Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

If two Jokers can win an Oscar, why no Catwomen?

From left: Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises (Screenshot) and Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns (Screenshot)
From left: Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises (Screenshot) and Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns (Screenshot)

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The Academy Awards are Sunday, so we’re looking back on times when an actor was nominated for the wrong film—and on the performances they should have been nominated for the same year.

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Batman Returns (1992) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Pain, frustration, sadness, vulnerability—these are the quickest routes to an Oscar nomination for an actress. Look like you’re having fun and it probably won’t happen, because heaven forbid that a woman presents herself with independence and authority, turning up her nose at the patriarchy and forging her own destiny without suffering for it.

Just ask Michelle Pfeiffer and Anne Hathaway. Both did devilish, delightful work playing the same character, the devious Catwoman, in two Batman films from two decades apart, Batman Returns and The Dark Knight Rises. And both found themselves nominated for lesser, more woeful performances. Pfeiffer was up for Best Actress for basically playing what a Mad TV sketch once referred to as a “Nice White Lady” role—a woman who befriends a Black man and his child in the ’60s—in the forgettable Love Field. Hathaway, meanwhile, won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of doomed prostitute Fantine in Tom Hooper’s draining adaptation of Les Misérables.

Both Oscar-honored turns reduce their nominated stars to lost, helpless ladies. It’s in the Batman movies, released the same years (1992 and 2012, respectively), that they figuratively and literally break free. Slipping into jet-black, skin-tight bodysuits, Pfeiffer and Hathaway go wild playing crafty, surprisingly acrobatic anti-heroines who take glee in outwitting (and often taking down) their male counterparts.

For Returns, director Tim Burton doesn’t even bother sticking with the canonical origin story of how Pfieffer’s Selina Kyle becomes the slinky, seductive cat burglar. Here, she’s a meek secretary who gets thrown out of a building by her corrupt boss (Christopher Walken, giving zero fucks), somehow gets resuscitated by stray cats, and wreaks havoc around Gotham as the reborn Catwoman. Christopher Nolan, on the other hand, decided to be faithful to the comic-book backstory in Rises, presenting Hathaway’s Kyle as a lethal, eye-rolling thief who ultimately becomes one of the many players involved in saving Gotham from an atomic blast.

Pfeiffer and Hathaway have their own distinctive approaches to playing Selena Kyle. After spending a few scenes as a weak, neurotic single gal/cat lady, Pfeiffer goes full-tilt mad-as-hell when the cats bring her back to life, trashing her apartment, sewing an outfit out of a latex raincoat, and going HAM on any dude who dares cross her. While there isn’t a major transformation from timid to ferocious for Hathaway, she does show how Kyle can be one manipulative maestra, shifting from sweet to sinister with just a mild expression change. Both actors find sympathetic souls underneath the BDSM armor. Effectively, they’re playing fed-up women who decide to take what they want and what they think they deserve, be that valuables or a new sense of agency.

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Returns and Rises are watchable messes. (They’re better, certainly, than the actual Catwoman movie, starring Halle Berry—and that’s about all that should be said about that.) The two Kyles are initially presented as reckonings for corporate greed and upper-class entitlement, until the filmmakers remember they’re making popcorn entertainment and start burying those aspects under a pile of chaotic thrills in the second halves. Both films also somewhat clumsily shoehorn Catwoman into the plot, briefly making her an accomplice to the Big Bad (Danny DeVito’s Penguin in Returns, Tom Hardy’s Bane in Rises) before each Catwoman ultimately recognizes a kindred spirit in the Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton in Returns, Christian Bale in Rises). You have to wonder what a female screenwriter might have brought to the character. Nevertheless, both Pfeiffer and Hathaway obviously relish playing the sort of slippery femme fatale that inspired the Catwoman character in the first place. Their joy is easy to appreciate, even if the Academy didn’t.

Availability: Batman Begins is currently streaming on HBO Max, and can be rented or purchased digitally from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Fandango Now, Redbox, DirecTV, and VUDU. The Dark Knight Rises is available to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, Fandango Now, Redbox, AMC On Demand, DirecTV, and VUDU.

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