She’s the baddest of the comic book bad girls; she’s a kitten with a whip; she’s tantalizing catnip to the most serious-minded superhero of them all; and she’s an icon of female empowerment.
It takes a certain kind of Hollywood actress to sink her claws into Catwoman and Anne Hathaway looks up to the challenge as she inhabits the role - and skintight costume - in "The Dark Knight Rises," opening Friday. PopcornBiz takes a look at Catwoman's backstory, and the ladies who’ve led the characters many lives.
Comic book artist Bob Kane and his collaborator, writer Bill Finger, first crafted Catwoman – a.k.a. career criminal Selina Kyle – as a femme fatale foil for their creation Batman back in 1940, there was no catsuit, no whip – even her name wasn’t fully formed, known only as “The Cat.” But she did have a built-in Hollywood pedigree, having been modeled after two seductively sexy superstars of the day: Kane drew, literally, upon the lithe sensuality of Jean Harlow, and the dark, smoldering looks of Hedy Lamarr.
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It wasn’t until two decades later that the tables turned and Hollywood actresses found themselves rising to the challenge of embodying the ethereal qualities that distinguish the Dark Knight’s slinky nemesis/paramour. Their combined efforts have contributed to the Feline Fatale’s enduring screen presence.
1. Julie Newmar
The statuesque Newmar was the first screen Catwoman, introducing the character to the pubic on the phenomenally popular “Batman” TV series, bringing a dancer’s sinuous grace and a wicked gleam in her eye to the campy take on the Caped Crusader. Between Newmar’s quirky chemistry with series star Adam West, entendre-laced dialogue from writer Stanley Ralph Ross, and the sleek black catsuit, Catwoman coalesced into an empowering blend of femininity and feminism.
“Catwoman is appealing because she's a rascal,” Newmar told PopcornBiz in 2011. “If you're the good kid in the family, you kind of get ignored, but if you're the naughty one, you're the one that they're always going after, always looking to see what you'll do next or what's happening here. They're not going to keep their eyes off of you. So some of that – maybe 50% naughtiness and 50% the other stuff.”
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The catsuit, she says, “just puts you in a good mood. You wear black and put on the heels, that also makes your posture go forward slightly so you're kind of out there, looking and accepting and finding new people to play with.”
2. Lee Meriwether
When Newmar was unavailable for the 1966 “Batman” theatrical film produced in a rush to capitalize on the bat-craze, Meriwether, 1955’s Miss America, won the role by adding a literal bit of feline flair to her interpretation.
“I had to read for the part and there were five girls in the outer office when I got there to read,” Meriwether recalled in "The Official Batman Batbook." “They gave me a scene, and I thought, ‘I really have to do something to make them remember me,’ as those other girls were really gorgeous. So I decided I would do things like a cat: I curled myself up in the chair and I licked my hand like a paw and did a little preening and purring and things like that. [Director] Les Martinson said to them ‘I didn’t tell her to do that!’ It all kind of worked, and I had the part.”
The part had an added benefit at home, she added: “I really made it in my daughters’ eyes when I became Catwoman. I had to do ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Batman’ – I did both, but if I hadn’t have done ‘Batman’ I would have been nothing.”
3. Eartha Kitt
A movie role also kept Newmar from three Catwoman stints on the twice-weekly series, and the producers made a bold choice for the times when they temporarily recast the part with African American actress and singer Kitt, then well known for the distinctive growl in her voice.
“It was a racial victory,” the late actress recalled in "Catwoman: The Life and Times of a Feline Fatale." “A black woman portraying a traditionally white character? I don’t think of myself in terms of a race. I am an artist.”
Kitt played the character totally claws out and with a certain hiss that was far more aggressive than any previous Catwoman, but just as sexy – it was she who really made Selina’s signature phrase “Purrrfect” sing. “I had never seen any of the segments before,” admitted Kitt. “I don’t think I even read the comic. I knew nothing about what they were looking for. But since people have thought of me as a cat, it seems, and told me that I movie catlike, I was just myself. More.”
