Tim Burton: Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was purr-fection

Aug. 13, 2012 | 1:18 p.m.
michelle pfeiffer catwoman in batman returns purrfect Tim Burton: Michelle Pfeiffers Catwoman was purr fection

Mcihelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in 1992’s “Batman Returns” (Warner Bros.)

Tim Burton has watched plenty of world-class actors while directing 15 feature films, but he sensed there was “something really special happening” when Michelle Pfeiffer played the practically purr-fect Catwoman in “Batman Returns,” which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer.

“I don’t really go back and look at the movies but her performance in that was one of my favorite performances of anything by anyone in any movie that I’ve worked on,” Burton said recently. “It was just the best. Really, I’ll never forget her in that.”

Tim Burton

“Batman Returns” stands as the only sequel directed by Tim Burton, shown above in Las Vegas in April. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“Batman Returns, ” released in June 1992, is one of the seven films in the Warner Bros. Home Video collection “The Tim Burton Blu-ray Collection,” which arrives on store shelves Sept. 11 (but is already on sale at Amazon.com through a special exclusive arrangement). The film is also a timely one to revisit with the silver screen return of Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, this time played by Anne Hathaway in Christopher Nolan‘s “The Dark Knight Rises,” one of this year’s biggest hits. Also, Burton has just reconnected with Pfeiffer for “Dark Shadows,” a passion project for each of them (just as it was for top-billed star Johnny Depp).

In May, during a joint interview with Richard D. Zanuck, Burton said the new work took his mind back to his Gotham City days.

“I hadn’t worked with Michelle since Catwoman and the thing it brought back to me was just how really terrific she was in that role and how great she is to work with on anything,” Burton said. “She called up a year or so before I was even officially involved [as director of ‘Dark Shadows’] and said, ‘I heard you might be doing “Dark Shadows” and I grew up watching it and I just loved it.’ She said, ‘I don’t usually do this’ and I know she doesn’t because I hadn’t talked to her in almost 20 years!”

“Batman Returns” reunited the director with Michael Keaton, the title star of the 1989 mega-hit “Batman” and is the only sequel/prequel that Burton has directed (he is more willing to take the riskier route of revisiting other people’s work, such as “Dark Shadows,” “Planet of the Apes” or “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory”). The PG-13 film took heat at the time for it dark themes and unsettling dangers. That may sound silly in this age of “The Dark Knight Rises,” but remember the expectations of the day; Burton’s second Gotham film was only five years removed from the numbing blandness of “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” which might inspire a nap but never a nightmare.

“Batman Returns” showed the filmmaker’s trademark flair for haunted faces and places (Burton knows tombstones the way Woody Allen knows brownstones) and added a bizarre wrinkle to Gotham City’s traditional mythology with the casting of Danny DeVito as a transmogrified, sewer-dwelling version of the Penguin, a villain that dates back to 1941 in DC Comics but had never been more than a plump and eccentric crook with a Mr. Peanut fashion sensibility (monocle, top hat, spats and gloves) before Burton’s briny reinvention.

The Penguin has a secret alliance with a ruthless tycoon named Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), but their plots may be in jeopardy: Selina Kyle, Shreck’s meek secretary, knows too much, so the mogul pushes her out the window to her death — or so he thinks. Selina returns but she’s undergone a mysterious transformation — she’s become the black-clad hellion called Catwoman, a figure of intrigue, especially to a certain masked hero.

The film divided fans and critics — the visual imagination was universally admired but the story was a source of frustration with an ending that didn’t unfold so much as it unraveled — but Pfeiffer was hailed as the bright spot in it all. Premiere magazine would be among the chorus of admirers: “Arguably the outstanding villain of the Tim Burton era, Michelle Pfeiffer’s deadly kitten with a whip brought sex to the normally neutered franchise. Her stitched-together, black patent leather costume, based on a sketch of Burton’s, remains the character’s most iconic look. And Michelle Pfeiffer overcomes Batman Returns’ heavy-handed feminist dialogue to deliver a growling, fierce performance.”

michelle pfeiffer dark shadows Tim Burton: Michelle Pfeiffers Catwoman was purr fection

Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dark Shadows.” (Warner Bros)

Burton said Pfeiffer immersed herself in martial arts to prepare for the role and, despite a squad of stuntwomen, she stepped in front of the camera as often as possible.

