Today in film history, July 23, 2004, Warner Bros released its reimagined version of “Catwoman,” starring Halle Berry, in what we could say were her prime years, still glowing from her historic Oscar win (Best Actress) 2 years prior, for “Monster’s Ball.”
Though I try to, I haven’t been able to forget that travesty of a movie, which one could argue Berry still has yet to recover from, at least in terms of her career; what may not be widely-known is that the film was originally to star Ashley Judd, but she bailed – likely when she saw how bad the script was.
But I’m not going to talk about Halle Berry’s Catwoman in this post – a $100 million film that grossed just $40 million domestic (it’s currently streaming on Netflix for those interested). Instead, I’m going to talk about perhaps the most memorable Catwoman performance: Eartha Kitt, who played Catwoman several times during the final season of the “Batman” TV show, from 1967-68.
Kitt replaced 1960’s sex bomb, Julie Newmar, who played the role during the first two seasons of the show, but decided not to continue.
Needless to say, when Kitt was cast in the role, it was a big deal. I mean a HUGE deal. It got a lot of publicity, and there was much anticipation for what she would do with the role.
First of all, there weren’t exactly many black actresses on TV back then who had regular TV series roles; Diahann Carroll and her NBC show “Julia,” which premiered in the fall of 1968, was the exception. During those years, you’d see a black actress in an occasional guest role here and there, but having a black woman playing Catwoman, and, no less than Eartha Kitt, was a major event.
And being the great performer that she was, Kitt made the role uniquely hers, with her own special charisma. Yes, you can say her performance was over-the-top and campy, but that was in keeping with the show’s style and so it was on point. This wasn’t some dark, brooding, tortured, angst-ridden Batman like the one in Christopher Nolan’s films. The series was conceived as a campy comedy with broad, oversized performances, and Kitt went dove into it with everything she had.
Unfortunately for the actress, it was a short-lived triumph. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, the Batman TV series ended its run in spring of 1968. But to make matters worse, Kitt’s career was set back when she got caught up in a political controversy. That same year, she was invited to a luncheon at the White House and used the opportunity to openly criticize then President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War policy, and practically overnight, became persona non grata in the business, and was spied on for years by the FBI under orders of the paranoid J. Edgar Hoover. It took Kitt years to recover from that.
Now, of course, there’ve been other actresses who played Catwoman on screen; Michelle Pfeiffer in “Batman Returns,” and former Miss America winner Lee Meriwether, who played the role in the 1966 film version of the ABC TV series. And most recently, Anne Hathaway played the character in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
But Eartha Kitt still is the best actress ever to take on the role, as far as I’m concerned.
You can check out Kitt’s performance, or revisit it in the original “Batman” TV series thanks to Warner Home Video who released all the seasons of the show (all 120 episodes) broadcast on ABC, from January 1966 to March 1968, on Blu-Ray. It’s available for sale on Amazon if you’d like to order.
The show was an absolute phenomenon at the time. The entire country went “Batman” crazy. However the frenzy didn’t last long, and by late 1967, its popularity began to fade, as the quality of the show began to diminish. But despite its rapid rise and fall, the show has always had its hardcore devotees.
Now you ca see the definitive Catwoman in her digitally remastered, sparkling, crystal clear glory. You can also stream the Halle Berry film on Netflix if you’d like to do that as well.