Thirty years ago, Sean Young delivered a career-defining performance as Catwoman… but it’s not a performance that moviegoers saw on the big screen. In the summer of 1991, the then-31-year-old actress channeled the feline thorn in Batman’s side during an impromptu visit to the Warner Bros. studio lot, where she hoped to convince Batman Returns director, Tim Burton, that she’d be absolutely purrr-fect for the part that he eventually gave to Michelle Pfeiffer. Young captured that “audition” on videotape, and shared the footage with Entertainment Tonight. Not long after, she donned a homemade costume for an infamous appearance on The Joan Rivers Show where she continued her casting campaign. “I knew Joan — she was a lot of fun,” Young tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “I thought we would have fun at it.”
Unfortunately, the reviews for Young’s Catwoman appearances were far from kind. “Oh so desperate,” wrote Entertainment Weekly. “Sinking into kitty litter,” sniffed Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg. For decades afterwards, Young’s abbreviated star turn as Catwoman was held up as evidence of how she had crashed her once high-flying career — a cautionary tale for other actresses about the perils of pushing a high-wire act too far.
But when you go back and watch Young’s Joan Rivers episode, one thing immediately stands out: It’s not an act. At first, Young does go larger-than-life, playing into Rivers’s teasing introduction of “a Hollywood catfight involving some of Hollywood’s hottest leading ladies.” Taking the stage in her Catwoman garb, she delivers a monologue that channels the campy 1960s Batman TV show — which featured Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Gotham City's top cat burglar — rather than Burton’s 1989 gothic blockbuster. “How dare you not make time to see the Catwoman,” Young says, before telling “Timmy” and the audience exactly why she felt compelled to insert herself into the casting process. Meanwhile, Rivers keeps the bit going, scattering kitty litter around the set and pretending not to know the identity of the person under the mask.
Watch Sean Young's Joan Rivers Show appearance below:
Once Young reveals her face, though, the tone of the show shifts. For the next half-hour, she and Rivers have an earnest and engaged dialogue — with some jokes thrown in — about her troubled history with Burton and the Bat-franchise, dealing with male egos in the film business and the high price of honesty in Hollywood. For the last portion of her interview, Young is joined by psychologist and author Dr. Judy Kuriansky, who analyzes why her Batman experience has left her feeling “permanently angry.” What begins as a stunt becomes a substantive discussion about how Young’s specific experience exposes some of the very real barriers confronting actresses at the time — although that’s not how it was discussed by the press or within the industry at large. Instead, the focus remained on her “crazy” choice of costume, not the conversation she hoped to start.
“At that time, you were expected to behave in a certain way, and I wasn’t following the rules,” Young says. “The people that portrayed me in a negative light were pointing at something else so that peoples’ attention went over there. Calling me crazy was a way to protect themselves.”
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At 61, Young doesn’t need any protecting. Although the road to big-budget blockbusters was largely closed off to her following the Catwoman fracas, she continued to work steadily in films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Sugar & Spice, as well TV shows like Third Watch and Boston Public. She also spent time in rehab for alcoholism, and was involved in various legal issues, most recently in 2018 when she was accused of stealing laptops from a movie production company. (Young claimed it was a misunderstanding.) In recent years, she's appeared in a myriad of small independent films including Rain Beau’s End, a new LGBTQ+ drama that’s currently streaming on LesFlicks.
Calling me crazy was a way to protect themselves.Sean Young
Young says that Rain Beau's End producer, Joe Orlandino, tracked her down to play a supporting role in the film, and she stayed with the project for two years while he assembled the financing. That’s par for the course with how her career operates now. “The big difference is that it’s not brokered by agents anymore,” she says of how she picks and chooses her parts today. “People can reach out to me, and if I’m interested, I’ll respond. Access is a pretty big deal in any business that you want to succeed in.”
It’s no coincidence that Young’s lack of access to Burton back in 1991 lies at the root of her Catwoman origin story. A decade earlier, the actress scored a breakout part in Ivan Reitman’s hit 1981 comedy, Stripes, which led to a run of high-profile roles in films like Blade Runner, Dune, No Way Out and The Boost, where she starred opposite James Woods. (Rumors of an on-set affair between the two circulated widely at the time, and Woods later filed a lawsuit accusing Young of harassment; it was settled out of court in 1989.) When Burton became Warner Bros.’s surprise pick to direct Batman, he originally cast Young as photojournalist Vicki Vale opposite Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight.
