Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hear the Roar of These Catwomen

Batman has always been my favorite superhero. Way more interesting than Superman, darker than Spider-Man, and less...patriotic than Captain America. I'd take the brooding, billionaire orphan in the cowl over any of them. But the real reason that Batman has always been my favorite isn't necessarily for the hero himself (he's interesting and all, but geez, we get it already - your parents died...) it's the deranged villains that terrorize Gotham City that make the Batman world what it is. And being the actressexual that I am, you can pretty much guess which of those villains has always fascinated me.

I grew up watching the delightfully cheesy reruns of the 1960's Batman series and found myself gravitating toward the Catwoman episodes. Whether she was played by Lee Meriwether, Julie Newmar, or Eartha Kitt never really mattered just as long as there was an actress in a slinky catsuit making puuurfectly bad cat puns. But my Catwoman obsession reached a peak the summer of 92 when I was 10 years-old and discovered the brilliance of Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns. I kinda wanted to be her. I had a jumprope with one handle that was used as my whip and I would walk around my neighborhood with it wrapped around my body the way she did in the movie. I had recorded a television special about the making of the film (The Bat, The Cat and the Penguin I knew the internet wouldn't let me down in finding that) and used to watch it continuously, fast-forwarding to her parts to memorize them. It was my first encounter with Pfeiffer and it made me a life-long pfan ever since.

So when Nathaniel at The Film Experience picked a chose-your-own-adventure edition of his series Hit Me With Your Best Shot in honor of the caped-crusader's 75th anniversary, I knew I would have to do a Catwoman centric post. But even though I find Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman to be the quintessential take on the character, I thought it would be more interesting to look at a dual performance of the character with the latest theatrical incarnation portrayed by Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). After all, the Batman universe would be nothing without its double-sidedness (Hell, there's even a villain named Two Face), so let's take a look at these duplicitous ladies.

I'll start by saying that I am not, nor have I ever been, a Hathahater. But, I'll admit that I was a little suspect of her being cast in the role of Catwoman Selina Kyle. Apparently, she was as well because when she auditioned for Christopher Nolan, she didn't even know what the part was. She thought she was going up for the part of The Joker's girlfriend, Harley Quinn (which, honestly, would have fit her perfectly and I've been waiting for her to appear in a film after she quickly became one of my favorites thanks to Batman: The Animated Series). It seemed almost sacrilegious to try to take on Pfeiffer's icon performance.

But once Heath Ledger tackled The Joker after Jack Nicholson put his stamp on him (and won a freaking Oscar in the process), then there was definitely room for Annie to take a shot. Especially because the Batman world that Nolan created was much more rooted in reality than the gothic Tim Burton version. Any interpretation of the character he created would naturally be a little different than a woman that is brought back to life by a swarm of stray cats.

But that also happens to be the main problem with the Nolan films, they're just so self-serious and drab (seriously, it was almost impossible finding a great shot of Anne in the film because everything was so ho-hum or didn't linger long enough to make an impression. While almost every shot of Pfeiffer is so spectacularly executed that choosing one seemed nearly impossible) that the moroseness seems almost too much for a series based on a masked superhero to sustain all the gravitas. The best part of the entire film is by far Hathaway. She seems to be the only one that realizes that a little playfulness is what is sorely needed. Her Selina Kyle (oh, because she can't actually be a Catwoman, she's just a woman in a catsuit, that happens to be a cat burglar, and living in a city populated by a Batman. But a Catwoman would be implausible...) is slinky, sexy, and mysterious. While her character is not an instant classic the way Pfeiffer's is, she still manages to makes her indelible.

For my Hathaway as Selina Kyle Best Shot, I had to go with the moment when she lets the mask fall and she transforms into the powerful woman that is Catwoman. And she does it without even wearing her trademarked jumpsuit:

Up until this moment, we have only seen her as a timid cater waiter, tasked with bringing a meal up to the reclusive Bruce Wayne. She stammers, apologizes profusely, and cowers in fear when he appears - she's only a woman! But as he realizes that it's nothing more than just an act and that the pearls she's wearing have been lifted from his uncrackable safe, she drops the artifice to reveal her true self. "Oops. Nobody told me it was uncrackable." And by simply lowering her head, relaxing her shoulders, and giving a knowing smirk she astonishingly really does transform before our eyes to reveal the true Selina and jolt the film awake with a new energy that only comes alive when she's onscreen.

Pfeiffer's Catwoman, in a more stylized performance amid a crazy Burtonesque world, is constantly working at full volume. And amazingly, it never feels like too much. She's so in control and eerily aware of exactly how this woman would be (outlandish as some of the things she does seem), that it transcends what we think of in a comic book film and becomes as complex and specific as anything in Shakespeare. She finds a humanity behind the mask. But luckily still sinks her claws into the campiness of the character, growling expertly delivered one-liners like the one that I've chosen as my Best Shot:

After a series of acrobatic backflips, she pauses briefly for us to catch our breath before the explosion. A literal one, but more importantly the one that happens to my mind every time I watch her performance in this. It's just one word, but, damn, what a roar.

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