After you've watched Anne Heche and Sandra Oh bash each other unconscious with hammers, wrenches, rocks, sticks, tires, and fists in Onur Tukel's gonzo revenge comedy Catfight, it's a relief to watch them plop down for brunch at a French-style café on the morning of their Los Angeles premiere and smile.
In person, the two actresses seem like opposites, much like their characters, a pompous, no-talent artist named Ashley (Heche) and her former college classmate, rich Manhattan housewife Veronica (Oh). Heche is electric; when an idea seizes her, she literally leaps to her feet, vibrating over her ham sandwich. Oh is steady and smooth, an oboe in a jazz band. They'd been party acquaintances for years, and hung out once when Heche's partner James Tupper did a stint with Oh on Grey's Anatomy. ("I bombarded her in the makeup trailer," says Heche.) Yet, in order to survive the three brutal brawls that punctuated Catfight's whiplash 16-day shoot, the two had to meld minds.
"We learned a language with each other," says Heche. "Everything was eye contact. We could tell the next moves that were coming."
Oh nods. "It's like you meet a great partner in the moment that she's choking you."
Months later, they're still sharing a brain. Both love vintage clothes, which is a blessing as they're constantly picking out their own outfits for press days and premieres. "When you're not Emma Stone, it's harder to get dressed," admits Oh. They're used to trading dresses and tweaking fits with gaffer tape and safety pins. On Catfight's press tour, they'd check in with each other constantly — "What are you wearing? How old is it? How far into your closet did you dig it out?" says Oh — and on the one day they didn't, they both showed up to a photo call in polka-dot tops.
Today, while Heche drove to the restaurant, she discovered that their twin picture was on the front page of Getty Images. She brandished her phone. "What I love more than anything is we didn't coordinate!"
"We looked like somebody styled us!" says Oh.
"I didn't put in 'Anne' or 'Sandra' or anything!" says Heche, grinning.
Catfight is a hoot, a no-budget B-picture unlike any action movie you've ever seen. At first it plays like a drama about two horrible women actively destroying their own lives. Ashley values her watercolors of dead babies more than her marriage to frustrated wife Lisa (Alicia Silverstone); Veronica guzzles wine to forget that her family hates her. When the frenemies bump into each other at a cocktail party, both think they've found a safe punching bag.
"Are you still doing that art thing you do?" coos Veronica with a cavity-inducing smile. In turn, Ashley mock-apologizes for assuming Veronica's husband was gay. Three minutes later, the women are covered in blood and one is in a coma. When she wakes up, she vows payback.
The movie is shockingly funny, in part because of its Bugs Bunny classical score, but mostly because the fights are merciless. Hair-pulling? Hell no. These girls go straight to cracking skulls.
"We didn't get training," says Oh. "This is not Mission: Impossible 5." Their brawls are astonishing because they're raw, because of that feral gleam in Heche's eyes and Oh's wolf-mother howl that seems to come straight from her soul.
At first, we gasp. Then we giggle. Only later do we realize we're seeing something new: two ladies who don't give a damn if people think they're nice or pretty. They're not tits-out women-in-prison exploitation babes, or the cartoon perfection of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, who can snap any goon's neck but can't keep the camera from staring at her ass. The only thing Ashley and Veronica care about is victory, however ugly and at whatever cost.
"What's missing is that male gaze," says Oh.
Heche jumps out of her chair. "Dude! That's so true! It's missing the fucking sexualization of it!" Turkel smartly hired a mostly female crew, including the cinematographer and camera operator. The difference is visible. Seeing Catfight getting violent women right, you realize that every other action film has gotten them wrong.
This is what strong female characters look like. Not because they’re savage and not because they're ripped. (“I wish we got paid to work out!” says Oh.) It's because Catfight gave them thrilling, messy, complicated roles that don't care about our approval.
"Women are taught to find words, and that is really, really important," says Oh. "I'm not saying girls should go out and punch each other. But something like boxing or fighting or a martial art is an extremely valuable thing for a woman to do because it's about expressing your inner life, your rage."
"I trusted Sandra enough to reveal the darker center of myself," says Heche, "and it horrified me. It worked so well that I was repulsed by myself."
Onstage at the film's first Q&A, Heche couldn't talk. She couldn't even look at Oh. "I honestly felt like I was standing in front of the audience naked." She flings her arms in the air. "That's what it is! Ding ding ding! I don't want to see it again. I won't see it again. No no no no thanks! I worked my whole career to reveal those things that others can't. That's why I do what I do. So I'm in celebration of that, but fuck no am I going to be sitting there watching them see it."
Tonight, Heche and Oh are going to introduce the film and then run out for safety. (And pizza.) But first, they have to decide what to wear.
Heche: "Are you wearing the black dress with the ruffles?"
Oh: "It's gorgeous, but it's too short."
Heche: "What about the long one?"
Oh: "It's too big around my waist."
Heche: "You put a belt around it! What about the pink one?"
Oh: "That pink one looks terrible. It's like a couch on me. Are you going to do a color?"
Heche: "I think I'm going to wear black."
Oh: "That might be good, if we're all black."
On cue as if she overheard their conversation, Heche's friend enters the restaurant with a box of big, sparkling jewelry for Oh to paw through. "She thinks she’s going to wear a black dress," says Heche to her friend. She turns back to Oh: "Chunky or dangle?"
Tonight’s outfits are nearly selected. "Women are a collection of everything we do together to support each other," Heche concludes. "This movie isn't going to make every movie have two lead females. It's the building block of all the things we do as artists, all the things we say yes to." From hideous roles to gorgeous earrings. And with their outfits for the day selected, Heche and Oh march into the sunshine to continue their fight for killer roles.