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Back in 2001, Anne Hathaway made her feature-film debut in Disney’s family-oriented comedy The Princess Diaries. Unlike many other performers who have the Mouse House to thank for their debut as starlet, however, Hathaway managed to make it out into Hollywood. She proved that she was more than just a pretty face with Ang Lee’s romance Brokeback Mountain and the indie drama Rachel Getting Married, the latter of which earned her a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars.
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland marked Hathaway’s first turn in a major tentpole project, and now she stars in the tentpole of all tentpoles, The Dark Knight Rises. In the role of Catwoman, she assumes a mantle held by many distinguished actresses in films or TV shows ranging from great to awful. Looking at her career, the adaptability and range is there, but there are more than a few doubters who wonder if Hathaway can live up the role of Selina Kyle and make something special out of her performance.
Will Hathaway be a revelation, or will she be the weak link in Nolan’s last Batman film? With that question in mind, here are the two most iconic portrayals of Catwoman in the Batman universe: what went right, what went wrong, and what about Hathaway?
Eartha Kitt in the Batman television series
Adam West puts in great, self-aware voice work on the animated comedy Family Guy, but if one takes a glimpse at the live-action Batman show from the 1960s, you can see that he wasn’t always so aware of things. To be fair, though, no one did. Well, no one except for Eartha Kitt, who delivered the series’ most memorable portrayal of Catwoman, though Julie Newmar gave the series' first interpretation of the character.
In her appearances as Catwoman, Kitt actress attention not only with the famous Catwoman outfit, but also with her in-tune performance. It’s no secret that the original live-action television series isn’t exactly an action-packed thrill ride, but Kitt seems to be the only one who’s actually aware of how silly everything is. The other performers are either phoning it in or unconvincing with their line readings, but that’s not the case with this actress.
With each “rolling R” that resembles the purr of a cat, it’s clear that Kitt is having a blast with the character. Thankfully, the actress also understands the campy nature of the role – and capitalizes on it – even if no one else does. Kitt’s performance works both as a one-woman show and as complement to her corny surroundings. As odd as it might be to say, it’s a master class in genre acting if there ever was one.
Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns
In 1992, Michelle Pfeiffer received her third Academy Award nomination for the drama Love Field. However, she was probably more remembered that year for her turn in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, giving what’s arguably the most revered interpretation of Catwoman thus far. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s not difficult to see why.
Garry Marshall’s latest rom-com disaster New Year’s Eve did a poor job at many things, one of which was portraying Pfeiffer as frumpy, shy, and unattractive. That isn’t a problem as we’re introduced to her in “Returns,” however, as Burton knows how to work with the luminous talent. In tandem with his precision in visual detail, Pfeiffer enters the film as a timid and insecure secretary for businessman Max Schreck. The employer murders her after she stumbles onto some incriminating facts about him, only for her to be revived by – what else – cats. She’s then reborn but is now confident and cunning, seeking revenge on Schreck.
Thanks to Pfeiffer, Kyle’s changes in personality and temperament are completely believable, and the actress makes the best of her line readings, many of which could have been embarrassing in the hands of a lesser performer (i.e. “Life’s a bitch; now, so am I”). However, it’s ironic how Burton’s focus on sensory aesthetics both help and hurt the performance. Such attention makes us believe that Pfeiffer really was a lost cause at the beginning, but as the film progresses, Burton never capitalizes on the opportunity to make Catwoman into a compelling character.
Before and after her rebirth, she’s an individual searching for some kind of resolve, some kind of happiness. However, the film never tries to make much of that potentially powerful conflict. Still, Pfeiffer’s turn in “Returns” is truly one to remember, even without much empathizing on the director’s part.
Halle Berry in Catwoman
Oh, that's right — we're skipping this one. By this comparison, Anne Hathaway's performance is already Oscar worthy.
Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises
Like Kitt and Pfeiffer and even Oscar winner Berry, Hathaway’s a talented actress, so at least she has that going for her. However, it’s safe to say that Catwoman’s never had it easy when it comes to her live-action portrayals. Kitt put in some terrific work, but the unintentional cheesiness of the actual product worked against her. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the best yet, but more characterization on Burton’s part would have made it even more of a triumph.
Even though Catwoman stole the show in previous Batman incarnations, Hathaway’s interpretation needs to have some strong characterization to work. “Rises” also needs to be a strong product overall. That might sound like a statement requiring nothing more than common sense, but such logic isn’t always the way of Hollywood. While we can expect greatness from “Rises” as a whole, Nolan isn’t necessarily revered for his female characters, and that might present a problem for Hathaway and her Catwoman interpretation.
Still, I think the actress will pull off the performance with flying colors. Hathaway’s yet to give a terrible performance, giving exceptional performances in otherwise lackluster films like last year’s romantic drama One Day. Although this’ll be the actress’s first foray in a superhero film, I’ve no doubt that we’ll be talking about the performance – for the better – for years to come.