As Catwoman, Halle Berry has her hands full, but not necessarily with evildoers or overheated love interests. Rather, she has a lot to live up to while slipping into her skintight leather.
If you spent a piece of your weekend enjoying Berry’s take on the feline fighter (or if you’re just a big fan of ass-kicking chicks in formfitting outfits), you might want to rewind through some of Catwoman’s past lives.
She’s been through countless incarnations and has influenced sleek femmes fatales all over the big and small screens: “The Matrix” trilogy’s Trinity, Nyssa of “Blade II,” Jessica Alba’s “Dark Angel,” “La Femme Nikita” and a good chunk of James Bond’s female foes and allies, for a start. But Catwoman’s comic-book debut was a humble one, as an uncostumed burglar known simply as “the Cat” in “Batman” #1 in 1940. In her second appearance in the following issue, she wore a full cat-head mask, but it wasn’t until years later that she started turning up in sexy costumes. By the 1990s, Selina Kyle’s origin had been updated to make her a former prostitute turned urban avenger, part villain and part hero. DC Comics’ latest “secret file” on the character lists her occupation as a “classy independent woman” who lives outside of the law but fights for the downtrodden and the outcast.
It was 1966 when Catwoman was first adapted to another medium, and to most, that interpretation remains the most iconic. Julie Newmar was the first of three Catwomen to match wits with Adam West’s Batman. The impossibly curvaceous 5’10” former ballet dancer only appeared in six two-part episodes on the TV program, but Newmar’s slinky turn in the sparkly black cat suit set the model for pretty much every subsequent onscreen Catwoman.
When Newmar proved unavailable for the quickie 1966 feature film “Batman,” 1955 Miss America Lee Meriwether picked up the mantle of Catwoman as well as her alter ego, Comrade Kitanya “Kitka” Irenya Tantanya Karenska Alisoff, a love interest for Bruce Wayne. Meriwether was a little too squeaky-clean for the part, and her purr was the least convincing of them all (well, except for Sean Young’s, but we’ll get to that).
The third Catwoman to square off against Adam West was cabaret singer Eartha Kitt. A tiny 5’4″, Kitt wasn’t as physically imposing a Catwoman as her predecessors, but her smoky sensuality and purrrrrfect voice made her the most exotic. Kitt was the first black TV supervillain, but, sadly, her casting had nothing to do with breaking stereotypes. The studio cast a black woman so that audiences would assume Batman wouldn’t be romantically interested and would focus on the new character of Batgirl instead.
The visions of Catwoman that Newmar and Kitt brought to life slinked and smoked through scenes, but other versions weren’t quite as alluring. The Catwoman of Filmation’s 1968 Batman cartoon looked like Marlo Thomas in a green jumpsuit (have you ever seen a green cat?) and tooled around Gotham in a green catmobile lined with pink fur! Curiously, she was given a harsh, screechy voice that sounded like a comedian’s impression of a cranky old lady. And perhaps the only time Catwoman ever seemed desperate was when Sean Young was very publicly vying for the role in 1991. Young appeared in a homemade Catwoman suit on the “Joan Rivers Show” and implored the producers of “Batman Returns” to cast her in the role for which she thought she was perfect.
Nobody agreed, and the part of Catwoman in Tim Burton’s plodding 1992 sequel went to Michelle Pfeiffer. This Selina Kyle was a feline of a totally different stripe. Clad in her homemade black vinyl costume, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was a ticked-off feminist, not so much out to pillage and plunder as to emasculate alpha males like Batman. A victim out for revenge, this Catwoman’s sexuality was anything but playful.
That same year, “Batman: The Animated Series” unveiled a Catwoman who was now a socialite and animal-rights activist (in addition to being a Robin Hood who robbed Gotham’s corrupt rich). It was also the first time a superhero cartoon managed to slip any hint of sexuality into the adventure. During the cartoon’s run, Catwoman alternately expressed interest in both Batman and Nightwing (a now fully grown Robin). Talk about finicky! A planned spinoff Catwoman cartoon never came to fruition.
The next feline character to make it onto the tube was actually Catwoman’s offspring. “Birds of Prey” (2002) starred Ashley Scott as the Huntress, the daughter of Batman and Catwoman (guess she settled on Batman after all). Set in a future “New Gotham,” the show teamed the Huntress with Oracle, the former Batgirl crippled by the Joker, and Dinah (perhaps the best superhero name ever). Catwoman — or Batman for that matter — had never been blessed with superpowers, but somehow this Catwoman Jr. had catlike abilities (much like the new Halle Berry version). But those abilities weren’t enough to save this clumsy melding of Cosmopolitan and comic books: Mercifully, “Birds of Prey” only lasted one season.
Only time will tell where Patience Philips, Halle’s new Catwoman, fits into the pantheon of Catwomen. But it’s doubtful that the image of Julie Newmar in the catsuit will ever be replaced by Halle Berry in shredded pants and open-toed shoes. Who ever decided that was a good fashion choice for super-doings anyway? High heels on superheroines are stupid enough, but at least Storm and Jean Grey knew enough to keep their toes covered.
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