Long after her involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army, Patricia Hearst continued to tarnish the family name. In a 1996 novel called Murder at San Simeon, she portrayed her own grandfather, William Randolph Hearst, as a killer. In that book, Hearst, homicidally jealous of anyone else's interest in his mistress, actress Marion Davies, slays a rival. Citizen Kane also fictionalizes the life of Hearst, and its first draft contained just such a murder. But director Orson Welles could not imagine Kane as a killer and, as he explained to Peter Bogdanovich, altered the screenplay.

Bogdanovich, who published two books on his late friend and mentor, Welles, now offers him a quaint homage in the form of a film about Hearst and murder. The younger director, who shares with Welles the arc of a career begun in brilliance but later tainted by the sense of squandered talent, has requested that critics writing about The Cat's Meow refrain from revealing the murder victim. Let us examine the unusual suspects.

It is established historical fact that in November 1924, Hearst invited several guests aboard his enormous yacht, Oneida, for a pleasure cruise down the California coast. The ostensible purpose of the excursion was to celebrate the 43rd birthday of Thomas Ince, a pioneer Hollywood producer. History records that two days after returning to shore Ince was dead, of "heart failure."

In addition to Marion Davies and Ince's mistress, Margaret Livingston, other passengers on the Oneida included Charlie Chaplin, Louella Parsons, and Elinor Glyn. The Cat's Meow offers us two days at sea in the frivolous, treacherous company of these celebrity revelers. If there is any truth to the plot that unfolds on the boat, then a heinous crime by and against the mighty has been covered up for almost 80 years.

"I think this is going to be a most enjoyable boat ride," says a passenger in the beginning. "Yeah," replies another. "The cat's meow." The film that follows is a pedigreed shaggy dog.

Steven Peros' screenplay gives the first and last words to Glyn (Lumley), a caustic English novelist whose sardonic voice makes The Cat's Meow seem an amalgam of exotic animal sounds. "I'm not quite certain if I'm visiting the zoo or I'm one of the animals in the cage," she says as she arrives at San Pedro to board the Oneida. Hollywood, she quips, is "a land just off the coast of planet earth." At sea for two days, some of Prohibition-era Hollywood's biggest stars get spaced out, on alcohol, marijuana, sex, and gossip. It is a ship of famous fools, and, as with Robert Altman's Gosford Park, a viewer's pleasure comes from watching deadly rivalries played out within a finite space. Hearst (Herrmann), who shoots down seagulls and spies on his guests, is a distracted and deranged impresario.

Hoping for an infusion of new capital to aid his struggling studio, Ince (Elwes) is eager to ingratiate himself with Hearst, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. He thinks to gain the tycoon's confidence by patronizing Davies (Dunst) and alerting Hearst to romantic trysts between Davies and Chaplin (Izzard). Instead, he brings Hearst's simmering rancor to a scalding boil. The gun revealed in the opening act is sure to be shot. So is a victim.

Some of the dialogue is effervescent, while other lines convey the taste of sparkling wine left uncorked an hour too long. "You're in love with me," says Chaplin, eager to persuade Davies to jilt Hearst for him. "Not as much as you are with you, Charlie," replies Davies. The clever repartée makes a convincing case for self-love, not so much by Chaplin as by a preening screenwriter. Parsons (Tilly), an opportunistic columnist, knows exactly when to fawn and when to extort. The Cat's Meow offers us the Jacobin thrill of observing how lifestyles of the rich and famous lead to death. Summoned to his ship by the captain of plutocrats, the privileged passengers aboard the Oneida fritter away the hours in idle entertainment. So do we, except that ours is the superior gratification of looking down on idle voluptuaries. And our diversion does not produce a corpse. It is enough to make a stray tom purr.

The Cat's Meow
"Gosford Park at sea"
Dir. Peter Bogdanovich; writ. Steven Peros; feat. Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Tilly, Claudia Harrison (PG-13)

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