"I knew the story because Orson Welles had told it to me 33 years ago, and he had heard it from Charles Lederer, who was Marion Davies' nephew and knew about it since he was a kid," explained the director of "The Last Picture Show," "Paper Moon," and "The Cat's Meow," his latest movie, which recalls the 1924 shooting and stars Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard and Jennifer Tilly.
"(The Cat's Meow screenwriter) Steven Peros didn't know that I knew the story," Bogdanovich continued. "That's what was so weird. It was sent to me because the producers just thought I'd be a good director for it. I guess because of my knowledge of movie history. But, they didn't know that Orson had told me the story. To make it even more weird, it arrived on my desk out of the blue after... I'd done a cruise on the QE2 for the Telluride Film Festival and on the cruise besides me were [documentarian] Ken Burns, [film critic] Roger Ebert and [director] Paul Shrader.
"I happened to tell this story -- which I'd rarely told -- to Roger Ebert at lunch one day because we were talking about 'Citizen Kane,' [which Welles wrote, directed and starred in, and which was based, in part, on Hearst's life...] So, I'd happened to tell this story to Roger on the QE2 and I get home from that voyage and on my desk was this script."
"The Cat's Meow" is the tale of a star-studded birthday cruise Hearst (Herrmann) and Davies (Dunst) throw for a producer friend (Elwes.) Izzard plays Charlie Chaplin, who is infatuated with the vivacious Davies, Tilly is Hearst's gossip goddess Louella Parsons and Joanna Lumley as Victorian novelist Elinor Glyn. There are other assorted flappers and hangers-on on the ship, but they pale in comparison with this fast-talking, high-spirited crew.
The film is a wonderful snapshot of a glamorous time gone by with gorgeous period costumes and a top-notch jazz soundtrack. But just when the audience is having as much fun watching the party as the characters are doing the Charleston, Hearst becomes enraged with Chaplin's flagrant flirtation with Davies and shoots a fellow he sees from behind, mistaking him for the amorous actor.
The rest of the movie follows the poor chap being secretly shuttled from the ship to his home with a head wound and Hearst covering up the incident.
Bogdanovich himself is no stranger to scandal. In fact, in some ways, "The Cat's Meow" mirrors his own odd life, a fact that has not escaped Bogdanovich's attention.
In the early 1970s Bogdanovich had a well-publicized affair with his "Last Picture Show" leading lady, Cybill Shepherd, a liaison which soundly ended his marriage to Polly Platt. The romance lasted eight years and when it ended, the director began seeing Playboy Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten. That relationship also ended in newspaper headlines when the beautiful Stratten was gunned down by her jealous husband. Bogdanovich went on to write a book and direct a film about their doomed romance. He also caught people's attention when he married Stratten's sister, Louise.
"I think people are interested in a good story, particularly a juicy one that involves the rich and famous," Bogdanovich explained.
"Most people are not rich and most people are not famous, so they get a kick out of reading about the supposedly blessed lives of people whose lives turn out not to be so blessed. God, we live in a world that is filled with gossip, more than ever. Let's face it, 'People' magazine didn't exist until the 70's. In fact, Cybill [Shepherd] and I were on the cover of the first issue that went to a million copies in 1974. So, there's so much gossip now that it's become a kind of industry. It's almost accepted now," he said.
Asked if he thought the scandals attached to his name hurt his career, Bogdanovich objected, stating, "My actions hurt my career."
"I sued Universal for [cutting several scenes out of the well-received 1985 Cher drama,] 'Mask,' and that was stupid," he admitted. "That was really dumb, but I was loony at that time. I went through a very difficult period after Dorothy was killed and it continued for quite a while. And I wasn't doing smart things. I was overreacting to things. [And now?] I think I'm more grounded. Some time has passed and I've become considerably better. It's been 20 years, 22 years since Dorothy was killed. That's a lifetime. As a lot of people came to understand after September 11th, a murder, a sudden death is a very tough thing to deal with. You don't really get over it. You learn to live with it. September 11th is just six months ago. I think to myself, 'Six months is nothing. Wait until it's five years.'"
He added: "People who've been through this sort of thing say the fifth year is the worst. And it was. It was a terrible year for me. I had to go away in 1985, after the whole thing with 'Mask.' I was in bad shape. But, I'm not going to play any violins. It happened. So, I'm used to being written about, even when it really isn't relevant. I don't like it, particularly, but I'll live with it."
"The 70s were hell and the 80s were hell, too. Dorothy got killed. But [publicity] comes with the territory. People have heard of me and every movie that comes out is a chance to review my biography. You can say, 'What has it got to do with the movie?' But I'm not going to argue about it. It's the way it is," he concluded.
The filmmaker said that the experience of having his life raked over in the press has taught him to pay meticulous attention to detail in his own work.
"I tried -- we all tried -- to be rather scrupulous about telling this story, trying to be truthful to the characters," he recalled. "All the actors who played real people did research on these people. We'd sit around in rehearsals and Eddie Izzard would say, 'I don't think Chaplin would say that.' So, they boned up on these people and they did what good actors should do; they were on the side of the characters."
Bogdanovich denies that "The Cat's Meow" is a comeback film for him, noting that, despite popular opinion, he hasn't really been away.
"I don't like to think of things that way. Since I made my last theatrical movie in 1993, I've made seven films for television. I don't have this snobbish attitude towards television. You can do very good work in television and you can do bad work in television. Look at all the crap that's made into theatrical features. I don't have a problem with the medium and I enjoy working quickly, which you have to do in television because you've got lower budgets."
Bogdanovich currently plays Dr. Melfi's psychiatrist on the hit HBO series "The Sopranos." His next film project is a screwball comedy called "Squirrels to the Nuts," which he wrote with Louise Stratten, his soon-to-be ex-wife.
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