The Cats trailer premiered to what can only be described as General Anguish from the internet. It was a brief moment of unity rarely experienced by those who frequent Twitter dot com—the rising up of one collective voice to say, “What the actual fuck?”
The questionable-at-best CGI, the anthropomorphic cat-bodies, the use of the phrase “cat got your tongue” said by a cat in a film about cats—there was no safe space to rest your eyes. It appeared to be both too much and not enough at the same time. The internet was, understandably, concerned. I too was concerned, but for a reason separate from the general uproar. As I watched the trailer, a unique anxiety rose up within me: Were these cats, I wondered, absolutely DTF?
You see, I have a long and sordid history with the Cats movie’s source material, the Cats musical stage production. In 1997, my family took me to see the Cats tour at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and in 1998, my dad bought me the double-VHS direct-to-video recreation of the show. I watched it to his pleasure and dismay, ad nauseam. As the parent of a blossoming obvious-homosexual, he was delighted that it kept me from being gay-out-loud and kept me gay and silent for one hundred and fifteen minutes, but at the same time I can only assume he was concerned for my wellbeing on days I watched it more than once.
As a gay almost-10-year-old, Cats was everything I’d ever wanted. It was magical, it was glamorous, it was musical, and most importantly: It. Was. Horny. The cats of Cats, while all jockeying for the opportunity to be reborn in the Heaviside Layer, were simultaneously trying to get it on. With every tap number and ballad performed in an effort to prove themselves worthy of rebirth, they were attempting to get laid, in sync. Which, to be honest, makes sense. If all these cats only get together once a year and only one gets to go to cat heaven, the rest of them might as well try to get lucky while they can.
And if you’re inclined to believe that these sexual overtones were a figment of my adolescent waking wet dreams, allow me to direct you to the creative team behind the original production of the musical. Gillian Lynne, the show’s choreographer, noted that the cats should be “at once aloof, hypersensual, cold, warm, completely elastic and very mysterious.” In a letter to Andrew Loyd Webber, show director Trevor Nunn wrote, “I believe all the characters MUST BE CATS. Cats introducing us to other cats, cats telling us what only cats can ever possibly know: cats divulging secrets, cats arguing, cats of different classes, cats sexually or romantically involved with each other...”
Cats is just as much about fornication as it is about reincarnation. The cats were meant to be hyper-sensual and sexually involved with each other from the jump. And so, when bits of commentary began circulating from the chosen few who were able to see Cats before its wide release, my spirits were momentarily buoyed. “It brings me no pleasure to report that CATS is way too horny for its own good,” tweeted Caroline Framke, the chief TV critic for Variety, followed by R. Eric Thomas, a senior staff writer at Elle who said, “CATS (2019) is the horniest film I have ever seen. They should have called it Sus-purr-ria.”
While the commentary was not necessarily net-positive, it was exactly what I was hoping to hear. Thus, when I settled into seat H5 for a 6:15 p.m. showing on the Saturday following its release, I was ecstatic. Sure, it may still be the unmitigated disaster the internet decided it was, but at least they’d appeared to have gotten something right.
Disappointed is an understatement. If Cats the musical is a romance novel, Cats the movie is barely even a Little Golden Book. Where was the sensuality? Where was the gyration? Above all else, where the hell were the homoerotic overtones that blanketed the original production?
Sure, there was some light petting and nuzzling, and maybe even a smattering of heavy breathing. Dame Judi Dench may even lift a leg in the air at one point, but to say that it is “too horny for its own good” is a reach farther than even Tom Hooper makes in his direction of the film. For evidence of the neutering of Cats, we need look no further than Jason Derulo’s turn as Rum Tum Tugger. For reference, I invite you to enjoy this clip of Rum Tum Tugger from the 1998 VHS version of the show, which is hornier in its four minutes and 14 seconds than the entirety of the 2019 adaption.
In Derulo’s version, there is a sight gag involving a bit about spilled cream, but that’s kid stuff compared with anything John Partridge’s hips are doing in his rendition. (Which is ultimately most upsetting because I’d hoped that Derulo’s recent dick stunts on Instagram were an attempt at some very serious method acting, considering the bulge viable in the original musical.)
It’s true that Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina does at one point sprinkle catnip over the feline crew, and while her magic dust (which in the film is basically just an allegory for poppers) does get everyone going for a moment, it fizzles all too quickly. Swift may be doing her best impression of a cat, acting like Uma Thurman, acting like Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin, but even that is not nearly enough.
The most egregious offense, in my opinion, is the heterosexualizing of the magical Mr. Mistoffelees. It’s so palpably obvious in the stage musical that Mr. Mistoffelees’s greatest wish is to become Mrs. Rum Tum Tugger and that the invented romance between Mistoffelees and Victoria in the movie is honestly just plain insulting. Inventing a love story that didn’t exist in the first place, while simultaneously ironing out all of the homoeroticism that is part of what made the show fun, to begin with? It should be illegal. Illegal I say! Cats was meant to be ridiculous and sexy and fun and gay, and this movie is just, well, ridiculous.
The buttoning up of Cats is disappointing not because audiences were robbed of the opportunity to experience sexy humanoid cats (although that’s definitely one reason), but because the weird frenetic horniness of the original musical was part of what made it so absolutely sensational. The stage production is wonderful because of its absurdity. It’s an invitation into a world that makes almost no sense at all, and it makes no apologies for that. It’s an opportunity to relax in a theater, let go of the tension of the outside world, and think, Huh, it seems like all these cats are trying to fuck each other, and wait, is that cat trying to go to heaven? When I first saw Cats the musical, I wanted to be Grizabella and I wanted to be with Rum Tum Tugger. When I saw Cats the movie, I mainly just wanted it to be over. Given the current state of the movie industry, I’m sure there will a reboot of Cats in another 20 years or so. When the time comes, I hope that production will avoid the pitfalls of the current one and not try to make sense of Cats, but rather let it not make sense, and most importantly, let it be horny.