25 days of cats

Cat Performances, Ranked

Not a cat from Cats. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Warner Bros.

“A cat,” as Judi Dench reminds us in Cats, “is not a dog.” So while the history of movies is filled with dog performers — there’s even an award at Cannes given out for canine actors — it’s often harder to find cats acting onscreen, given their unruliness, independence, and, well, small brains. (There are no actual cats in Cats, however, so maybe they’re smarter than we realize.) This also makes it that much more impressive when we do see cats onscreen — real cats, not CGI or animatronic ones — giving compelling performances. Admittedly, it often takes a multitude of cat actors to make one truly great movie cat, but still, it’s a joy to behold when it all comes together. Here they are, the 24 greatest cat performances of all time.

24. Unnamed Sphynx, Gloria Bell (2019)

It’s not a showy part, but the hairless sphynx that keeps showing up in an apartment belonging to the lovelorn title character in this moody little drama, eventually effectively adopting her (instead of the other way around), is one impressively transformative creature, somehow going from mild narrative annoyance to adorable companion over the course of the film. Bonus points go to this movie for not depicting a hairless cat as some sort of weirdo or creepy conduit to the paranormal.

23. The Black Cat, Two Evil Eyes (1990)

This horror movie co-directed by George A. Romero and Dario Argento puts new spins on two Edgar Allan Poe tales, the second of them being an excellent variation on the much-filmed “The Black Cat.” In it, Harvey Keitel plays a sadistic, beret-wearing crime scene photographer who has it in for the stray cat his girlfriend has taken in. The black cat is appropriately unnerving in its glares, and does an excellent job of hissing and carving its way out of holes. There are also two insanely gruesome animatronic hairless man-eating mutant kittens that show up at the end, but the less said about them the better.

22. Rajah, Portrait in Black (1960)

Few movies have captured the judgmental stare of a cat as effectively as this adulterous thriller, in which Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn murder her husband, whose loyal Siamese cat becomes a kind of silent witness to their crime — and also gets one truly gnarly cat-jump-scare.

21. Milo, The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1989)

This is a tough one, for a number of reasons. For starters, Milo and Otis originated as a longer, darker Japanese film called Koneko Monogatari: The Adventures of Chatran (which was a massive box-office hit in its home country in 1986) and was recut extensively for its U.S. release to make it both family-friendly and to enhance the role of the dog in the story. But most importantly, serious allegations of animal cruelty have hounded the production for decades, including reports of 20 kittens being killed. None of these have ever been substantiated, but it’s hard not to watch either version of the film, which includes animals in remarkably dangerous situations, and not suspect that something was amiss. That said, the animal actors in the film do incredible work, even in mundane situations. But once you know the backstory, it’s hard to enjoy any of it.

Once you know the backstory, it’s hard to enjoy The Adventures of Milo and Otis. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

20. Thackery Binx, Hocus Pocus (1993)

To be fair, some of Thackery Binx’s performance involves computer-animated mouth movements, since he speaks human words. (In the movie, he’s actually a brave 17th-century teen who has been transformed into an immortal cat by the film’s central trio of vengeful witches.) But there are lots of terrific real-life cat stunts being accomplished by this feline, who not only serves as a source of plot exposition but also heroically saves the day during the climactic standoff of this family cult classic.

We all watch Hocus Pocus for the cat stunts. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

19. Mr. Bigglesworth, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

The bumbling Dr. Evil’s contemptuous (one might even say “catty”) and menacing pet Mr. Bigglesworth is actually two different cats of different breeds, in a quaint but somewhat humiliating sleight of hand pulled by this hit Mike Myers-Jay Roach James Bond spoof. In the movie’s prologue, Bigglesworth is a fluffy white Persian, a clear nod to the menacing creature kept by Bond’s classic nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. But after he winds up in a cryogenic chamber for decades alongside his master, Bigglesworth loses all his hair and becomes a sphynx cat (played by a feline performer named Ted Nude-gent).

