In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was a shock to the cinematic ecosystem: a comic book adaptation directed by an oddball filmmaker whose previous two at-bats had featured Pee-Wee Herman and an undead horndog that was exceptionally, groundbreakingly dark in appearance. In a summer full of “sure-thing” blockbuster sequels – Ghostbusters II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2 – the unproven Batman bested all of them, becoming the year’s highest domestic grosser, and forever setting the stage for how Hollywood would pitch and market product in the future.
And one of the first test cases would be Batman’s own sequel, Batman Returns, which celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of its release next month. Burton was back, and though the original film’s scribe, Sam Hamm, gets a story credit, much of the screenplay was likely the brainchild of Daniel Waters, who Burton opted to bring in. Waters had also written Heathers, an arch black comedy that examined the complex world of women, and the damage they do both to themselves and others.
Batman Returns fights against itself in some ways, stylistically. A summer movie set during Christmastime, it’s both cold and kinetic. Michael Keaton returned as the titular hero, but he needed new villains, so Hamm and Waters gave him two: The Penguin (Danny DeVito), an oddly deformed baby left for dead in the Gotham City sewers by his parents, who, after being rescued and raised by penguins beneath the city zoo, eventually emerges with designs on vengeance, and Max Schreck (Christopher Walken), a maniacal millionaire with a scheme to take over the entire city.
Actually, make that three villains – or, perhaps, two and a half. For Batman Returns also gave us Catwoman, certainly a known baddie in the Batman universe. Comic fans first met her in 1940, when she was introduced as “The Cat,” as well as her alter ego, Selina Kyle. Over the years, both have been portrayed as a variation of an elusive antagonist and sometime love interest for Batman/Bruce Wayne. Witness the parade of Catwomen we’ve seen on celluloid: Lee Meriwether, Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt. Halle Berry, Anne Hathaway, Zoë Kravitz, Camren Bicondova. Like many a Bond girl, these iterations are flirtatious and enigmatic, sometimes benevolent, sometimes self-serving, and sometimes both. Their crimes, usually larcenous, are not necessarily victimless but are rarely hurtful.
In Batman Returns, however, Catwoman steals the show.
Now is probably a good time to mention who plays Catwoman/Selina in the film: Michelle Pfeiffer, at the height of her career (the year of the film’s release would mark the final of her three Oscar nominations), never met a character that she couldn’t further deepen when bringing to life. So it’s no surprise how easily she embraces the doubleness of the roles she was brought in to play (as a replacement for Annette Bening, who backed out of the film when she became pregnant with her second child). Beneath the latex, this is quite an emotionally honest performance. In finding the animalistic side of Selina and the humanity of Catwoman, she makes them iconic.
Here, Catwoman is a feminist icon precisely because this part doesn’t adhere to anyone’s existing script of what that could look like. Clearly, Batman Returns isn’t exactly a realistic movie, but Selina Kyle’s (Catwoman’s, too) predicament is. She represents the boxed-in feeling of third wave feminism, when “having it all” could also turn out to mean taking hits on all sides. Of being told you are of equal status, only to learn that isn’t so. Of not making good on your potential and being neglected, dismissed, even abused.
When we first meet Selina in Batman Returns, she’s a meek milquetoast assistant to the abusive Schreck, and, well, what we’ve come to refer to as a cat lady in her personal life. Aside from her pet cat, she lives alone and comes home to answering machine messages from her mother, an unknown beau canceling their holiday plans, and a saleslady condescending to her singlehood. Selina walks through the door, calling out the kitschy phrase “Honey, I’m home!”, then adding – to herself, to us, to anyone who’d listen – “Oh, I forgot. I’m not married.”
Ever dutiful, Selina returns to Schreck’s office late at night when she realizes she’s neglected something. It’s then that she stumbles upon Schreck’s plot to use his new plant to drain the city of power, which would put all of Gotham City under his control. After a tense confrontation with Schreck, who is also in the office, he silences her for good, shoving her out his high office window. What happens next is either a rescue or a resurrection, depending on how one looks at it. A pack of feral cats lick the dead Selina and bring her back to life. Selina emerges a new woman, and us viewers have the privilege of watching her transform her life and her look (more on that later).
