Basically, an illustrated footnote from Hollywood Babylon (scripted by Steven Perros, from his own play) that speculates about how movie pioneer Thomas H. Ince (Cary Elwes) got dead during a weekend trip on the Oneida, a yacht owned by tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) … theorising that Hearst shot Ince in the head because he was wearing a bowler hat that made him look like Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), who was at the time making a serious play for Hearst’s squeeze Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), and that witness Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) used this to set herself up for life as a monstrous gossip columnist. Also aboard are novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), who is used as a narrator (the prose sounds too good for her, though), some Hearst fixers (James Laurenson, Ronan Vibert), actress Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison) and two whacky sexy sassy cackling gold-diggers who make it all seem a lot more fun (in my utopia, Chiara Schoras and Claudie Blakely would have spun off their characters into a long-running series).
It’s all down to performances, which range from sincere attempts to get into the skins of sacred monsters (Herrmann, Izzard) to fairly cartoonish (Tilly is almost doing her Bullets Over Broadway act); Elwes is a bit at sea as Ince, perhaps because he’s written in order to shore up the theory rather than as a credible character or as the semi-major early cinema player he was. Dunst, hovever, is perfection as the funny girl being shoved into a box, smart enough to realise her sugar daddy actually loves her much more than the genius. Peter Bogdanovich, still in the wilderness, directs smartly, with an knack for period music, clothes and mannerisms which harks back to Paper Moon (though, frankly, this is a thematic sequel to the career-stalling Nickelodeon and even evokes the much-abused At Long Last Love); obviously, he’s fascinated by the trivia – who else would bother to cast a lookalike for Margaret Livingstone? – and his view of Hearst/Davies is filtered through his long association with Orson Welles, but that just adds another layer to the dirt-digging, though it might also make this movie all of a piece with Bob Fosse’s Star 80, another tittle-tattle inside-Hollywood true-life murder tale about events peripheral to his own life.