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When latex meets leather

They are a couple for the '90s, he in latex, she in leather, he with pointy ears, she with slashing claws. Beneath their retro evening costumes, of course, they are a mass of neuroses: Batman is the quintessential lonely guy, and Catwoman is the victim of office sexism, who explodes in anger after she is harassed one time too many.

The central tension in "Batman Returns" is not really between Batman and the Penguin, the vile little ectomorph who waddles out of the city's sewers. It is between Batman, who leads a bizarre secret life that permits no intimacy, and Catwoman, who picks up a whip when she leaves the house the way other women pick up a purse.

When Catwoman discovers the secret of Bruce Wayne's secret identity - when she discovers that this society oddball is in secret the only man on her wavelength - the kind of tension develops that can, and in this case does, inspire people to throw each other from rooftops.

What kind of a relationship do you think they will develop, I was asking Michael Keaton the other day. He, of course, is the actor who portrays Batman.

"Don't know," he said. "I realize this is eventually a question we will have to answer. But - I really don't know."

Do you think they could take off their costumes while making love?

"The question is, would they? Or, would they want to? Or, to put it another way, when they aren't in their costumes, would they want to put them on again while making love? It is a question I enjoy thinking about more than answering."

In the movie (opening Friday), Batman encounters the bizarre Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the alleys and on the skyscrapers of Gotham City, while tracking the loathsome Penguin (Danny DeVito), whose parents cast him into the river to drown, after which he was raised by penguins, only to emerge as a political candidate with designs to take over the city.

Which of the three current presidential candidates does he most resemble, I asked Tim Burton, who directed the movie.

"He is the outsider," Burton said, rumpling his hair. Burton is one of those rare people, usually British, but in this case, from Burbank, who cannot speak without rummaging for dandruff. He is extremely likable, and uses the word weird as frequently as if he were a Valley Boy, as indeed he is.

What kind of a relationship do you think might eventually develop between Batman and Catwoman?

"I predict years of dating. They're quite the couple of the '90s. I love them because they have such weird images, and yet are such a normal couple. Weird. This whole movie is an animal picture - bats, cats and penguins. We're all animals. Maybe they'll hook up and create a weird new species."

And what do you think, beautiful but taciturn Michelle Pfeiffer? What motivates your character?

"Rage. She's mad about just about everything."

Does she . . . speak for modern women?

"Certainly in Los Angeles. I think that women over the years have developed a lot of suppressed anger, and as with any kind of emotion that's been bottled up for that long, when it is finally unleashed it sometimes goes out of control and lashes out."

As with whips and claws.

"There's something about fighting. Women don't fight. It's great therapy. I really thought it was fun; I'm pretty strong, athletic and coordinated, and I really enjoyed the physicality of the part. It was great fun."

So you had fun making the movie?

"Not on those refrigerated sets. Any time I was Catwoman, I was being refrigerated, and I was cold. I dreaded walking on the stage. There were a lot more problems than normal. My costume, other people's costumes, working with special effects, working out of sequence - and, it was cold."

Michael Keaton, you enjoyed working on the picture?

"I enjoyed working with Tim Burton on 'Beetlejuice' far more than with 'Batman.' I am grateful for the film, I enjoyed it, but the best experience was 'Beetlejuice.' " 

In that film, Tim Burton's second, Keaton played a satanic nuisance who lurked under little girl's beds. He knew he would get on with Burton, when the director agreed with his weird interpretation of the character. 

"Batman as a character is more narrow, and limited. He is the keystone. Watching the (new) movie for the first time last night, I thought, well, I functioned. I think I would be healthy enough to say when I'm good. In this case, I feel I'm . . . OK. I did pretty much what I had to do. I served the role. Batman kinda has to be what he is."

What you are hearing are two actors and a director struggling to smile over memories of one of the more difficult shoots in recent history. Because the movie takes place during a cold Gotham winter, and because Burton wanted to see frost on the actors' breath, it was filmed on refrigerated sets. Experts were brought in (including Ron Hahn, camera operator during the notoriously difficult refrigerated scenes in "The Exorcist"), goose-down jackets and wool socks were issued, and everybody froze their little bat bottoms off.