4. Michelle Pfeiffer
When Catwoman resurfaced in 1992 for “Batman Returns,” the hotly anticipated sequel to the re-darkened “Batman” directed by Tim Burton, Pfeiffer played her as a ferocious feminist force: a mousy office drone abused by men and restitched together for a second life as a seductress just as likely to claw Batman’s eyes out as to kiss him.
“Tim Burton reinvented it and I was the lucky gal who got to play it,” Pfeiffer recently told PopcornBiz. “This was really his vision, and Tim is always so collaborative, so it's hard to know what was him and what was me, but that was really so strongly drawn and so clearly drawn. I'll never forget this. He came down because he wasn't happy with where the stitches were on my catsuit. They would replace them, and finally he got so frustrated that he came down to the wardrobe department and placed the stitches on my catsuit myself, on my body, and that was the end of it.”
Pfeiffer says the character has remained a potent icon throughout different eras “because all little girls and all women have this inner rage that we spend our lives controlling and being good little girls, and she's everyone's fantasy.”
5. Halle Berry
Catwoman hasn’t always landed on her feet in Hollywood: witness her widely panned 2004 solo film starring Halle Berry, as graphic designer Patience Phillips – NOT Selina Kyle – who ends up targeted for murder by her cosmetics company client but revived as a whip-wielding, midriff-baring minx by Egyptian Mau cats serving the goddess Bast and – yeah, it gets lamer after that. Nevertheless, Berry certainly looked the part, and reestablished that Catwoman’s appeal transcended her traditional appeal.
A good sport who actually showed up to collect her Golden Raspberry Award in person, Berry (who had better super-heroic success as the X-Men’s Storm) later told reporters she’d catsuit up again “in a minute. I loved it so much and I hate that it [failed] – it was what it was, but if we had a chance to do it again I know that we would make it better…I loved being Catwoman. I think that Catwoman was a great character that maybe just wasn't presented in the right way,” she added. “People see it on video and they seem to like it. They tell me that it wasn't as bad as they all said.”
6, 7 & 8. Adrienne Barbeau, Gina Gershon and Eliza Dushku
Along with live action, Catwoman’s also inhabited various animated incarnations of Gotham City as one of Batman’s rogue’s gallery regulars, where a trio of alluring leading ladies have embodied her spirit using only their velvety vocal cords: Barbeau in “Batman: The Animated Series,” Gershon in “The Batman” and Dushku in the home video animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal “Batman: Year One,” as well as Selina’s own stand-alone animated adventure.
“I wanted to purr, and they let me purr – so that was really like getting a bit of extra credit,” Dushku explained earlier this year. “I wanted to get in there and really emphasize her relationship with her cats, as I think it’s very feral and very significant. And everyone was really cool about letting me play around with my ferocity.”
9. Anne Hathaway
The latest – and perhaps most highly anticipated – Catwoman to bow on the big screen is Hathaway’s sophisticated thief in the hyper-realistic cinematic world created by director Christopher Nolan in his third Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
“I love the costume,” Hathaway told Hero Complex from the set of the film. “I love the costume because everything has a purpose, nothing is in place for fantasy’s sake, and that’s the case with everything in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City.”
“What’s come before doesn’t limit or even affect this new version,” Hathaway explained. “It doesn’t affect me because each Catwoman – and this is true in the comics as well – is defined by the context of the Gotham City created around her. Catwoman is so influenced by Gotham and whoever is creating Gotham at the time. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was informed by Tim Burton’s Gotham and Eartha Kitt was informed by Adam West’s Gotham. You have to live in whatever the reality of the world is and whatever Gotham is.”
But Hathaway did admit to drawing a little outside inspiration from one of the original templates, Hedy Lamarr. “I know this sounds odd, but her breathing is extraordinary,” the actress said. “She takes these long, deep, languid breaths and exhales slowly. There’s a shot of her in ‘Ecstasy’ exhaling a cigarette and I took probably five breaths during her one exhale. So I started working on my breathing a lot.”