Michelle Pfeiffer, Batman Returns

Friday, January 13, 2006

David Denby

“….Batman Returns will be most famous (at least around my house, where she's very famous indeed) for the acting of Michelle Pfeiffer. She is the truly spectacular element in this most spectacular of Pop films. When we first see Pfeiffer, she's Selina Kyla, a disheveled, terrified secretary, slave to Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), the vicious financier who rules Gotham City. Vague and disorganized as she is, Selina is a threat to him--she asks questions--and he pushes her out a window. She falls and falls, all the way down the side of Shreck's dark, menacing tower, and lands on the pavement, where alley cats revive her, biting on her fingers. This girl has more than one life. Maybe nine.

"If Pfeiffer has any vanity as a woman or a performer, it doesn't come through. Even though she's one of the most beautiful women ever to become a movie star, we don't see her catching the light in the glamorous hollows of her face, like Dietrich or Crawford, swanning in the style of a naughty, old-time Hollywood glamour queen. That kind of acting can be fun, but Pfeiffer is after something else, characterization, and she just gives herself to whatever she's doing. As the frumpy and exhausted secretary, she's got the nag's broken gait she first developed in Frankie & Johnny and something new as well, a way of muttering to herself in disgust that suggests long bouts of loneliness.

"And when Selina is reborn as Catwoman, Pfeiffer explodes, tearing Selina's apartment to pieces with a sustained fury I hadn't known she was capable of. In her new glistening-black skin--the curve of her rump is as shiny as a motorbike's sleek fender--she flicks her whip at anything that catches her interest; she's fast and lithe, a sort of etherealized dominatrix. Catwoman enters a scene by doing a series of rapid forward flips and says "Meow" with just enough weary contempt to suggest that this feline is not unacquainted with irony. A double did the flips, but only a great actress could have meowed like that. Pfeiffer makes fun of sexiness without becoming any less sexy.

"She turns her voice into a small groan of erotic longing. She might tear you apart--if only she weren't always tearing herself apart. Just like Selina, who meets Bruce Wayne and can't quite connect with him, Catwoman can't find fulfillment. She's excited by Batman (her perfect mate in so many ways) but also fights with him--their scenes together are a cross between sexual comedy and sexual torment. They finally join forces to fight the powers of evil, but they cannot join with each other. Like Bruce Wayne, Catwoman is split off from herself, two halves that can't come together or find satisfaction. This cat will never howl with pleasure.

"This is a great idea for a character, but what does it mean? We don't really know; we don't really know what anything in the two Batman films means, and that's why I admire them but can't stand up and cheer for them…."

David Denby, New York, date ?

Terrence Rafferty

"....And whenever the "weird menace to all crime" (as the hero is described in one of the early comics) ventures out on a mission, he runs into a mysterious woman who dresses like a cat and carries a whip. He can't tell whose side the new animal in town is really on. The audience knows, however, that the Catwoman is really Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), the jittery, put-upon secretary of Max Shreck, who treats her like dirt and then literally pushes her too far. She reinvents herself as a feline feminist avenger, taking to the streets and the rooftops in a skintight black cat suit (which she's stitched from the shiny material of a rain slicker), and gleefully humiliating bad men wherever she finds them--that is, everywhere. At one point, she accounts for herself with the tersely eloquent formulation "Life's a bitch; now so am I." She is, of course, the perfect feminine counterpart of the hero, whose costumed forays into the night are also fuelled by an obsessive desire for vengeance. In their daytime drag, as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, they seem to recognize something in each other; in their bat and cat getups, the sparks really fly. This hilariously twisted relationship--an apache dance in animal costumes--isn't just an improvement on the hero's romance with deadly-dull Vicki Vale in the first picture; it's the glory of "Batman Returns," the source of the movie's best gags and most striking visual ideas. There's a lot of high-powered talent in "Batman Returns," but Pfeiffer dominates the movie. The cat clothes seem to release something strange and wild in her, as they do in Selina Kyle: this performance is ferociously sexy and uninhibitedly, over-the-top funny.

Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker, June 29, 1992

Pauline Kael

Hal Espen: What do you think of Michelle Pfeiffer?

Pauline Kael: It may be because she has such a great camera face that she hasn't got her full due as an actress. She seems the most American of the women stars, but she has surprising range. You see her opposite Sean Connery in "The Russia House" and you accept her as Russian without fuss or doubts. I accepted her as Catwoman. She was lovably nasty.

"Kael Talks", interview in the New Yorker, March 21, 1994

David Ansen

"....But another not-entirely-human figure stands in Batman's way--Michelle Pfeiffer's sinuously sexy Catwoman....

"....There are enough car crashes, shoot-outs and explosions to keep the kids happy, but what really seems to inspire Burton, even more than DeVito's flamboyant villainy and a huge supporting cast of real and artificial penguins, is the slinkily ambiguous Catwoman, Batman's foe, flame and alter ego.

"Burton's theme in "Batman Returns" is the masks people wear to hide their divided hearts.... Burton's given this borderline schizoid [Batman] an equally unsettled love interest: Catwoman also has a double life. Formerly Max Shreck's gawky, lonely secretary, Selina Kyle... [she] emerges from near death as the whip-cracking, man-hating avenger Catwoman. Waters's script never makes the rules of Selina's back-and-forth switches into Catwoman clear [wasn't it a one-way switch into Catwoman?], but what twisted, dirty fun Pfeiffer has with this role!... Burton invests his troubling love story with a surprising emotional punch. They're doomed lovers for the age of alienation, turned on by each other's kinkiness...."

David Ansen, Newsweek, June 22, 1992