Saturday, August 30, 2008

Favorite Moments: The Cat's Meow

We've all seen Citizen Kane, at least I'm assuming we have. This is a movie blog and if you're coming here I figure you've seen Kane. Having not seen it would be like an art enthusiast unaware of Picasso's work or an architectural student who had never studied the Parthenon or any of Frank Lloyd Wright's designs. Likewise I'm assuming you know that Charles Foster Kane is loosely based on William Randolph Hearst and Susan Alexander on Marion Davies. And I am further assuming you know the characterizations of Kane and Alexander did not actually resemble the Hearst and Davies of real life. For one thing, Davies had talent. For another, Hearst wasn't nearly as witty.

If you've seen The Battle Over Citizen Kane, an excellent documentary on Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst that comes with collector's editions of Citizen Kane on DVD, you know Hearst was rather humorless and stiff but not as much about himself as about Marion. In fact, one gets the general feeling that if Welles and Herman Mankiewicz had cast Susan Alexander in a better light, Hearst wouldn't have given a damn about Citizen Kane being released and the movie would have had no controversy surrounding it. Welles would have taken Best Director and the film Best Picture and who knows what the rest of Welles career would have been like.

But this short post isn't about Citizen Kane but about how sixty years later, Welles acolyte Peter Bogdanovich filmed the characters again, let them use their real names and produced a film no where near the level of genius as Citizen Kane but did manage to resurrect Marion Davies from the ashes and at the same time, somehow, make Hearst look even worse. Or did he?

I much prefer Kane to The Cat's Meow , Bogdanovich's "what-if" movie about Hearst, Davies, Charlie Chaplin and the death of Thomas Ince aboard Hearst's yacht, but within the context of engaging characterizations, I much prefer Edward Herrmann's Hearst to Orson Welles' Kane. Herrmann's Hearst is a madman, a violent man and a controlling bastard. Kane could be all those things too, but Welles played him with a sturdy confidence. When he takes on Thatcher as a 21 year old the audience has no doubt who's in charge. Herrmann on the other hand plays Hearst as a jerk, yes, but a pathetic, insecure, pitiful jerk. The kind that makes you angry, and then later, you feel sorry for him.

Which brings me to this week's Favorite Moment from The Cat's Meow. It's a scene that exemplifies all of the Hearst characteristics I described above and Herrmann plays them to the hilt. The insecurity, the controlling behavior, the self-pity and finally, the sad but comfortable relief that it's all over. It's cringe inducing and I would have loved to have seen just one scene like this in Kane. Welles would've chewed it up. Enjoy (if that's the right word).