Jill of all trades Eartha Kitt passed away yesterday at 81; calling her a singer pigeonholes an artist of many talents, and robs a brave performer of her accomplishments. Probably best known as the singer of “Santa Baby” and as the second Catwoman in the Batman TV series, she performed alongside Sidney Poitier in film, under the direction of Orson Welles onstage, and in several Broadway shows, including Shinbone Alley and Timbuktu. She and Welles had a torrid affair, after which he called her “the most exciting woman in the world,” this from a man who knew plenty of exciting women.
In 1968 she was outspoken against the Vietnam war, and it was claimed she made Lady Bird Johnson cry when she spoke her mind at a White House luncheon; this led to a professional exile in the States, but at least she kept her principles. Details are here; being ‘uppity’ in front of a Texan first lady had her blackballed within hours. Sources vary, but one quote is that she said “We’re marching them off to die, no wonder they’re smoking pot,” and Lady Bird considered this “uncivilized.” Eartha would return to Broadway, disco hits, and movies in the ’80s after working in Europe. So Catwoman led 9 lives.
“The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth — in a country that says you’re entitled to tell the truth — you get your face slapped and you get put out of work,” -Eartha Kitt
My favorite role of hers of recent memory is as the evil witch Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove, one of the most underappreciated of Disney efforts. The whole film was nearly torpedoed by boss idiot Michael Eisner, and it remains one of the best of Disney’s final attempts at traditional animation, despite his meddling. She was to have a big music number in the film, but Eisner had it cut. This is detailed in a documentary called The Sweatbox, which Disney has unfortunately kept from wide release.
Like Lilo & Stitch, this was an original story with just enough hipness and wit to make it appeal to adults, some beautifully stylized animation, a kickass soundtrack with Tom Jones and Sting, and celeb voice actors who are recognizable but also craft characters instead of playing themselves. It’s great stuff. The story? Emperor Cuzco (David Spade) is your typical self-absorbed royal type; after he fires his witchy advisor Yzma and her henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton), she curses him and turns him into a llama. Hilarity ensues, and Cuzco has to beg for help from the lovable peasant lug Pacha (John Goodman) who he’s already humiliated by planning to build a pool on his ancestral village.
The humor varies from deadpan to cute to absurd, and perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it never felt like a typical Disney movie when I saw it back in 2000. They briefly embraced this kind of humor before diving face first into the pop-culture toilet with dreck like Beverly Hills Chihuahua, but The Emperor’s New Groove holds up surprisingly well. Lacking any classic Batman episodes on DVD, I’m watching it now. Eartha’s Yzma is one of the funniest Disney villains, a self-effacing role that plays on her status as an aged diva, and she never misses a beat. Playing against the snarky David Spade at the height of his popularity is no easy task, and she nearly steals the show.
The movie isn’t perfect, and is kind of short at 77 minutes- Eartha’s song (included on the soundtrack CD) would have padded it to only 80 or so. But it’s a fine showcase of Eartha’s range, humor and talent, and shows she was still sharp well into her seventies. As recently as 2006 she was performing off-Broadway in Mimi le Duck, and her final role looks like a role in an indie film, And Then Came Love. She worked until the end, on her own terms, and what more can an artist want?