Selina has a new lease on life, and she pays for it by burning the candle at both ends, leading a double one. She returns to work (a surprise to Schreck, to say the least) by day, and patrols the streets of Gotham City by night as Catwoman (the costume, by the way, credited to the team of Bob Ringwood, Mary E. Vogt, and Vin Burnham, was brushed with liquid silicone, giving it a special sheen that enhances Catwoman’s aura). But she’s an equal opportunity offender. In her first appearance as Catwoman, she rescues a woman from being assaulted by one of the Penguin’s goons, only then to reprimand the woman for relying on someone else, a (Bat)man, to come to her aid. “You make it so easy, don’t you? Always waiting for some Batman to save you. I am Catwoman, hear me roar.”
She embodies the film’s ongoing theme of doubleness. Catwoman is encouraging this woman – all women – to figure out how to rescue themselves, to discover their own power and arm themselves with it. But it’s tough love; she won’t be warm or sisterly about it. She now represents the duality imposed on women in a patriarchal world, caught between the way she “ought” to be and the way she wants to be. What Catwoman craves is anomie, a major disturbance to the status quo, and if doesn’t summon the devil, she certainly gives in to her id.
She’s also certainly no angel. She joins forces with the Penguin to help further her blood vendetta against Schreck, causing further chaos, and even leading to the death of an innocent woman. She gets romantically involved with Bruce Wayne just as Batman and Catwoman begin facing off around town (Keaton and Pfeiffer, who had dated earlier in real life, have excellent chemistry as both of their respective alter egos). The two have a warring ethos when it comes to dealing with their darkness – she wants to harm, and he wants to help – but they’re inextricably linked. Again, the two sides of Catwoman/Selina fight each other: “He makes me feel the way I hope I really am,” Selina says of Bruce in the first half of the film. As Catwoman comes into her own, though, she says to him, “It seems that every woman you save ends up dead or deeply resentful. Maybe you should retire.” She thinks that she doesn’t need him to rescue her. But maybe she does still need him? Between their own personal wounds and messy intentions, the two have far more in common than they can ever realize – until, of course, they do (more on that later, too). It’s complicated.
But what’s clear is that being Catwoman sets her free. Breaking and vandalizing Schreck’s department store, yelling at the security guards (male, of course), setting it to explode – there’s an unbridled danger to her. But Catwoman sees this as empowerment. After being on the other side of danger, she’s able to get off on being on the causal side of destruction. For her, there’s order in this disorder.
It isn’t all fun and games, though. Revisit the movie, and you may find you’re actually remembering it wrong. Catwoman doesn’t just bound around town, causing mayhem against the patriarchy. She actually only appears in a handful of scenes, and even though seemingly indestructible in her new guise, she repeatedly gets brought down by her male counterparts. Just like Schreck shoving her out into the night air, she literally falls to the ground again after a scuffle with Batman and with the Penguin, each time effectively ending one of her nine lives. Put another way, each man “kills” her. She may bounce back each time, but considerably worse for wear – the Catwoman costume and mask coming further and further apart at the seams.. If Selina is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown at the film’s beginning, the rest is a film-length snapshot of a woman in the middle of that breakdown.
And it wouldn’t be nearly as convincing without Pfeiffer’s complete physical commitment to the role, which didn’t just include the martial arts lessons and whip practice that were part of her pre-filming repertoire. She probably displays about eight or nine different kinds of posture throughout the film, based on just how close to the edge Catwoman and/or Selina are. And there’s a mind-body meld throughout the film, where psychology meets physicality. There is gravitas in her madcappery. There is fury in her fragility. Scene for scene, Pfeiffer leans into the comedy and sexiness and the pathos, but she never lets us forget that she is a whirling dervish. And she is dancing as fast as she can.
There’s also the curious case of the bird! At one point, Catwoman plots with Penguin against Batman in his lair, but the scene is push-pull. She’s seducing him to get what she wants, and then she makes a power move by putting his bird in her mouth.
Reader, Pfeiffer really did this. The early 1990s were still an era of practical effects as opposed to CGI. Which means that Pfeiffer actually put the live bird in her mouth. Burton himself said “She had a live bird in her mouth while the camera was rolling. It was four or five seconds, and then she let it fly out. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed.” Talk about fearlessness.