Ted Nude-gent, the star of Austin Powers. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

18. Tullia, Eye of the Cat (1969)

This out-of-control, so-bad-it’s-good horror film — about a couple of nephews and a beautician trying to kill a rich old cat lady — is positively drowning in cats, and they play a key role in the movie’s climax as well. But chief among the feline actors is an orange tabby (played by a cat named Scarface) who seems to get electrocuted early on but eventually comes back, judgmental and vengeful. As is standard practice, a number of stand-ins were used for some of the tabby’s specific tasks — in case Scarface was “not in the mood or too upset for one reason or another to act to his full capabilities,” according to his trainer.

17. General, Cat’s Eye (1985)

This Stephen King-scripted thriller is made up of three distinct stories, with a sprightly little tabby named General providing the framing device and connecting the three tales, even though he really only takes center-stage in the third. That one involves him trying to keep a young Drew Barrymore safe from a malevolent troll at night, even as her parents keep trying to get rid of the cat. It’s a ridiculous concept, but it’s surprisingly unsettling, in part because the cats playing General (there were apparently twelve) are so damn good. Hissing and pawing and leaping and battling, General really sells the urgency and terror of having to contend with this supernatural nightly visitor. Don’t miss the part where General keeps adjusting the settings on a turntable after the troll lands on it, thereby using it to launch the creepy creature to its gruesome death.

16. D.C., That Darn Cat (1997)

This Disney remake of the studio’s beloved 1965 hit, about a cat named D.C. who helps his young owner and an FBI agent locate a kidnapping victim, isn’t very good. It tries a little too hard to be wild and chaotic, giving it an oddly insistent tone — and even worse, it mostly sidelines the cat, who should be the star of the picture! D.C. (played by a cat named Elvis, previously seen in the Sylvester Stallone vehicle The Specialist) is still the best thing about the movie, however: He moves through each of his scenes with precision and regal grace, and you really do buy his antics, only some of which can match the dazzling accomplishment of the 1965 original.

15. Church, Pet Sematary (2019)

The role of the Creed family cat Church in these adaptations of Stephen King’s scariest and most depressing novel is always a challenge for feline performers, since they have to go from loving domestic to evil zombie over the course of the film. For this year’s remake, five different cats — all extensively trained — were utilized, each with a different specialty. That said, the bulk of the screen time was shared between two Maine coon crossbreeds Leo and Tonic, the former of which graced most of the film’s posters (and, tragically, died not long after the film came out).

Either Leo or Tonic, in Pet Sematary. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio/© 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

14. Sassy, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993) and Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco (1996)

A remake and an update of The Incredible Journey, the beloved 1963 film about a trio of house pets making their way across the Canadian wilderness, the first Homeward Bound gives the creatures human voices and a bit more of an attitude — the cat this time around is a wiseass Himalayan named Sassy voiced by Sally Field. It’s still one of the great animal parts, however, involving everything from sneaking away with food to opening doors to surviving raging torrents. Not to mention occasionally having to just stand and look in such a way as to make the (rather dorky) dialogue even somewhat plausible. Tiki, the real-life cat who performed the role, went on to a lucrative career in television on Caroline in the City. Tiki did not return for the sequel, which still has some pretty impressive animal stunts but is also bogged down by way too much human dialogue given to the animals, not to mention a lost-in-the-city narrative that feels a little tired. (The most notable thing about Homeward Bound II is that it was the directorial debut of the late David R. Ellis, future visionary schlockteur of Snakes on a Plane and the first two Final Destination flicks.

13. Church, Pet Sematary (1989)

The first film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel was a big hit, but it’s still got the problem of some pretty stiff human leads. Luckily, they’re more than made up for by Church (short for “Winston Churchill”), the initially lovable (and loving) gray British shorthair who is run over by a truck early on but is then brought back from the dead in terrifying fashion. Hissing, scratching, screeching, and just generally staring motherfuckers down, the zombie Church is a thing of beauty — even when the protagonist has to inject him full of poison. (“Go on, lie down. Play dead. BE DEAD!” People were actually paid to write this dialogue.)

