Aren’t you just falling in love with Kirsten Dunst over and over again? She is only 37 years old and her acting credits go back three decades.
Dunst made her debut in the Woody Allen segment of the anthology film New York Stories (1989). I took note of her first in Interview With The Vampire (1994), for which brought her a Golden Globe nomination. Some of my favorite Dunst performances include her work in Wag The Dog (1997), the underrated Dick (1999), Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004), Cameron Crowe‘s Elizabethtown (2005), Sofia Coppola‘s Marie Antoinette (2006), Lars von Trier‘s Melancholia (2011), and The Beguiled and Hidden Figures in 2017.
She was crazy good as Peggy Blumquist in the second season of the FX series Fargo, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination and should have won an Emmy Award. Fargo is streaming on Hulu.
Currently Dunst stars in On Becoming A God In Central Florida, streaming on Showtime.
I am drawn to films about Hollywood, and my favorite of her performances is as Marion Davies in The Cat’s Meow (2001), a barely seen by anyone film that was directed by the great Peter Bogdanovich, with Eddie Izzard, Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Tilly. The Cat’s Meow is based on the mysterious death of film mogul Thomas H. Ince that occurred aboard William Randolph Hearst‘s yacht during a weekend cruise celebrating Ince’s birthday in November 1924. Among those on the boat were Hearst’s longtime companion, film actors Margaret Livingston and Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, and gossip columnist Louella Parsons.
It seems that Hearst did, or did not, get away with murder on board his private yacht. If he did, there is no question he was powerful enough to cover it up. Hearst was the greatest media tycoon of his age. He owned newspapers, magazines, radio stations, wire services, production companies, a private castle, and his mistress was Davies, a charming actor of not exclusive charms. Hearst was above the law not just because of his bribery but because law enforcement officials were so aware of their inferior social status that they lacked the nerve to approach him. The silent films of the era often had scenes in which cops arrest a millionaire, discover who he is, respectfully tip their hats to him, and then apologize.
On that day in 1924, producer Thomas Ince died, or possibly was murdered, on board the yacht. Or perhaps not. According to one story, he was shot dead by Hearst through an unfortunate misunderstanding; Hearst mistook him for Chaplin, and thought Chaplin was having an affair with Davies. Other theories say Hearst accidentally stuck Ince with a hat pin, precipitating a heart attack. Or that Ince drank some bad bootlegged booze. There is even the possibility that Ince did not die on the boat but died at home. There was no autopsy, so the official cause of death was never determined. No guests on the yacht were ever questioned; indeed, no one can agree about who was on the yacht during its cruise.
In Hollywood at the time, rumors about Ince’s death and Hearst’s involvement abounded, and the story told in The Cat’s Meow is the rumor passed around most often. Bogdanovich uses the scandal as a prism through which to view Hollywood in the 1920s, when the new world of filmmaking generated such wealth and power that its giants, like Chaplin, were gods in a way no later stars could ever be. Hearst (Herrmann) liked to play host, and on that cruise were Ince (Cary Elwes), Davies (Dunst) and Chaplin (Izzard), the British wit Elinor Glyn (Lumley), Parsons (Tilly). There were also various rich men and their wives, and a tame society doctor.
Hearst is shown as an insecure loner, an innocent not quite up to the life of sin he has chosen for himself. He has the yacht Oneida bugged with hidden microphones, and scarcely has time to join his guests because he had a need to eavesdrop on what they were all saying about him in his absence.
Davies knows about the microphones and knows all about Heasrt; she loved her man and stood by him to the end. Whether she did have an affair with Chaplin is often speculated. According to this scenario, she may have, and Hearst finds a piece of her jewelry in Chaplin’s stateroom, after tearing it apart in a scene mirroring Charles Foster Kane’s famous destruction of Susan’s bedroom in Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane, inspired by the Hearst story.
There is quite a bit of extra-marital sex going on and being discussed. There is great music from the era. I suppose some would get bored with it because of the amount of detail, and the leisurely tempo of the film, but I highly recommend it.
The film concludes with the guests leaving Ince’s funeral, as Glyn relates what became of them: Livingston went on to star in a number of successful films and her film salary “inexplicably” went from $300 to $1000 a film; Chaplin married his teenage lover Lita Grey in Mexico and his film The Gold Rush (1925) was an overwhelming success; Parsons worked for Hearst for many years and became one of the most successful writers in the history of American journalism; Ince was largely forgotten after the events of his death.
I love the last few lines of the movie, spoken by Glyn:
“But I’m watching how ridiculous everyone else looks. Then I see that in fact, I too look like a fool. Yet it’s so much fun none of us can stop. If we stopped, we’d have nothing.”
No director knows better the Hearst/Welles/Kane/Hollywood tales than Bogdanovich:
“I was talking to Orson for my book, This Is Orson Welles in 1969 and he said: ‘know about the thing that happened on Hearst’s yacht?’ He said Welles had been told the story by screenwriter Charles Lederer, Davies’s nephew, and I confirmed the account with Lederer all the same.”
Bogdanovich cast Dunst in the role Davies, because she:
“…always wanted to do a twenties story. She has a wonderful period face, looks great in those clothes, and had great instincts.”
This is Dunst’s first fully grown-up role and she brings her natural intelligence better than having to just beam adoringly at Tobey Maguire hanging upside down in a Spiderman mask. She captures Davies’ effervescence and spontaneity, and proved she was no dumb blonde with a sugar-daddy-complex, but a complicated, smart young woman aware of her compromised position, yet prepared to accept it because of a belief that her acting talent will finally emerge to silence her doubters, and, of course, because of love.
This is a fun, fascinating, elegant, surprisingly touching, underrated film, and Dunst gives the film’s most impressive performance.
Bogdanovich gave us The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973), They All Laughed (1981), and Mask (1985), and The Cat’s Meow is one of his best: a nasty tale of sex, intrigue, power and jealousy.