Vocally, the performance is also a marvel as well. Pfeiffer begins the film with Selina speaking softly, reflecting her lack of self-confidence. Why speak louder, if no one will listen? Once she becomes Catwoman, the voice drops. It’s deeper and richer, and she luxuriates in every line delivery. I haven’t seen another example of an actress, well, lapping up each line of dialogue apart of Kim Cattrall as Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones, which of course came after this film. “Who’s the maaaaaan behind the baaaaaat?” she purrs. “Maybe he can help me find the [voice deepens] woooooman…behind the cat.” Later in the film, the voice begins to break as her grip becomes increasingly tenuous. (All the more impressive considering this film was likely filmed wildly out of sequence.)
Then, of course, there’s her laugh, which continues to become louder, more histrionic, an ever-growing plea for help. Pfeiffer never shies away from the character’s darkness. Throughout every encounter she has, Selina and Catwoman are never not full of hurt. Beneath every flirtatious line, there are tell-tale signs that she is about to combust. Will she explode or implode? Or both?
As Batman Returns hurtles towards its climax, Catwoman/Selina emerge as the movie’s true joint protagonist. The Penguin and Schreck are true, unredeemable villains (even if the Penguin has an inevitably sad backstory of his own), and Batman is (seemingly unintentionally) relegated to the sidelines. Selina finally gets what she wants – a rematch with Schreck. We worry that she won’t make it, especially after he takes out a gun. Is this an intentional callback to her earlier line at Schreck’s? “You poor guys. Always confusing your pistols with your privates?” It could be. Either way, the phallic symbolism is there. Schreck shoots, but doesn’t score – each bullet takes another one of Catwoman’s lives, but remember she has nine of them! (This is the only example of science fantasy over realism in Burton’s Batman universe. The other villains, all men, were ultimately mortal.)
Unmasked, untethered, and chanting “all good girls go to heaven” with each new bullet wound, Catwoman seems to have lost her last grasp on reality just as she and Selina finally merge personalities. But she finds the redemption she needs. As Batman/Bruce pleads with her from the perimeter of the action, she kisses Schreck using a taser that electrocutes them both, leading to his and the Penguin’s deaths.
But what of Selina? She’s nowhere to be found in the wreckage. Bruce sees and pursues the silhouette of a crouching cat through the snow, only coming across Selina’s own pet in an empty alleyway. He’ll take that cat home to protect it in a way he never could for Selina. Meanwhile, the last shot of the film is a pan up to reveal that Catwoman is indeed alive, looking out toward the Bat-Signal. We mourn Selina (I mean, we do know that she has a mom who will never see her again), but cheer for whatever changes Catwoman has wrought in the corrupt city of Gotham (And there were likely to be more changes – Warner Bros. had planned to spin Catwoman off into her own franchise, which, due to a variety of reasons, never came to be.)
In a sense, Catwoman has now proven to be the most powerful superhero the two Batman movies have heretofore seen. The other villains have died, and even Batman is powerless to help her or reign her in; he is, essentially, castrated. Only Catwoman fulfills her mission to the end, as disastrous as it may be. She’s both femme fatale and Christlike figure, a mother to her martyred self, her own personal pieta.
And Pfeiffer was often singled out for her work in Batman Returns. From Janet Maslin’s review in The New York Times: “Fully inhabiting this vixenish character, she turns Catwoman into a fierce, seductive embodiment of her earlier dissatisfaction. ‘Life’s a bitch,’ she slyly declares. ‘Now so am I’… there is at least as much personality to the performance as there is visual appeal, as evidenced by the bored, feline drawl with which she delivers her best lines. ‘Oh, please,’ she yawns later, when propositioned by the eager, Humpty Dumpty-shaped Penguin (Danny DeVito). ‘I wouldn’t touch you to scratch you.’
From Owen Gleiberman’s review in Entertainment Weekly: “The runaway star here is Pfeiffer, whose performance is a sexy, comic triumph. Neither crime fighter nor villain but something in between, her Catwoman is a post-Madonna feminist: She finds emotional liberation in acting salacious. Pfeiffer has perfected a slinky-predatory walk, and she speaks in the honeyed tones of a phone-sex vixen but with an undertow of dark knowledge, as if she had secrets that scared her.”
