Peter Bogdanovich is still in love with the movies.
He has paid tribute to classic movies sucessfully (“Paper Moon,” “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up Doc?”) and unsuccessfully (“At Long Last Love”). At his best, he is able to not just salute, but evoke the mood and spirit of Hollywood’s golden era of innoocence and magic. At his worst, he is so caught up in his fantasies of the good old days that he becomes overly obscure and self-referential. This movie shows him at both extremes.
Once upon a time, the richest man in America was William Randolph Hearst. If anyone thinks of him today, it is either as the man who inspired “Ctizen Kane” or the grandfather of Patty Hearst, kidnapped heiress and actress in offbeat John Waters movies.
Think of Hearst as Bill Gates crossed with Michael Eisner (the head of ABC/Disney). Hearst was the wealthiest man in the United States and his newspapers were the primary source of information and enertainment for most Americans. He never divorced his wife, but he had a love affair with silent screen actress Marion Davies for 37 years.
Hearst was more powerful than anyone can ever be again because he controlled the newspapers and the newspapers were the only source of news. If he wanted a story told a particular way — or not told at all — that is what happened. When one of Hollywood’s biggest names, Thomas Ince (the man who created the Western) died after a visit to Hearst’s yacht, it was officially recorded and reported in Hearst’s newspapers as “natural causes.” Rumors, or as Bogdanovich says, “whispers” continued to circulate, and this movie tells the story that is whispered most often.
The movie is a loving recreation of the era with impeccable performances by Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin and Joanna Lumley (of “Absolutely Fabulous”) as sensational novelist Elinor Glyn. Izzard has one of the most difficult challenges an actor can face — portraying someone whose face and manner are so well documented that they will be familiar to many viewers. Those who do think they know Chaplin know the character he portrayed, or perhaps the brilliant, Oscar-nominated performance by Robert Downey, Jr. in the epic biographical film. Izzard evokes Chaplin; he does not impersonate him. And he gives us a portrait of Chaplin that is rich, complex, and intimate. We see the genius, the charm, the discipline in some things and lack of discipline in others, the neediness, and the self-awareness. Lumley’s delivers devastating commentary with scrumptious bite, timed down to the nanosecond. Edward Hermann as Hearst and Kirsten Dunst (of “Spider-Man”) as Davies are also memorable.
Bogdanovich’s mistake is in thinking that everyone is naturally as fascinated with the story and the era as he is, and so he does not have to do any work to draw the audience into the story. For that reason, it all comes across as a little too precious and distant.
Parents should know that adultery is a theme of the movie and frequently discussed. A character is shot, possibly accidentally. Characters smoke, drink (illegally) and briefly use drugs. The movie has strong language and sexual situations (not explicit).
Families who see this movie should talk about how the 1920’s differ from current times – and how they were the same. Who is most like Hearst today? Why was Davies so important to Hearst? Why was she so important to Chaplin? What was important to her?
For more about Marion Davies, take a look at Captured on Film – the True Story of Marion Davies. If you are ever in the vicinity, don’t miss a visit to San Simeon, Hearst’s preposterously lavish mansion in the mountains, where Hearst and Davies presided over celebrity gatherings that included just about everyone in Hollywood.