"It was almost like shooting 'Apocalypse Now' in Burbank," Keaton said. "There is a word for what we were. Exhausted."

But now wander down the hall with me to the side of Danny DeVito, whose makeup as the Penguin took three hours every morning. He must have terrible memories. And DeVito should be exhausted this very minute, since he was up until 4 a.m. directing scenes for his new movie, "Hoffa," which stars Jack Nicholson and is currently shooting in Chicago. But no. DeVito is cheerful.

"You know those makeup trailers they have?" he asked. "They have a place for the mirrors, the shampoo, boop-a-doop-a-doop, and I took out one of the cabinets and put in a laser-disc machine and a TV. While they were putting on the makeup, I brought in my favorite movies and watched them in the mirror. Piece of cake. Of course, I couldn't watch foreign films because the subtitles would have been reversed. I had a ball." 

Why did you want to play the Penguin?

"Psychologically, knowing where the Penguin came from, what cards he was dealt in life, was really exciting to me. That's for sure what turned the corner for me in my meeting with Tim Burton. The last thing that I wanted to hear was, "You're gonna be like the guy in the comic book. Or on TV. 'Course I kinda felt I wasn't gonna hear that, because if you put Tim and anybody else in two rooms and give them both the same things to talk about, what comes out, you're not gonna get anywhere close.

"So we had a meeting to discuss how the Penguin was born, and his feelings about his mom and dad, and how they abandoned him. Tim showed me a painting he did, of a young toddler, who kinda like had this round head, big round eyes, a weird face, and little appendages that were not quite formed, sitting upright in a yellow and red circus curtain, and underneath it said, 'My name is Jimmy, but they call me the hideous Penguin boy.' "

DeVito was so right for the Penguin, he says he read in a newspaper he was being considered for the role 18 months before anybody ever contacted him about it. Keaton, however, was not anybody's first idea of Batman. Burton explained why Keaton's weirdness was preferable to a conventional leading man:

"I met some of those traditional square-jawed guys, but I simply could not see these people putting on that batsuit. With Michael, my God, I thought, he looks weird enough to really put on the suit. See, the thing is, if somebody is as big and strong as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Christopher Reeve, why do they need to put on this pointy-eared costume? But Michael has such a weird energy, that strange light in his eyes, that he gives it a weird tension."

"Yeah," said Keaton, "I remember Burton really seriously telling me, "Michael, I can see you putting on a batsuit and going out and fighting crime. I loved that he even thought that. I thought, this movie is worth doing, just based on that thought alone. People are sort of used to Burton now, but at first, I remember being asked about how weird Tim was. I said I didn't find him all that weird, so if he was, then I probably am, too. Mostly I find a lot of Tim really normal. He's hung onto a lot of the little boy in him."

Aspects of that little boy were probably what made the young, untried Burton a natural choice to direct his first feature, about Pee-wee Herman, another character who has hung onto the little boy in him. "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" was filled with weird props and characters and goings-on, and at the time it was safe to assume that the decor was all Pee-wee's, but now that Burton has gone on to direct "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands" and the two Batmans, it is possible to see that he, too, likes weird decor.

"People say my films have an unreality," he told me. "It's funny, how reality is perceived. I find more reality in the characters I've been involved with than with normal people. When I was a kid watching monster movies on TV, I felt more passionately about the monsters than the real people. Of course, those 1950s lead actors were always stiffs. But some people perceived as normal are among the weirdest people I've ever met."

Where does that dark and brooding undertone come from in your pictures?

"I never get just one feeling in life. I don't know if I grew up depressed or whatever, but watching Vincent Price in old horror movies, I never saw them as dark; they were a catharsis for me. If they were dark with a little light, that made the light that much better for me. I never get one feeling - completely happy, or completely sad. I get everything at once. Weird."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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