As she recounted on The Joan Rivers Show, Young initially had a positive working relationship with her director. But things fell apart a week before shooting began, when she was asked to ride a horse during rehearsals. “They asked me to get up on this horse,” she explained. “I fell off… and I fractured my arm.” (Batman co-producer, Chris Kenny, later offered a different version of events on a DVD featurette, suggesting that Young “wanted to practice her horse riding” instead of being asked to by Burton.) Rather than delay the start of production, Burton and producers Jon Peters and Peter Gruber made the decision to recast the role with Kim Basinger. Young’s agent urged her not to sue the studio as a way to preserve that relationship for future opportunities. “His reasoning was 'You don’t want to make an enemy out of people,'” she told Rivers. “A lot of good it did me, huh?”
Given the unfortunate circumstances by which she left the first movie, Young hoped that Burton would consider her as Catwoman for Batman Returns as the movie took shape. But the director never extended an invitation to discuss the possibility of playing the part. “I really expected to be given the chance,” she remarked on The Joan Rivers Show. “Even if he wasn’t going to use me in the sequel, I can’t understand why he wouldn’t at least see me.” Rather than wait around for the invitation that wasn’t going to come, Young decided to invite herself to Burton’s office. While Young did meet with then-Warner Bros. executive Mark Canton, Burton avoided a face-to-face encounter, and she was asked to leave the lot. “He ducked me — he ran,” she recounted to Rivers. “Later on, my agent told me that he was going to hire bodyguards because I was a dangerous, lethal person.”
The press in and outside of Hollywood had a field day with Young’s studio visit, playing up the sensationalism of her non-encounter with Burton. Looking back on her Joan Rivers appearance now, Young says that one of the reasons she went on the show was that the host offered her a platform to tell her side of a story that had been framed a different way. “You're not supposed to jump into a meeting without being summoned,” she says. “And I said, ‘No, you're going to listen to me because there was just bad behavior on the part of the executives and the director.’ Mark Canton, Michael Keaton, Tim Burton and other executives at Warner Bros. — they're not people that like to be held accountable in general.”
They didn’t like the fact that I took control. That was a no-no; I wasn’t following the script.Sean Young
Young also says that she walked onto the Joan Rivers Show stage clear-eyed about the career risk she was taking. “If you step on the stage, you’re a target,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s a double-edged sword: You tell the truth, and people will appreciate it, but the people that appreciate it also don't hire you for your next job. I think a lot of well-established actors do well in the business because they keep their mouth shut, you know? But I’m just not that person. In the entertainment industry, ‘Shut up’ is good advice, but in a real-life situation, I don’t think it is. I think it’s much better to be an authentic person, and really tell people what’s true for you.”
The kind of authentic truth-telling that Young prizes is more welcome within Hollywood today. The rise of social media, coupled with the evolution of the #MeToo movement and the media’s ongoing reckoning with its past coverage of female celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, has offered more platforms for previously underrepresented groups to open up about the various mistreatments they’ve experienced. “I don’t think it’s ever been better to be a woman, or a person of color or LGBTQ,” Young says, adding that she’s not seeking an apology for the way her story was told by others three decades ago. “I could care less: No one owes me an apology. And the people I owed apologies to have been given, so my street is clean. Whether other people get wise to themselves is not in my control.”
In recent years, Young has used social media to further take control of her own narrative, setting up a YouTube channel where she revisits episodes from her life, including her Joan Rivers Show appearance. “I’m not sure I would do [Joan Rivers] again, just because what you learn is that you’re never guaranteed to be covered accurately,” she explains. “What I’ve done since is make my own YouTube page about my own life where I tell it my way. This is my chance to say: ‘You don’t get to write the story. This is my story, and you can’t change it or edit it.’”
Watch Sean Young's own account of her Catwoman appearance on The Joan Rivers Show:
One of the storylines that was notably edited out of the coverage of Young’s Joan Rivers appearance involved sexual harassment allegations she had made against Warren Beatty. After being replaced on Batman, she landed a role in another comics-derived blockbuster, Beatty’s colorful 1990 adaptation of the vintage comic strip detective, Dick Tracy. The actor/director cast Young as his onscreen love interest, Tess Trueheart, only to replace her with Glenne Headly a few days into shooting. Young later claimed she was fired because she rejected Beatty’s advances, claims she repeated to Rivers. “He tried to grab me and kiss me,” she said on the show. “He’s a very charming man. It’s not in person where he’s ever that way — it’s behind your back where he’s that way.” (Beatty denied her allegations.)
