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).



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10 comments:

Rick Olson said...

I love this movie ... no, it's not as good as "Citizen Kane," but it has it's moments. Eddie Izzard was good as Chaplin, but I thought Kirsten Dunst was a bit thin as Davies.

I don't know if Welles had the acting chops to play the scene you showed as well as Herrmann.

Fox said...

You know, I need to see this. My dad has been recommending it to me for years and I've never watch it. To make it even odder, I really like Bogdanovich.

p.s. Jonathan, that reminds me of your post from Thursday when you brought up recommendations we've made to friends that bombed. Well, I recommended Bogdanovich's They All Laughed (which I think is greatly underrated...) to a really close friend, and she gave it 1 STAR on Netflix. OUCH! I take back whatever I said the other day, I think THAT was the harshest blowback I've ever received.

Marilyn said...

I'm not a fan of The Cat's Meow, though it has its moments, like the one you highlighted. I'm ambivalent about Hearst. I think he was both Welles and Herrmann and a whole lot more. For instance, Davies apparently really did love him until the day he died. I'm not that familiar with his personal characteristics - was he self-pitying? He certainly was controlling and a power monger. I wonder if we'll ever get the whole picture.

BTW, is Crouse supposed to be me roughing up another rude moviegoer, hummmm?

Pat said...

I like "The Cat's Meow" and think Hermann is pretty brilliant in it. This scene is great, and so is the one with Hermann and Dunst after the shooting when he breaks downs and sobs to her "You're my wh-wh-wh-OLE WORLD!" Dunst is pretty great, too. But Jennifer Tilly annoyed the living hell out of me.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Rick - I thought Eddie Izzard was quite good as Chaplin, if, and I know this sounds strange, one takes Chaplin to be a fictional character. I couldn't see him as the Charlie Chaplin but I thought he was splendid as a Charlie Chaplin who happens to be a very successful filmmaker/star aboard the yacht.

I think Welles was a great actor, but a great classical actor more at home with formal styles of acting than the kind of emotional naturalism necessary for this kind of scene. But I think his classical acting chops (Chimes at Midnight for instance) are substantial. And even in non-formal styles, like Touch of Evil, I think he is superb but I see what you mean.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Fox - They All Laughed used to be on cable a lot in the early days of HBO and Showtime and I always watched it. And always liked it. 1 STAR. No way.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Marilyn - I love period pieces about anything in Hollywood, even if they're not good, so this movie had a built in audience with me. But it's not Bogdanovich's best by a stretch.

Even in the documentary The Battle over Citizen Kane Hearst is fairly elusive. The doc probably presents him in the best light he's ever had, as a man in love with Marion and loved by her and willing to protect her from things like Citizen Kane. But also quite controlling. Just like Kane wanting Susan to sing Opera instead of "lower" forms of music, Hearst couldn't stand Marion being a lowly "comedienne and wanted her to play grand dramatic roles. Mank must've picked up on that from his times at San Simeon.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Pat - I totally agree. I've always thought Herrmann was a great actor who by virtue of his ordinary looks and lumbering build never got the roles he could have shined in. I thought he was excellent as FDR and here I too thought he was brilliant.

As for Tilly, she always kind of annoys me. I don't see her appeal as an actress and didn't really believe for a second that she was a sharp employee willing to do what it takes to get ahead.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Oh and I almost forgot - Marilyn, no Crouse is not you. When I put you in a banner it will be Rosie the Riveter and no one else, except for the bloodied corpse of a Cubs fan laying beneath you.

Rick Olson said...

Jonathan, I see what you mean as well. I perhaps shouldn't have said "acting chops" so much as "style" ...

Also, you perhaps oughta see what Fox is saying about you over at my blog here. It's not particularly pretty ... something about strip-bars or something.