Editor’s note: In this feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great — in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.
Funny how a movie star — a real one, the kind with a face you can get lost in — can take over a film. I thought it might be fun to revisit, for this column, Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns,” that agreeable 1992 mashup of gothic darkness and comic-book goofiness. And then I rewatched it, and all things became clear: I was going to write, instead, about Michelle Pfeiffer.
Not that I don’t recommend “Batman Returns”; it’s good, stylish fun, punctuated by Danny DeVito’s Penguin squawks and wrapped in Danny Elfman’s deliciously slithery score. But Pfeiffer, as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, doesn’t just steal the movie — she owns it, moves into it, redecorates it and presides over an Architectural Digest photo shoot. It’s one of those performances that sears itself into your memory. Pfeiffer was, at the time, already a two-time Oscar nominee (for “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and “Dangerous Liaisons”), but we’d never seen her in anything like this before.
One of the great comic-book villains, Catwoman first turns up in the film as meek secretary Selina, nervously pouring coffee and trying not to go cross-eyed staring around the blond curl on her forehead. There’s rage in this woman, but it’s deeply hidden; it sneaks up on us, as early on the performance is quite comedic (watch how Selina, startled in the street, goes into a hilariously skittery little panic, like a cat). And then, still in the film’s early scenes, something terrible happens: Selina’s smoothly evil boss (a silver-fox Christopher Walken), worried about what she knows, shoves her from a high window. There she lies, a twisted, broken angel in the snow — until a herd of cats awaken her to her nightmare.
I’ll confess that from then on I watched “Batman Returns” just waiting for Pfeiffer to saunter in, wearing Selina’s retro-glam outfits (that sequined party dress, in which she dances with Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, is a stunner) or Catwoman’s black-rubber suit. It’s a dual role, or more precisely a triple one: Selina pre-fall, Selina/Catwoman and Catwoman, with each identity fitting inside the others. The scene in which she arrives home after the fall — slurping milk from the carton, spraying graffiti on her pink walls, sewing the Catwoman costume with madness glinting in her eyes — shows a new personality emerging, taking over Selina, and Elfman’s music underscores that there’s tragedy here.
For the rest of the movie, Pfeiffer lets us see Catwoman bubbling up in Selina, sometimes taking over her entirely; her voice drops down an oaky octave, and her movements become slinkier. Likewise, Selina bubbles up in Catwoman, in the physicality of the performance; she’s both graceful and slightly awkward, not quite knowing how to stand. “Meow,” she says at one point, both verbal sneer and not knowing what else to say, at once raging warrior and lost soul.
And she takes her place in a long list of fascinating women portrayed by Pfeiffer. Just a few: Her sad, exquisite Countess Olenska in “The Age of Innocence,” speaking in elegant little rivers of words (she gave this character a unique, wandering speech rhythm, appropriate for someone who spent much of her life far from home), drowning in love lost. Her tough-cookie Suzie Diamond in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” whose seen-it-all veneer only cracks when she sings, bringing freshness and vulnerability to standard lounge-act tunes. Her angelic Madame de Tourvel in “Dangerous Liaisons,” a deeply moral woman devastated by the consequences of unexpected passion; note how Pfeiffer seems to age before our eyes in this performance. Her troubled wife Claire Spencer in “What Lies Beneath,” and how she spends an entire scene paralyzed in a bathtub, acting only through those wide-open, terrified eyes. And, most recently, her forgotten woman in “Where is Kyra?,” a pinched, weary character desperately looking for work in a city that has little use for someone like her: not young, not wealthy.
In all of these, Pfeiffer takes her innate glamour — Pauline Kael once described her in The New Yorker as “paradisically beautiful” — and makes it part of the character; steeped within her like Ellen Olenska, or worn with disdain by Suzie. She has a face the camera adores, with headlamp eyes and cheekbones like softly cut diamonds, and she has that movie-star ability to make time stand still; some of her movie’s greatest moments are when she’s just quietly watching.
Pfeiffer never played Catwoman again after “Batman Returns” (though Halle Berry and Anne Hathaway did, to lesser effect), and her career has had some long stretches with little work; Hollywood, still, doesn’t know quite what to do with a grown-up woman. (Pfeiffer turns 63 this spring.) Recent years have seen a bit of a Pfeiffer renaissance, and she’ll soon be seen as not-quite-merry widow Frances Price in the comedy “French Exit” and as Betty Ford in the television series “The First Lady.”
But revisiting Catwoman reminded me of her magic. Funny thing: There’s a tiny final scene in “Batman Returns” in which we see Catwoman gazing at the Bat-signal; a scene belatedly added to the movie to promise fans that she would return. It’s not Pfeiffer — a body double shot the scene — and you can tell; something’s missing in the posture, something you can’t describe but that you know isn’t there. And that, I think, is the very definition of a movie star.