“They didn’t want to focus on that then — they do now,” Young says of why her statements about Beatty on The Joan Rivers Show didn’t attract more attention in 1991. “I remember when I got fired from Dick Tracy, I said to my agent, ‘This guy is harassing me; we should sue him.’ And my agent said, ‘How will that help your career?’ He was absolutely right, of course. How would me suing Warren Beatty for sexual harassment have helped my career in 1990?”
Asked whether she’d want to receive an apology from Beatty now, Young pauses for a moment before saying: “I love his wife, Annette [Bening’s] work. Let’s let him have a pass because she’s so wonderful. Who cares if Warren Beatty apologizes or not? I certainly don’t. It wouldn’t make any difference; the damage was done at the time. But I adore Annette, so let’s not put her through that.” (Interestingly, Bening was Burton’s first choice to play Catwoman, but she gave up the role after becoming pregnant with the first of her and Beatty’s four children.)
“It’s about power, it’s not about men,” Young muses about her career-altering run-ins with Burton and Beatty, as well as disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, who she’s previously claimed exposed himself to her in 1992. “It was power that made Harvey a d***, you know? I mean, he’s not going to get it any other way — just look at him. But you get a woman in the same powerful position, you don’t think they can behave badly? Of course they can. It’s really hard for people in those positions to hang onto the correct view of things, and you can’t convince them otherwise. You’ve either evolved or you haven’t. And if you’re Harvey, trying to get some girl to f*** you, how evolved is that? It’s awful for the girl, but it’s horrible to feel like the only way you’re going to have human contact is to force people. Just be good in the world — that’s the best thing to do.”
Who cares if Warren Beatty apologizes or not? I certainly don’t. It wouldn’t make any difference; the damage was done at the time.Sean Young
The same quest for authenticity that motivated Young to appear on The Joan Rivers Show thirty years ago now drives the way she evaluates the scripts she receives. “For me it’s always about, ‘Does this seem authentic?’ Rain Beau’s End was a great script, because it’s both authentic and it tells an interesting story. I like stories where you can’t really predict the outcome." Written by Jennifer Cooney and directed by Tracy Wren, the film follows a lesbian couple (Janelle Snow and Amanda Powell) over the course of multiple years as they raise an adopted child with serious behavioral issues. Young plays a friend and colleague of Snow's character, and is described in the casting notes as "Wino Yoda." "I guess I brought that to the part," she says laughing. "She's really just a very good friend and work associate, but that's a good way to describe it because whenever we're talking in a scene, we're always drinking wine!"
"Janelle was fun to work with," Young continues. "She was very committed and showed a lot of enthusiasm for the work. I really enjoy working with people who are enthusiastic. And Tracy was very thoughtful and very careful to really explain to me what she wanted. When you have that kind of director it's very easy to deliver; it's harder to deliver when you're not really sure what they want. I also liked the fact the film happened to be about two women, but that wasn't the most interesting part of the story. The interesting part was they made this decision to have a family, and the story follows what comes from that. It's not just lesbians who deal with that — it's any parent." (Young has two children with her husband, Robert Lujan.)
Even as she's embraced her status as an indie film actress, Young still follows what's being made by bigger studios, citing Silver Linings Playbook and Hyde Park on Hudson as two of her favorite movies from the past decade. And in 2017, she made her first appearance in a massively-budgeted Warner Bros. movie since her abbreviated Batman experience, reprising her Blade Runner role as the replicant Rachael in Denis Villeneuve's sequel, Blade Runner 2049. Although Young didn't actually appear on camera — Rachael was brought back to life via digital effects — she was on set for the sequence and advised her stand-in, Loren Peta.
Having collaborated with Villeneuve before, Young hoped that the director would bring her back for his update of another one of her '80s sci-fi classics: Dune. In David Lynch's 1984 version of Frank Herbert's bestselling novel, she played Fremen fighter, Chani, who wins the heart of the film's hero, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan). And she has a very specific idea for how she could return in Villeneuve's new adaptation — starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya as Paul and Chani — which is set to open in theaters and on HBO Max on Oct. 1. "I wanted to play the Bene Gesserit mother who tests Paul," Young says, referring to the part that was played by Siân Phillips in the 1984 film. "That would've been a nice role. I begged Denis to put me in the movie and he wouldn't! I couldn't understand it — I thought having someone from the original in it would be a great idea, but I guess he didn't see it that way. I hope it's good. If it's anything like Blade Runner 2049, it's going to be very long."
Rain Beau's End is currently streaming on LesFlicks.
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