August 5, 2011

Kirsten Dunst in "The Cat's Meow" (2001)

Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies in The Cat's Meow.

Kirsten Dunst, bringing her unique blend of sunshine and sadness to her portrayal of 1920s starlet Marion Davies in Peter Bodganovich's 2001 film, The Cat's Meow. Based on a real-life mystery, the film takes place in 1924, on a yacht trip attended by the rich and privileged. A small, private party is held in honor of studio mogul Thomas Ince's 42nd birthday, but the trip is cut short when he falls ill. Despite the mysterious circumstances surrounding his illness, the dozen or so people on board at the time are never questioned, even after Ince's death several days later.

An out-of-character moment in the film-within-a-film.

It was supposed to be a scandal: the yacht was owned by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and guests included Charlie Chaplin and gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Yet, as Hollywood lore goes, Hearst used his considerable influence to order a media blackout on the death, thereby concealing the extraordinary truth: Ince was mistakenly killed by Hearst, who was actually gunning for Chaplin, wanting to get back at him for having an affair with his mistress, Marion Davies. The Cat's Meow is a dramatization of this alleged large-scale hush-up.

The Cat's Meow 
Though an ensemble film filled with actors such as Edward Herrmann (as Hearst), Eddie Izzard (Chaplin), Joanna Lumley (writer Elinor Glyn), Jennifer Tilly (Parsons), and Cary Elwes (as Ince), it's up to then 19-year-old Dunst to steer the ship and serve as the film's moral compass. As Davies, she walks a fine tightrope, giving surprising dimension to a woman that history has written off as one of the original Hollywood gold diggers. Through her relationship with the much-older, married Hearst, Davies gained access to plum film roles, enjoyed fawning write-ups in his newspapers, and lacked for nothing. Yet, as Dunst displays in quicksilver shifts of character, she clearly had to work for her privileged life, playing lover, daughter, entertainer, mediator to an immensely powerful but temperamental and odd man.

Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin gets close to Dunst. 

No wonder she finds herself falling for Charlie Chaplin. Though hard to believe, off-screen, Chaplin was a ladies' man who married many times over. (And, it is worth pointing out, he looked nothing like the pancake-white, mustached characters he played.) As Chaplin, Eddie Izzard is all wit and confident charm, pursuing Davies aggressively and melting her resolve to remain faithful to Hearst. The two actors play off each other wonderfully, and in their scenes together, Dunst goes from icy and petulant, flirty and coquettish, then finally vulnerable and desperate as she begins to grasp the enormous consequences the dalliance could have on her life.

Working hard to keep up a jolly facade.

A former child actress, Dunst worked steadily through her childhood and teenage years, racking up a handful of well-received performances. One of her biggest strengths as an actress is the ability to bring out the shades of sadness and darkness underneath the cheery blond veneer. This is apparent in some of her strongest roles (a lovelorn secretary in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, an enigmatic teen queen in The Virgin Suicides). But the opportunities to mine those depths have been rare, and even this film is little-seen and now a decade old.

But in those 10 years, something has changed: she is no longer the apple-cheeked, perfect blond teenager of Bring it On. She looks more world-weary, less conventionally attractive, and even less distinctly American -- all the more to experiment with different films and slip into character roles. If we are to take her Cannes award for Best Actress in Lars von Trier's upcoming Melancholia as any sort of indication, her best work is still yet to come.

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