The Many Lives Of Selina Kyle
Cats may have nine lives, but for Selina Kyle, the femme fatale better known as Catwoman, nine simply isn’t enough. For evidence, we need only look at her multitude of on-screen appearances, which grows by one with the recent announcement of her inclusion in The Dark Knight Rises.
Last week, the story broke that director Christopher Nolan cast Academy Award-nominated actress Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle in the third and final chapter of his Batman epic. The news came alongside confirmation of Tom Hardy as the villain Bane, and put to rest months of speculation regarding the appearance of Catwoman. However, while one Internet fire went out, another quickly ignited: Some sorry that Hathaway, who rose to fame in comedies like Ella Enchanted and The Devil Wears Prada, can’t pull off a sexy and seductive Catwoman. However, many were quick to criticize Heath Ledger’s casting as the Joker in The Dark Knight, but now his performance stands as one of the best in the character’s history. Despite her Princess Diaries days, Hathaway has proved herself a talented actress: For every Bride Wars mistake, she pulled out a Rachel Getting Married, a Brokeback Mountain or a hilarious Saturday Night Live performance.
Regardless, Hathaway joins a long line of actresses that contributed to the many on-screen lives of Selina Kyle — from Julie Newmar’s earliest interpretation to Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic take to Adrienne Barbeau’s voice work. In preparation for Catwoman’s eventual return to the big screen, Spinoff Online looks back at, and weighs in on, each of the off-the-panel appearances of Gotham’s most prolific pilferer.
Catwoman first stole the show in 1966, when Julie Newmar portrayed the villainess in ABC’s live-action Batman series. A tad-over-the-top at times, Newmar’s take certainly fit into the Silver Age feel of the era and played into the camp and cat-related crime motifs associated with the character and the comics. Probably the biggest deviation from the comic-book version came from the costume. Whereas in print, Catwoman sported a purple dress and green cape, Newmar wore a tight-fitting black suit and domino mask with cat ears. The TV incarnation became especially well known for her use of the word “purrfect,” which to many summed up how Newmar looked. Her Catwoman also constantly flirted with Adam West’s Batman, developing a strong sexual tension between the two. This all set a bar for Catwoman: sexy, strong, confident and the one woman capable of possibly stealing the Batman’s heart.
Between the first and second seasons of the TV series, earlier commitments made Newmar unavailable for Catwoman’s feature-film debut. Instead, actress Lee Meriwether took over the role for one time only. Like Newmar, Meriwether played up the camp aspect, but she added her own touches by over-exaggerating some of Catwoman’s cat-like mannerisms. Unfortunately for Meriwether, most fans simply remember the first Batman movie for its use of Bat Shark Repellent — and for baby ducks and nuns foiling the Caped Crusader’s bomb-disposal efforts.
In the final season of the TV series, sexy siren Eartha Kitt took on the Catwoman role. Unlike her predecessors, Kitt’s Catwoman never really flirted with Batman, instead acting more like a regular villain than a romantic foil. And although Kitt certainly maintained a physical sexiness, her portrayal excelled in large part because of her sultry voice (Have you heard her rendition of “Santa Baby?”). One major similarity does remain in the performances of Newmar, Meriwether and Kitt, and that’s the sheer campiness of the role — constantly making cat-related puns or even licking themselves at random times. However, this really served as a commentary to the times and not so much the character.
When it comes to original and seductive performances of Catwoman, look no further than Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s 1992 film Batman Returns. As Ledger eventually did with the Joker, Pfeiffer managed a portrayal of Catwoman that kept the essence of the character while still providing her own twist. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman oozed sexuality, bordered between hero and villain, and provided the perfect romantic foil for both Batman and Bruce Wayne. However, her version stands out from any other for one simple reason: It stemmed from insanity. In Batman Returns, Selina became Catwoman after she survived being pushed out of a building and suffered a mental breakdown. However, probably the best and most telling thing about Pfeiffer’s performance was her ability to deliver somewhat campy lines in the sexiest way. That “meow” scene easily could have fallen apart into comedy territory, but Pfeiffer nailed it. Despite its slight differences from the comics, this portrayal still ranks as one of the best for completely capturing Catwoman.
After the 1992 film, Catwoman disappeared from live action for a while, but that same year she appeared on the newly launched Batman: The Animated Series, a cartoon that became synonymous with iconic Batman storytelling. Created by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, The Animated Series featured a far darker and more serious tone than the live-action TV series and stayed fairly true to the source material. In fact, despite having blonde hair — done so to match up with Pfeiffer in Batman Returns — this version of Catwoman remains the closest to her comic-book counterpart. Barbeau provided the voice for Catwoman, eliminating the cat-related jokes and gags, but keeping the character’s borderline morality. For a perfect example, check out the episode “Almost Got Him,” a brilliant instance of summing up everything about Catwoman and her relationship with Batman.
As Batman: The Animated Series gave way to Justice League and then Justice League Unlimited, both of which focused on the entirety of the DC Universe, a new Batman-specific cartoon launched in 2004 called simply The Batman. The series redesigned a lot of Batman villains — especially the Joker — and gave Catwoman’s costume a more exaggerated appearance — bigger ears and claws/paws. Despite the physical changes, personality-wise the character remained largely the same.
The same year The Batman debuted, Catwoman returned to the big screen, this time portrayed by Academy Award winner Halle Berry. But the less said here the better. In actuality, although Berry played a Catwoman, she wasn’t the Catwoman. Instead, she was Patience Phillips, who gained magical cat powers from the Egyptian goddess Bastet. Easily the version least resembling her comic-book counterpart, the movie veered way into camp territory with Berry’s Catwoman at one point going to a club and ordering a “White Russian, no ice, no vodka, hold the Kahlua.” While you can’t entirely blame Berry for the writing and cheesy dialogue, Pfeiffer did prove you can take a bad line and deliver it amazingly, something that never once happened here. Then again, Berry ended up winning a Razzie Award for her performance and actually showed up to accept the award. So at least she was a good sport.
The ongoing 2008 cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold marks Catwoman’s final on-screen appearances to-date. Unlike the portrayals by Pfeiffer, Barbeau and Gershon, this version harks back to the live-action TV series, which works because the cartoon serves as a nostalgic, fun jab at the ridiculous entertainment of the old show. Although different from the current comic version of Selina, the Catwoman of The Brave and the Bold strongly resembles her Silver Age interpretation, in costume and personality. She flirts with Batman but always as a villain and never a hero. However, later in the series, she appears alongside Black Canary and Huntress as a version of the Birds of Prey. And in an Elseworlds-type future story, she and Batman fall in love, marry and have a child named Damian, who eventually becomes Robin. So, maybe not so dissimilar to the comics after all?
Taking into account everything that’s come before, Hathaway’s Catwoman can go in several different directions. However, no matter what changes Nolan makes to the character he without a doubt needs to keep the core the same — a strong, sexy and a romantic complement to Batman. Honestly, I see Hathaway pefectly as the fun-loving, building-hopping, flirtatious Selina, similar to how Jeph Loeb portrayed her in the 2002-2003 “Hush” storyline. An on-screen version of Catwoman as she is in the comics now hasn’t really been seen, and this might prove a perfect opportunity to take that route. Also, with the visual tone of the Nolan films, we might finally get to see Catwoman in her current and most practical costume. Either way, let’s hope the casting is purrfect and not so much a cat-tastrophe. And let’s also hope jokes like that do not make it into the final draft.