Can We Talk About?: The Whereabouts of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Oscar for “Batman Returns”

I don't know about you, Ms. Kitty, but I am pissed. Let's talk about it!

“Can We Talk About?” is a weekly series where we don’t acknowledge time because Mariah Carey said so. Get into it.

As you should be aware by now, noted legend/your fave’s fave/the cheekbones from which the world hangs, Michelle Pfeiffer, joined Instagram this week and did it in the most iconic way possible:

View this post on Instagram

MEOW Instagram.

A post shared by Michelle Pfeiffer (@michellepfeifferofficial) on

Me-ow indeed.

For many a queer boy and girl growing up, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns caused a deep stirring in your heart, your genitals, your root chakra, your Chaka Khan, wherever.

She is the best part of the best Batman movie (arguably tied with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight); she is sexy as hell; she is brilliantly campy; she is a queer icon; she is a feminist icon; she is crazy, but you know, in an attainable way; and she remains cinema’s only Catwoman.

While I unapologetically love me some Anne Hathaway—I served face with Catwoman, I blew shit up with Catwoman, Catwoman was a feline of mine. And Anne Hathaway is no Catwoman.

What makes Pfeiffer’s Catwoman so iconic is Pfeiffer. It’s a performance for the ages.

She goes from mild mannered, forever-put-upon secretary Selina Kyle—a victim of the cruelty and misogyny of her boss (Christoper Walken)—to a deranged but empowered vigilante with a loose grip on reality and a tight grip on a bullwhip.

The list of potential Catwomen considered for the role reads like a “YAS BITCH!” of Hollywood: Madonna, Cher, Demi Moore, Sigourney Weaver, Jodie Foster, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, and most infamously, Sean Young. Annette Bening—another actress routinely robbed of Oscar gold, but that’s an entire other post that I will be writing—originally snagged the role, but she had to drop out because she got pregnant. And so Pfeiffer, long a fan of the character, was more than happy to sink her claws into it.

While most of those actresses would’ve been great, or at least fine, as Catwoman, I cannot and would not want to imagine anyone but Michelle Pfeiffer licking Michael Keaton.

She plays Kyle’s alter ego with the gravitas of the esteemed, three-time Oscar-nominated actress she is, but infuses Catwoman with the mercurial grace of a seasoned comedian.

She speaks in a voice and style reminiscent of Mae West meets a drag queen around last call, delivering campy lines like, “Life’s a bitch now so am I!” with so much relish you want to smear it on a hot dog. It’s an enormosly complex character, one whose complexity even surprised Pfeiffer—she called it one of the most challenging roles she’s ever done—and when you know the circumstances under which La Pfeiffer delivered this tour de fierce, you’ll only love and respect her more.

First, let’s give mother props because she trained in kickboxing and whip play for months before shooting began so that she could perform all of her own stunts with that cat o’ one tail. In fact, she did her most famous stunt in one take.
 

Then, there’s the costume. That BDSM wet dream was a walking nightmare for the actress saddled with wearing it.

“It was the most uncomfortable costume I’ve ever been in,” Pfeffier told The Hollywood Reporter for the film’s 25th anniversary. “They had to powder me down, help me inside and then vacuum-pack the suit. They’d paint it with a silicon-based finish to give it its trademark shine. I had those claws, and I was always catching them in things. The face mask was smashing my face and choking me…we had a lot of bugs to work out.”

Pfeiffer also reportedly had trouble hearing her own voice, often shouting her dialogue so that director Tim Burton had to tell her to take it down a notch. But the actress was more than a team player—she was the goddamn MVP. Remember this scene:

That’s a live bird she held in her mouth. Look at me: THAT’S A LIVE BIRD IN HER FUCKING MOUTH.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed,” Burton told THR. “She had a live bird in her mouth while the camera was rolling. It was four or five seconds, and then she let it fly out. It was before CG, it was before digital. It was so quick, it seems like it was an effect.”

Burton and his team had tried using puppets but Pfeiffer thought they looked fake and opted for the real thing, adding: “I look back and say, ’What was I thinking? I could’ve gotten a disease or something from having a live bird in my mouth.’ It seemed fine at the time. I don’t think the bird was drugged or anything. We did that scene in one take.”

And yet, where was the Oscar? Hell, where was the Oscar nomination? Gay Hell, where was the Golden Globe nomination? I’m pretty sure I could walk into the background of a Geico commercial and get at least a “Hey, gurl” from the Hollywood Foreign Press.

Of course, back in those days, giving a superhero film any awards recognition outside of special effects or production/costume design was unheard of, even if none other than Academy fave Jack Nicholson starred in Burton’s first Batman. Heath Ledger would change all that when his universally praised take on The Joker landed him a posthumous Oscar for The Dark Knight, but is his Joker any more epic than Pfeiffer’s Catwoman?

I would argue Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the definitive cinematic supervillain because with her, nothing is as simple as black and white, good and evil. She may be a bad guy but she (occasionally) has good intentions. She’s a victim who fights for other victims. She’s a bad-ass with the sickest and sexiest costume ever. And she’s just a hell of a lot cooler than everyone else.

Catwoman proved so popular, in fact, that after test screenings, Burton added this final shot in post-production with a stand-in for an unavailable Pfeiffer, leaving the door wide open for a movie of her own.

Sadly, Pfeiffer never returned. But one possible spin-off had an amnesiac, bullet-riddled Selina Kyle checking into a resort spa run by nefarious superheroes. Sure it sounds like a stretch, but is Halle Berry’s Catwoman with a diamond-skinned Sharon Stone any better?

Didn’t think so.

Previously: Can We Talk About?: The Only Version of “Do What U Want” That Matters

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat