Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Cats Came Back (Caterwauling at the Movies)

 I’m not exactly a cat person. Still, I admit I teared up when Holly Golightly (as played by Audrey Hepburn) rescued her sometimes-cat from a downpour at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’ve liked other movie cats too, including Pyewacket , the sleek Siamese who was Kim Novak’s kindred spirit in the long-ago Bell, Book, and Candle. And it was hard to resist the frisson of watching Marlon Brando stroke a tabby while contemplating nefarious deeds in The Godfather.

My new friend Léon Bing, who modeled for the fashion world’s enfant terrible, Rudi Gernreich, and then wrote the bestselling Do or Die, has a particularly striking association with cats. As an aspiring model in New York City, she had to invent for herself a distinctive runway style. She had managed to rent a tiny but charming Park Avenue apartment, up only two flights of stairs. With time on her hands, she took to watching TV, and at one point the Movie of the Week was a sultry Southern-fried thriller, A Walk on the Wild Side. This 1962 drama, directed by Edward Dmytryk from a Nelson Algren novel, starred Laurence Harvey and Capucine, along with Jane Fonda, in one of her very first roles, as a young bordello recruit. It was possibly the name of Fonda’s character (Kitty) as well as all the film’s cat-house references that inspired the opening title sequence, the work of the great Saul Bass. While Elmer Bernstein’s music throbs on the soundtrack, a black cat prowls in dramatic closeup through the streets and alleys of New Orleans. As the music heightens you just know danger is lurking around every corner. And then it strikes. For Léon Bing, this footage—which she watched over and over—was total inspiration. She learned to slink through fashion shows like that dangerous cat, and the result was a long, successful career.

All this is by way of saying that I’m not so sure I’m enthralled by the prospect of seeing Cats on screen. The Andrew Lloyd Webber stage hit, set to charmingly whimsical poems by none other than T.S. Eliot, began its decades-long Broadway run in 1982. It ran so long (18 years at the Winter Garden Theatre) that it inspired an advertising slogan: “Cats, Now and Forever.” The vagueness of that slogan hints that Cats is not about anything much. Humans dressed as furry felines cavort about the stage, performing all sorts of colorful specialty numbers. What suspense there is involves which cat will be chosen by wise old Deuteronomy for a sort of cat-reincarnation. Of course the prize goes to the cat who’s the most bedraggled and sings the show’s most poignant power-ballad. And you surely remember what that’s called.

I don’t mean to sneer. Years ago, when Cats came to L.A.’s old Shubert Theatre, I had one of my favorite assignments for the Los Angeles Times¸ describing everything that happens at a big-time playhouse before the curtain goes up. So I watched stagehands preparing the set while ushers stuffed programs and actors stroked on their elaborate makeup. As a reward, I got to return with my six-year-old  son, for whom this was a first-ever theatre outing. I had firmly lectured him on good behavior. But then—in the middle of a musical number!—a well-known local TV personality squeezed into my row with his young daughter. Instead of taking the empty seat next to me, she STOOD on his lap, and proceeded to give those around her a loud running commentary on the show. That was one kitten I would gladly have thrown down a well. 

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