But not everyone was so immediately enamored of the performance.
The Oscar ceremony that celebrated 1992 is (somewhat) fairly maligned for dubbing itself “The Year of the Woman,” as though only one year should be allotted to salute their achievement. But it’s fair to say that the year was blessed by a plethora of fascinating performances by actresses: Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives, Gong Li in The Story of Qiu Ju, Helena Bonham-Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, and Emma Thompson in Howards End, Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish, Susan Sarandon in Lorenzo’s Oil, Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, a Miranda Richardson trifecta (The Crying Game, Damage, Enchanted April).
And Pfeiffer was indeed nominated that year – but for Love Field, a more conventional period drama with which her representation had an easier time pushing her into the Best Actress race. So why wasn’t her Catwoman received with even more open arms when first released? There are a couple of reasons. First, to many it was unclear whether this film should be categorized as lead or supporting. If votes were cast for her, they may have been split between the two categories. (And since this happened in pre-internet times, there has been very little visibility into whether her team took out any trade ads or other campaign tactics one way or the other.)
Secondly? Probably a predictable snobbery. Batman Returns was a comic book movie and a commercial blockbuster. Until recently, those films rarely entered into the Oscar conversation – and if they did, it would be even rarer that they were included in the acting categories. (Sigourney Weaver’s well-deserved nomination for 1986’s Aliens was the rare welcome exception.)
Yes, eventually both Heath Ledger would win Best Supporting Actor for playing The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s grim The Dark Knight, but the zeitgeist had already begun to embrace the aesthetic value of these films. And in his case, the award also was a way to honor his career following his tragic death prior to the movie’s release. Joaquin Phoenix’s subsequent Best Actor win for Joker also falls within what the Academy has traditionally considered acceptable Oscar fare, as it is more of a bleak origin story about a dangerous incel than a typical action-oriented comic book adaptation.
It wasn’t until years later that a fandom (pfan-dom?) was built around the role with the respect it deserved, and one that continues to grow, as witnessed by the recent media maelstrom that occurred when new footage of Pfeiffer decapitating Schreck’s store mannequins in rehearsal emerged. Newly embraced as a postmodern hero, the love for Catwoman seems ceaseless now – but it was late to start.
And perhaps there is another reason why many in the industry overlooked Pfeiffer at Oscar time for Batman Returns – one that might even have to do with the very glass ceiling Catwoman herself tried to shatter with her whip. Is it just possible that many just didn’t Pfeiffer seriously enough? It may seem hard to believe since she’s such a pro, but even after two Oscar nominations for Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys, she still belonged to a generation of actresses who were well-regarded and successful but considered lesser than their more properly trained and decorated contemporaries, like Glenn Close, Sally Field, Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Meryl Streep.
Some of Hollywood’s most promising leading actresses faced an uphill battle getting their due: Ellen Barkin, Bridget Fonda, Darryl Hannah, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Andie Macdowell, Demi Moore, Meg Ryan, Sharon Stone, and Kathleen Turner, to name a few. And when their movies did make loads of money or earn critical acclaim, credit often went to their male co-stars or directors. (Similar fates befell even the biggest stars of the era – Oscar winners like Geena Davis and Jodie Foster and the biggest star of all, Julia Roberts – whose careers all suffered when their films lost money, while their male counterparts continued to flourish and get additional chances.) The age-old gender barrier had yet to fade away. It still does.
Perhaps that’s why the only compliment The Washington Post paid Pfeiffer in Batman Returns was “delightfully purry.” Or why, when Pfeiffer received her Lead Actress Oscar nomination for Baker Boys after the rarest of hat tricks, a clean sweep of the four major critics’ awards (Los Angeles Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, and New York Film Critics Circle), The Boston Herald’s James Verniere attributed her success by saying: “I think we can write off the enthusiasm for her as the Testosterone Vote,” signifying that these significant accolades were more for looks than talent. Misogyny, folks. As Max Schreck could tell you, it runs rampant.
