Every few weeks for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from Vulture contributor Muna Mire, who will begin our screening of Catwoman on May 28 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch their live commentary.
Not only do Black people have to work twice as hard to get half as far, they also can’t fuck it up when they get there. Simply put, you cannot flop. It’s not an option. British actor David Oyelowo summed up this bind in the 2018 documentary series Black Hollywood: They’ve Gotta Have Us. “What we don’t pay enough attention to is Black and brown actors being afforded the opportunity to fail … when something we do doesn’t work, it becomes an excuse to not do it again.” And so I come to you with a simple thesis: 2004’s Catwoman, featuring Halle Berry in the titular role, is a flop that deserves reconsideration.
Now, before you get too angry with me — and I assume some of you have already stopped reading — hear me out. Let Black women flop. Let us be mediocre! Yes, the narrative is disjointed and the acting is comically bad to boot. And yes, Roger Ebert called it one of his most hated films of all time. And fine, it only brought in $17 million of its $100 million budget in its first week. But in a just world, Berry, who was only two years out from being the first and only Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress, would have been given a redemption arc and a second (or third or fourth) chance as the lead in a big-budget action movie. Instead, she became a modern-day Icarus: She went from one of the hottest stars in Hollywood to the industry paying her dust. Her big comeback role was in John Wick: Chapter 3, a decade and a half later, a role she had to cold-call the director to get. If anyone has flown too close to the sun and paid the price, it’s Halle Berry. At the end of the day, though, Catwoman is a B-movie with a multimillion-dollar budget. If you go into it with this sensibility, perhaps aided by a mind-altering substance or two, it’s pretty hard not to enjoy yourself.
We open with a montage tracing the ancient history of Egyptian Mau cats, emissaries of the cat goddess Bast and companions to powerful women on the fringes of society (e.g., witches, priestesses, and women literate in matters of the occult. You know, cat ladies). Our protagonist, Patience Phillips, is a meek and mousy graphic designer — congrats to the stylist who managed to make Halle Berry appear even slightly frumpy — at a cosmetics company, Hedare Beauty. The face of this beauty company is Sharon Stone’s Laurel Hedare. Stone gives a delicious performance as an exaggerated, almost caricatured version of herself; she’s the quintessential femme fatale, ice blonde and full of venom. (Think Basic Instinct, Casino, or any other role in which a man has cast her aside and paid the ultimate price for it.) Fun!
Hedare is beautiful, but because she is aging, she is deemed irrelevant by both the CEO of the company (who is also her unfaithful husband) and a cosmetics industry obsessed with eternal youth. As revenge, she pushes a beauty cream that stops the aging process but also rots your face off if you stop using it. For a superhero movie, the stakes are incredibly stupid. Catwoman is saving the world from … a face cream? Anyways.
Patience, who is hand-delivering a late assignment after-hours, overhears Hedare overruling a lab scientist at one of the company’s research facilities who warns about the dangers of the cream. Hedare, realizing she has company, sends security after Patience, who drowns while trying to escape. Patience is then revived in short order by an Egyptian Mau belonging to an eccentric and mysterious woman named Ophelia (a heavy-handed reference to drowning). When Patience awakes, she has mysterious cat-like powers. Boom. Our hero is born.
Now, the best part of Catwoman is without a doubt watching a grown woman attempt to physically portray a cat — and I mean really portray a cat. Not just the elegant or super-powered aspects of her cat-like embodiment, but also the dumb things cats do. In a now-infamous scene, Ophelia offers Patience catnip after her transformation. She huffs it like an absolute crazy person — rubbing her face in it, the whole deal. This made me laugh until my stomach hurt. The (underappreciated!) earnestness with which Berry attacked this bonkers script does not fail to entertain. Plus, Berry-as-Catwoman reaches back in time to channel a tone-perfect Eartha Kitt. It’s camp, baby!
From there, Patience has a lovely time foiling heists and enacting petty revenge against people who have slighted her, including Hedare. In the end, Catwoman faces off against Hedare’s ultimate supervillain power: her murderous white-woman tears. Hedare kills her husband and frames her new nemesis, calling in a death-by-cop in the process. They have a knock-down, drag-out final fight as the police encircle them, and Hedare goes down.
After Catwoman bombed, Berry suffered for it. Despite being one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood just a couple years earlier, the bigger, juicier roles she had been expecting after her Academy win never came. As the flex to end all flexes, though, Berry brought her Best Actress Oscar statuette onstage during her acceptance speech for her Worst Actress win at that year’s Razzies. Reflecting on her failure at a different awards ceremony more than a decade later, at the 2018 Matrix Awards, Berry made it clear that really, failure is a question of perspective: “While it failed to most people, it wasn’t a failure for me, because … I got a shitload of money that changed my life.” Amen.