Byline: Katherine Bowers / with contributions from Marcy Medina
LOS ANGELES — “Welcome to Hollywood, a land just off the coast of the Planet Earth.”
So begins “The Cat’s Meow,” director Peter Bogdanovich’s gossipy tale of a hushed-up murder aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924. The movie, based on a Steven Peros play, opened in limited release on Friday.
While it’s likely the movie, which stars Kirsten Dunst as Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies and Eddie Izzard as a lascivious Charlie Chaplin whose pursuit of Davies inflames Hearst’s jealousy, will be considered a pulse-check on Bogdanovich’s erratic career, the flapper-era costumes are fabulous. They’re the kind of costumes that become characters themselves — a hat pinched on top of a head, a matronly brooch drooping off a sailor top — clueing the viewer in to subtleties, even when the actors can’t quite pull it off themselves.
The flapper period is hardly new cinematic territory, but French costumer Caroline de Vivaise has created a striking, monochromatic world that nevertheless conveys the opulence of Hearst’s entourage and the giddiness of the age. At sea — both literally and morally — the yachting party, including Davies, Chaplin, “It Girl” novelist Elinor Glyn (played by Joanna Lumley) and gossip columnist Louella Parsons (played by Jennifer Tilly) is clad only in black, white and, fittingly, shades of gray.
“I wasn’t allowed to have any color,” says de Vivaise in a phone interview with WWD from Paris. “Not even the tiniest spot on a tie.”
Given five weeks and a paltry $100,000 budget, de Vivaise, a Cesar-winning costume designer with more than 30 credits in France, took off around the continent, having shoes made in Italy, silk stockings in London and routing out archival flapper dresses from contacts in London, France and Berlin. She designed all the hats and headpieces, which were delivered to the set.
“I was sent this huge box with silk paper wrappings and 20 hats in it,” she recalled. “It was a pleasure to open. All the actors crowded around, saying which one should be theirs. They were like children.”
For a birthday party aboard The Oneida, Dunst wears an enormous, gauzy butterfly perched on her head and a vintage ivory chiffon dress with silver embroideries (Dunst’s favorite). Working from a picture of Hearst and Davies, de Vivaise designed the flowing sailor pants and middy blouse Dunst wears to greet guests boarding The Oneida.
“In the Twenties, you have this very lounge-y feel to you, the way you move,” says Dunst. “You feel alive and confident and very sexy.”
For Tilly, de Vivaise created a gauche “Lolly” Parsons swamped in clashing patterns, clinking piles of fake jewelry and plodding, heavy shoes.
“I really pushed with that character,” said de Vivaise. “She wanted to be sophisticated, but she was a little too much.”
In one scene, Tilly wears a droopy hat that gives her a lop-eared bunny look.
“We had so much fun with Louella. She was geeky and goofy,” says Tilly. “Though it’s hard to let go of your vanity when everybody else got beautiful brocades and fabulous hats.”
De Vivaise’s next project, a French biopic/love story about a pair of Indian singers starring Salma Hayek, has been on hold since last September. In the meantime, she’s eager to work with other American directors. “The Cat’s Meow” is her second American film after 2000’s “Shadow of a Vampire.” But her desire for greater recognition in the U.S. is not a covert campaign for an Oscar.
“Awards are very nice, but then people start assuming you’re very expensive and that you spend a lot of money,” she says. “Every time you get nominated, it gets worse.”