So let’s dig in a bit further to re-focus on the skill on display in this movie. Because beyond the fascinating, sexy strengths of Catwoman, it’s Pfeiffer’s work as Selina that makes it a performance for the ages. To prove it, let’s explicate two scenes from Batman Returns.
The first one is the scene in which Selina transforms herself into Catwoman following her life-saving cat bath. This is where Burton’s direction, Hamm’s and Waters’ script, and Elfman’s score go into overdrive. Selina returns home, like we saw her do earlier that same night, but in a fugue state. She repeats the “Honey, I’m home” line like an automaton, chugs milk from her fridge and spills it everywhere, and bumps absentmindedly into her furniture.
It’s when she hears a new message from a woman advertising perfume that she ultimately loses it: “One whiff of this in the office and your boss will be asking you to stay after work for a candlelight staff meeting for two.” That’s enough to send anyone with your average passive-aggressive relationship with your boss into a tailspin, so given that her own boss has just pushed Selina to her “death,” it certainly sets her off. She ransacks her own home, shoving her stuffed animals into her garbage disposal and destroying her dollhouse, effectively “killing” any element of her life that represents girlhood. But she’s also rejecting the paradigm of domesticity and security that she has heretofore held onto.
What is the first step she takes now that she has chosen to run towards the danger? She grabs a black latex jacket and gets to work at her sewing machine, transforming it into a slinky, body-hugging outfit. This sequence is a silent aria, abetted considerably by editor Chris Lebenson’s rapid editing and Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography, using more and more frantic angles as Selina gets more and more intense. Again, her physicality is unmatched here. The truest sign of verisimilitude? You can see snot.
Having taken an aerosol can to the neon sign that once read “Hello There,” she emerges with a new slogan in the background. “Hell here,” it now reads. Because really, that’s all Selina Kyle had ever known. Has Catwoman taken control in a way Selina never was able to? Can she “win?” This scene makes us believe that’s a possibility. Of course, by film’s end, we know this this outcome is likely not so good, making her predicament even more palpable.
By the time of Pfeiffer’s other key scene, Catwoman has indeed begun to come apart, and we see the results in the guise of Selina at Schreck’s holiday masquerade party. Decked in a blue sequined gown, hair up and off to the side, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Face to Face” (a perfect choice) playing, she descends the staircase. She sees Bruce, clad in a tuxedo. Ironically, neither of the two who spend half of the film in costume are wearing masks.
In a previous scene, Batman and Catwoman had been fighting on a rooftop when Batman had seen mistletoe hanging. If the fighting is essentially coded sex for the two of them, the ensuing dialogue continues their congress. “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it,” he says. “A kiss can be even deadlier…if you mean it,” she purrs. Now, on the dance floor, Selina, seemingly more emboldened as Catwoman becomes more adrift, intimates that she would like to go to bed with him. She’s tired of wearing masks, she says. With every breath, Pfeiffer’s getting at the hunger, the longing Selina feels. She’s been sublimating her entire life and is getting ready to blow.
The tension continues. She looks up and sees mistletoe at the party. “A kiss under the mistletoe,” she says. “You know, mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it,” it’s her turn to say. “But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it –” it’s Bruce’s turn to repeat, only he doesn’t even need to finish the sentence. Finally they’re onto each other. Not only are they not in costume, they are now completely exposed to each other.
Oh! My! God!
This scene. This scene. This scene is everything. It is the height of intensity. It’s all crashing down at once on Selina. And it gets even better. They stare at each other. Pfeiffer has Selina in tears, makeup everywhere. Bruce pulls Selina back into an embrace to keep dancing. “Does this mean we have to start fighting?” she says. After all she’s been through, Selina no longer knows who she is, nor does she believe she has any agency left.
I said it then, and I maintain it now: had she lucked out at the Oscars that year, this would have been her clip. It is Shakespearean in depth. This is dazzling, non-judgmental, visceral acting.
In a performance that towers over so many, these two sequences alone make Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman immortal. But the secret to the character’s success isn’t her fierce strength; it’s her vulnerability. Because that’s what’s universal. That’s what is most relatable. And that’s why Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns doesn’t have nine mortal lives – instead, she will live on forever.