The actress told ET she really learned how to use Catwoman's whip for Tim Burton's sequel.
Michelle Pfeiffer wasn’t going to play Catwoman in Batman Returns without first mastering the comic book character’s trademark weapon.
As the actress explained to ET in 1992, going toe to toe with Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader was “one of the hardest things” she had ever done in her career at the time. And just one of the challenges she faced was learning how to wield Selina Kyle’s whip, which Pfeiffer credited to her teacher, Anthony Delongis, a fight choreographer and movement teacher at UCLA.
“It was a real stroke of luck finding [Delongis], because his approach was different than anything I had ever seen or that Tim [Burton] had ever seen in that it wasn't a kind of --- excuse the pun -- manhandling of the whip,” Pfeiffer explained. “It was very graceful and elegant. And actually very dancelike and beautiful. And kind of more feline really.”
Pfeiffer’s hard work was put on full display last year in a viral tweet, which contained a behind-the-scenes snippet of the scene in Batman Returns where Catwoman whips the heads off four mannequins in a sporting goods store. In the clip, Pfeiffer achieves this stunt in a single take, followed by the crew giving her a round of applause on the set.
“[The whip] contributed a great deal to the part,” she added. “I really can't imagine Catwoman without the whip, and also without Anthony's whip.”
Years later, Delongis wound up instructing Harrison Ford for pop culture’s other notable bullwhip user in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And in 2019, Pfeiffer shared to Instagram that not only does she still have Catwoman’s whip, but her muscle memory remained intact.
Pfeiffer posted a video of herself expertly snapping the whip toward the camera. She wrote in the caption, “Just like riding a bike,” alongside a cat-themed emoji.
Back in the early ‘90s, all eyes were on Tim Burton as he began developing a sequel to his 1989 box office phenomenon. When Selina Kyle was added to Bruce Wayne’s next chapter, the question of who would don the catsuit generated a media frenzy. “A lot of roles are highly coveted and there are very few really good female roles a year,” Pfeiffer pointed out. “All actresses want to play those roles and so this was no different than any other part.”
One of those actresses was Annette Bening, who was initially selected to play Catwoman but later exited the film after becoming pregnant with her and Warren Beatty’s first child. In the wake of giving up the highly sought-after role, she had no regrets.
“It's a great part. I'm very flattered that Michelle Pfeiffer is doing it and I'm sure she will be terrific,” Bening shared with ET in 1991. “I loved the role. I loved the script, but it was really no contest in terms of what was more important to me.”
Other contenders included Nicole Kidman, Madonna and Sean Young, the latter of whom infamously pleaded her consideration on The Joan Rivers Show in character as Catwoman. As Pfeiffer saw it, the hoopla surrounding the role’s casting was overblown and unfairly portrayed.
“It became a kind of media event and it was the media that really turned it into this competition. It was really, I think, inappropriate and not really accurate,” she said.
Upon reading the script, Pfeiffer, who used to “religiously” watch the Batman TV series featuring Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar as Catwoman, became even more excited about landing the part. “It was really well written. And much more complicated and interesting than I'd even hoped for at all,” she recalled.
In addition to Danny DeVito’s performance as the Penguin and the Old Hollywood-style production design (pieces of which are now on display at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles), Batman Returns shines brightest in its one-on-one moments between Pfeiffer and Keaton. And their on-screen chemistry was a longtime in the making.
As Pfeiffer put it, she and Keaton “dated for a little while” years before filming their Gotham rooftop exchanges. Having been the lead star of the previous movie, which kicked off the ongoing genre of big-budget superhero blockbusters, her ex became a reassuring voice on the set.
“It was great actually working with him having had a history, because I was really out of my element. Also, the fact that he had done this kind of picture before and I didn't know what to expect,” Pfeiffer said. “I felt really comfortable with him. I felt really safe with him. I could go to him and say, 'Why am I feeling so awful? I don't know what's going on.' And he would explain it to me. 'I know. I went through it on the first one.'”
Batman Returns was another hit for Burton and Warner Bros. when it premiered on June 19, 1992. Reactions from critics and audiences were mixed, due in part to the sequel’s darker tone compared to its predecessor, yet still managed to rake in over $250 million at the worldwide box office. Today, fans celebrate its gothic texture and are quick to use the movie as a point of reference when comic book adaptations lean into the horror qualities of their source material.
Thirty years later, the film’s legacy endures both in spirit and tangibility. After Keaton nodded to his superhero past in Birdman, he switched teams for another round of meta-casting, but this time in the MCU as Vulture for Spider-Man: Homecoming and later Morbius. And soon, he’ll be returning to the Batcave for Batgirl and The Flash.
Meanwhile, Pfeiffer left a unique, indelible mark on the character in Batman Returns that, according to the latest Catwoman, has become a tradition for whoever picks up the whip.
“I was inspired by all of them. I think the way each and every one -- from Julie Newmar to Eartha Kitt, Halle [Berry] and Michelle -- they completely owned the character,” Zoë Kravitz told ET at the premiere of The Batman. “I was inspired by the fact that they all did their thing.”
Batman Returns streams on HBO Max.