“I just have all these memories of her — letting a live bird fly out of her mouth and learning to use the whip and jumping around rooftop sets in high heels,” Burton said. “The work and just the performance were very, very impressive.”

Looking ahead, Burton has “Frankenweenie” in theaters in October, the same month “Dark Shadows” reaches home video. With a chuckle, the filmmaker noted that Pfeiffer hasn’t lost a step, although on the “Shadows” set she was different in one noticeable way. “She had a little struggle getting down the stairs in the high heels. That was the only area where she’s gone down in any of her abilities. Everything else was great. It was so nice to see her again and work with her again. And that history made it very special to me.”

— Geoff Boucher


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12 Responses to Tim Burton: Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was purr-fection

  1. leeshausoftherisingsun says:

    Great article, really enjoyed this read

  2. JohnRobietheCat says:

    I didn't dig that movie. A real disappointment actually after being so stoked to see it. But she was the highlight. A sexy lady playing a sexy character , actually the comic icon of that sort of thing.. Nowadays, that seems hard to find. Also that costume was one of Tim Burton's best and right-on designs. Plus he did Ed Wood a few years later, his best movie before he became just another director.

    The new Catwoman looks like she's acting to hard to be sexy, not the same if you ask me. Even if she looks ailright These woman today are beautiful but look on the verge of showing appearing on HGTV, showing you their giant megahouse and selection of organic food you can't afford to buy and jacking down our standard of living for the 99%. Just no mystery to them, pushing corporate fare like the Dark Knight movies and giving a few glances and then off to serious movies. The 80's & 90's had bad special effects but I kinda miss the ladies.

  3. Guest says:

    Danny DeVito's Penguin is on par, if not superior, to Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. Both are outstanding.

  4. Michael Logan says:

    Best "I'm a superhero or supervillain now, so I must sew myself a costume" scene ever.

  5. Alsion says:

    Hahahaha. Oh my. "Danny DeVito's Penguin is on par, if not superior, to Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman". A laugh like that I was not expecting. Thank you so much.

  6. Eric Tan says:

    Michelle was the best thing of that movie. Looking back at Burton's Batman movies, one can't help but notice (painfully) that he shot both movies inside a couple of soundstages.
    I prefer the new Selina Kyle, not only because she's more real, but also because she's a talented thief first, Catwoman never. Or didn't you notice that the word Catwoman is never mentioned in Nolan's version? Burton's Catwoman was a lonely secretary, really?

    • who says:

      Yeah, she was a lonely secretary because she had a life before becoming catwoman. Anne just has a "mysterious past" and she didn't even develop a real relationship with batman. Michelle gave an emotional performance. Catwoman was never simply a thief. Anne was simply already a character in the film, while Michelle was developing an origin to Catwoman.

  7. Bertt says:

    For Tim Burton's version of Batman, Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle/Catwoman was perfect. Her look and performance bore little resemblance to the comic book character who inspired her, but then, so did Danny DeVito's deformed Oswald Cobblepot. He was enjoyably over the top, as was Christopher Walken as Max Shreck. Burton's films were all about style, costuming, and the look of the place and characters – little things like continuity, story details, plots running seamlessly and logically without huge holes in them, have never been his concern.

  8. JohnRobietheCat says:

    Actually, I feel bad about saying Tim Burton became just another director. He's not. He left Batman at the right time. Sleepy Hollow and Nightmare before Christmas, StainBoy, a few more- all kinda cool. But that was the 90's. Even a few clunkers are forgiven. Nobody can pull off a funny Mars invasion movie that's based in current times….. Just the stuff he's putting out now is too self aware and lacks something. I just wish Tim Burton & Johnny Depp who just made Dark Shadows with shameless Hollywood studio glee would do something a bit more worthy. ThatAn original movie and series that was actually interesting, botched by the remake, laugh-at-the-70's stuff treatment. Shows you that success isn't always better for some creative teams.

    It would be nice if they could make another movie like Ed Wood again. Where are those guys?

    • meemo says:

      They really can't do a sequel to Ed Wood since it was semi-biographical about an actual person who lived and made those movies.

  9. xfiler93 says:

    this catwoman was the best ever!

  10. Benjamin says:

    Though I love what Chris Nolan did with Gotham in the movies and his complete fandom of the Scarecrow which is just like me Tim Burton is still my favorite Bat director. He made Batman amazing and dark for the media not just the comics.

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