12. Jake, The Cat from Outer Space (1978)

This film was likely inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and I’m not sure it didn’t in turn inspire E.T. The Extra Terrestrial — though it’s nowhere near as good as either of those. Another Disney heroic animal extravaganza, this one opens with a flying saucer that has made an emergency landing on Earth; out strolls an Abyssinian cat named Jake with a propensity for telekinesis and a glowing, all-powerful collar. The military tries to figure out what kind of grisly alien is responsible for this ship (“While you and I are talking this very minute, some slimy green-headed, 12-legged creep could be crawling into the White House!”) while the seemingly unassuming Jake enlists the aid of a bumbling but kindly scientist to help him repair his ship. Much of the acting here is done by the voice of Ronnie Schell (Jake can communicate with humans using his mind) but the cats playing the title creature — there were reportedly two of them — are really good at staring at the camera in such a way as to perfectly sell all that goofy dialogue.

11. Keanu, Keanu (2016)

Keanu, the kitten in Keanu, is actually given multiple names over the course of the film — each a reflection of the cat’s current owner’s personality — and was played by nine different tabbies, which probably just adds to the fragmentation of identity that I’m secretly convinced is the subtext of this otherwise goofy crime comedy starring Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key. Everyone, including some of the world’s toughest gangsters, falls so in love with this li’l thing that they’re willing to maim and murder in an effort to get her back, making her into a kind of furry vessel of self-actualization. Meanwhile, the cat has to, first of all, look ridiculously cute (which, duh, it does) and second, navigate its way through a twisty-turny plot organically and convincingly. If it sometimes looks a tad fake, or coerced, however, that just adds to the offhand charm of the film.

One of the nine cats who played Keanu in Keanu. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

10. Cat, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Look, even those of us who think this classic romance is actually kind of reprehensible love the tabby in it, the “no name slob” whose calm and tender devotion to Audrey Hepburn is one of the film’s most compelling features. And Orangey, the cat who played “Cat,” was kind of a legend in his time, winning awards left and right and appearing in everything from The Incredible Shrinking Man to the TV shows Batman and Mission: Impossible. Apparently, Orangey was a real jerk, too, so that really does appear to be acting he’s doing onscreen, where he seems genuinely affectionate.

Orangey in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

9. Mr. Jinx, Meet the Parents (2000)

The Byrne family cat, a luxurious Himalayan that former CIA tough-guy Jack (Robert De Niro) dotes on, not only sets much of the plot of this hit comedy in motion, he’s also the central figure in the film’s climax, which seems like a lot to ask a feline actor to do, timing-wise. Jinx was played by two different cats named Mishka and Bailey, and De Niro was reportedly so taken with them that he asked that the cat character be incorporated into more scenes.

Mishka or Bailey in Meet the Parents. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

8. Ulysses, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Wait — or is it Ulysses? There are actually two cat characters in Inside Llewyn Davis, and we’re not entirely sure exactly when the switchover happens. Much of the film’s central journey is built on the premise that Oscar Isaac’s embittered, desperate folkie protagonist thinks he’s saved middle-class house cat Ulysses — when in fact he’s actually saved a nameless street cat, a twist that mirrors the idea that Llewyn himself is destined to be a nobody. That’s a touching, and bracing plot development, and much of its power comes from the fact that we feel so much for the cat — both cats, in fact. In many ways, we can sympathize with them more than we can sympathize with Llewyn himself, whose abrasiveness seems to get in the way of his forming anything resembling a lasting relationship. The felines help humanize him.

Ulysses — is it? — in Inside Llewyn Davis. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio/AP

7. Jonesy, Alien (1979)

A convenient plot device as well as the only other survivor of the first Alien alongside Sigourney Weaver, the spaceship Nostromo’s ginger tomcat Jones is one of the most effective elements in Ridley Scott’s original classic. He does get a couple of minor jump scares, but he’s more unsettling as a silent witness: The scene where he first inadvertently leads Harry Dean Stanton to his gruesome death, and then quietly watches while the Xeonomorph consumes the man is one of the greatest bits of kitty acting ever. Jonesy admittedly plays a minor part in James Cameron’s sequel — letting out a terrifying hiss during one of Sigourney Weaver’s nightmares early on in the film — but it’s still notable and genuinely horrific.

The notable and genuinely horrific cat in Alien. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

6. Pyewacket, Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)

Turns out Vertigo is only the second strangest movie featuring Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart falling hopelessly in love. In this Christmastime romance, she’s a lonely witch, he’s a soon-to-be-wed publisher who lives upstairs. She works a spell on him – mainly with the help of her eerily lovable Siamese, Pyewacket, who can stare down a man like no other – and soon enough, he’s smitten. Pyewacket is called on to do more than just sit still and look mesmerizingly into Jimmy Stewart’s eyes. Perching on Kim Novak’s shoulder, leaping onto mysterious artifacts, running across car-filled streets, the cat winds up being one of the film’s central characters.

