The Catwoman: Batman's Sexiest Adversary and Femme Fatale
Deadliest of the Species
Batman had a large rogue’s gallery of villains since his debut in 1939 that continually returned to menace him. The Joker, the Riddler, Ra’s al Ghul and the Penguin were among the most famous and dangerous. One villain in particular stood out from the others, however: Selina Kyle, also known as the Catwoman. Catwoman was as cunning and malevolent as any of Batman’s enemies, but she was also a beautiful, alluring woman with a soft spot in her heart for the Caped Crusader.
The Catwoman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for DC Comics and was said to be inspired by both 1930’s actress Jean Harlow and Ruth Steel, Kane’s second cousin by marriage. She first appeared in Batman comics #1 in 1940 as the Cat. This femme fatale was originally created both to provide a romantic interest for Batman and to appeal to female readers.
Catwoman in Batman and Detective Comics. The origin and details of Catwoman’s career in comics are convoluted, as might be expected with a character encompassing 70 years of comics’ history. Her first appearance depicted her as a burglar and jewel thief without superhuman powers. She turned to crime after a blow to the head gave her amnesia and altered her personality. It was later suggested her amnesia was a ruse to allow for an escape from her life of crime. The Catwoman did reform for several years, actually aiding Batman in several criminal cases before eventually resuming her criminal career. Post-Silver age appearances cast Catwoman as a prostitute, and various details are provided to account for her athletic prowess and talents as a burglar.
Catwoman in her own comic. The Catwoman was granted a title of her own following the success of Batman Returns in 1992, and her storyline became more detailed and complicated. She was an international thief, government operative and bounty hunter who adopted a teenaged runaway and turned her into a sidekick of sorts. In subsequent issues, her mind was wiped clean by the magical heroine Zatanna and she temporarily reformed. Years later she gave birth to a daughter and it was implied the child’s father might be Batman. No matter the era or interpretation of her character, Catwoman’s longing for Batman remained a recurring theme.
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Catwoman in the 60's
Catwoman on the big (and small) screen
Catwoman in television and movies. The Catwoman appeared as a regular villainess in the Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, as well as the 1966 full-length motion picture based upon the series. Three women portrayed Catwoman for these productions. A fourth played Catwoman in the pilot episode of the television series Bird of Prey, while three other actresses claimed the role in Hollywood films.
Julie Newmar (Batman television series 1966 and 1967). In the 1960’s Batman television show, Catwoman appeared nine times. For six episodes she was portrayed by Julie Newmar. The beautiful Ms. Newmar was a statuesque dancer and choreographer who brought not only a lithe grace to the role, but a subtle sense of humor appropriate for the series. She had an on-screen chemistry with Adam West that suggested a genuine attraction between Batman and his deadly female adversary.
Lee Meriwether (Batman 1966). A movie based on the television series premiered in October 1966, with Lee Meriwether cast as Catwoman. (Julie Newmar was scheduled to appear in this movie but was unavailable.) Meriweather was a former beauty queen and added a unique charm to her role, forsaking Newmar’s overt sexuality for a slightly more vulnerable portrayal. Meriwether’s beauty and acting abilities made her a fitting successor to Newmar’s Catwoman.
Eartha Kitt (Batman television series 1967 and 1968). Eartha Kitt donned the cat suit on three occasions during the third season of Batman while Ms. Newmar was filming Mackenna’s Gold. What Kitt lacked in Batman-style charm or comedic instincts, she more than made up for with her fiendish depiction of Catwoman. Eartha Kitt’s voice was rich and sinister, and her presence radiated evil cunning.
Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns 1992). Twenty five years after the Batman television series, Michelle Pfeiffer portrayed Catwoman in the feature film Batman Returns. This was the first indication that Catwoman possessed super-powers (she had nine lives). Michelle Pfeiffer was gorgeous in the oddly-stitched cat suit, but she seemed miscast in the role, projecting far too little sexuality, physical presence or menace.
Maggie Baird (Birds of Prey 2002). Maggie Baird played Catwoman in flashbacks depicting her death in the pilot episode of Birds of Prey. This television series featured Selina Kyle’s daughter Helena as the Huntress.
Halle Berry (Catwoman 2004). The Catwoman feature film was only loosely based on the DC Comics character and the movie was a failure, despite Halle Berry’s extreme beauty. In this movie Catwoman is a heroine with cat-like abilities granted her by the Egyptian cat-goddess Bastet. Her revealing costume couldn’t compensate for an insipid plot involving the sale of dangerous cosmetics.
Anne Hathaway (Catwoman 2012). Anne Hathaway most recently portrayed the Catwoman in the third installment of Christopher Nolan's trilogy, "The Dark Knight Rises". Hathaway performed exceptionally well in the role, aided by a quality script that emphasized the complexity of the character. Neither truly good or evil, Hathaway found the middle ground that allowed the audience to like her, despite her sometimes treacherous actions.
Catwoman--the later years
Rating the actresses portraying Catwoman
With so many fine performers having played the role, the inevitable question of which actress offered the best portrayal of Catwoman must be raised. There is no objective standard for rating their respective performances, so I will offer instead my personal opinion. My rankings, from best to worst, follow.
1. Julie Newmar. Of the seven actresses to portray the Catwoman, Newmar’s performance was the most outstanding. She exhibited a feline grace that seemed unforced, and (with the exception of Halle Berry) her beauty rivaled that of the other actresses to play the role. The droll wit she added to the character elevated her performance to the top of the list.
2. Anne Hathaway. Hathaway combined beauty, grace and cunning to make her portrayal of Catwoman second only to Newmar's. She gave the role substance and depth, which had never been accomplished previously. The moral ambiguity she demonstrated in "the Dark Knight Rises" could have made Catwoman difficult to like, but Hathaway added charm and vulnerability to the role and made it possible to sympathize with and even like Ms. Selena Kyle.
3. Eartha Kitt. The only woman to make the Catwoman seem truly evil, Kitt’s melodious voice added a sinister quality to her performance. Kitt had the requisite beauty and grace to make a believable Catwoman, and she made the character her own in the third season of Batman.
4. Lee Meriwether. Meriwether gave a credible performance in the 1966 Batman movie, but offered nothing new to the character. Her Catwoman seemed simply a watered-down version of Julie Newmar’s. The strength of her performance rested in her scenes as Miss Kitka, the Russian reporter for the Moscow Bugle.
5. Halle Berry. This gorgeous and talented actress might have done more with better material, but Berry’s performance was doomed by a poor script and a foolish (if sexy) costume. Her efforts to appear cat-like were lost in an abundance of cleavage.
6. Michelle Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer seemed miscast in the role of Catwoman. She seemed frail onscreen and lacked presence—her reserved performance as Selina Kyle was equally drab. Batman could never fall for this villainess.
7. Maggie Baird. Her limited appearance in Birds of Prey doomed her to the lowest ranking in my personal poll.
Until someone new comes along with exceptional talent, grace and panache, Julie Newmar will always be Catwoman to me. If I was Batman and this gorgeous woman proposed marriage to me, I would have accepted without hesitation—even if she did suggest killing Robin to get him out of the house.
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Cast your vote!
Which actress best portrayed the Catwoman in television and film?
Note: I can't add Anne Hathaway to this poll without losing the votes that have already been cast. If you felt Ms. Hathaway's portrayal of the Catwoman was the best you've seen, leave me a comment and I will periodically update votes here. Thanks for understanding.