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.”
“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.”
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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