Pyewacket in Bell, Book, and Candle. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

5. Jersey, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

One of the most moving elements in Marielle Heller’s lovely drama about infamous forger Lee Israel is the bond that the introverted Israel shares with her tuxedo cat, Jersey. Indeed, the cat’s illness is one of the reasons Israel feels the urgent need to make some money, even if it’s through nefarious means. And certainly the film’s most devastating scene comes when Jersey, neglected by Lee’s housesitter Jack (Richard E. Grant), winds up dead. That’s quite a bit of trajectory for a cat, but Towne, the cat playing Jersey, sells every note of the subplot – even going so far as to sneeze in his big scene at the vet. The performance even helped prompt a New York Times story about whether animals are getting better at acting, as well as a mini-Oscar campaign.

4. Teo, The Incredible Journey (1963)

In Walt Disney’s lovely 1963 film of Sheila Burnford’s children’s classic, two dogs and a cat make their way across hundreds of miles of Canadian wilderness in an attempt to return to their original home. The movie is filled with breathtaking scenery and stunning animal stunts. Each of the three creatures is called on to do quite a bit, but it’s confounding how much the filmmakers were able to get the cat, an affectionate Siamese (played by one of the creatures used for the title role in That Darn Cat!), to do — from catching salmon, to facing off against a bear, to being chased by a lynx, to nearly drowning in a raging river after attempting to leap over a waterfall. It even opens the latch on a barn door. Remember, this is all before anything resembling modern special effects. That’s a real cat doing real cat things.

3. Rhubarb, Rhubarb (1951)

Orangey, the cat who made such an impression in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, originally got his start in this pretty kind of amazing adventure about a feral cat who is adopted by an eccentric millionaire, who then bequeaths his entire fortune to the animal, which includes his struggling Brooklyn baseball team. (Conveniently, the man makes Ray Milland the cat’s caretaker, so there’s a human protagonist as well.) This is simultaneously a rags-to-riches tale, an underdog sports story, a romance, a kidnapping thriller, a courtroom drama, and a few other sub-genres rolled into one. And it’s got some of the most amazing feats of cat-acting anyone has ever seen.

2. Tonto, Harry and Tonto (1974)

In Paul Mazursky’s heartbreaking “serious comedy,” aging New Yorker Art Carney, who likes to walk his beloved ginger tabby around the city on a leash, loses his apartment and heads out to find a new place to live, eventually winding up on a picaresque road trip going out West. (He refuses to put his cat through the X-ray machine at the airport.) The rapport between Harry and Tonto is a beautiful little ecosystem all its own, reportedly achieved by putting bits of liver all around Carney, though the actor would later claim that he and the cats (there were two used for Tonto) became so close that eventually no additional inducements were needed. It’s one of the all-time great cat roles, in one of the all-time great cat movies. Carney won an Oscar for the part, and Tonto won the PATSY (Performing Animal Top Star of the Year), beating out Benji the dog!

Harry and Tonto in Harry and Tonto. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

1. D.C., That Darn Cat! (1965)

This 1965 Disney classic features some of the most impressive cat acting you’ll ever see. The story follows a curious and crafty Siamese named D.C. who, eager to get at a piece of salmon, winds up wandering into a house where two bank robbers are keeping hostage the teller they kidnapped during their crime. The teller secretly gives D.C. her watch, and the cat dutifully takes it to Hayley Mills, the girl who serves as his erstwhile owner, who in turn enlists the services of an allergic-to-cats FBI agent played by Dean Jones (who’d go on to become a Disney regular). The story is fun but what makes the movie are D.C.’s many impressive antics, such as evading dogs to get at their food and, at one point, sneaking into a house, hopping on a stool, opening up a wall-mounted ironing board, and then using that to carefully leap into the air to snatch a raw duck hanging from the ceiling. “Clark Gable at the peak of his performing never played a tom cat more winningly,” wrote the New York Times.

The winner: that darn cat! Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

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