guys told me his favorite director of all time is Robert Zemekis. Now, no offense to the creator of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," but come on, buddy! Not Hitchcock? Or Welles? Or even Lucas? But, I digress. My original point was that there are plenty of executives who DO know movies, and love them. In the above example, yeah, that guy was ignorant, but he still had a passion for movies...Just simpler movies. As a fellow lover of film, I can accept that. As long as he's passionate about what he's doing. And, like that, I'm gone...

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 4:02 p.m. CST

    Bogdanovich

    by JohnTChance

    I sure hope Moriarty is right and this is Bogdanovich's comeback film. There are two books that made me want to be a writer: 1. Francois Truffaut's "The Films In My Life" and Bogdanovich's "Pieces Of Time". He has such a passion for film that it just blows my mind everytime i read anything by him. He ultimately changed my life and my way of looking at film. I started keeping index cards of every film i see just like Bogdanovich using his old rating system. Plus his films proved to me that there is a place in modern filmmaking for the classic sense of style. God bless him, and i hope this wins him an academy award. (As Friedkin promised.)