I find myself straining to conceal an overwhelming sense of unadulterated ecstasy the moment I exit the screening of Cats—one of the worst commercial and critical box office bombs in recent memory.
The newest big-screen adaptation of the classic Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has garnered near-universal disdain since it pounced into theatres on Christmas Day. The film boasts a completely ridiculous “all-star” cast, which includes the likes of Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, Jennifer Hudson, and two legendary thespians who have been recognized by the Queen of England herself for their contributions to the art of acting: Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench. All of them play hideous, CGI-rendered anthropomorphic cats. And the rumours are true—every single member of this cast makes a complete fool of themselves on multiple occasions throughout this disaster of a movie.
The story is completely nonsensical. It consists of a series of cats who are inexplicably referred to as “Jellicle cats,” performing solo numbers explaining who they are and why they should be sent to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn at the Jellicle Ball. If you read that sentence and found yourself lost, then you can count yourself among many who bought tickets to experience the meaningless, computer-rendered universe of the Jellicles. The movie is a Rolodex of celebrities singing increasingly manic songs about why they should be selected to die. But that blatant shirking of film convention is precisely why I find myself buzzing as the credits roll—and I’m not the only one.
Behind the universal dismissal of Cats as one of the worst movies in recent memory, the film has created a cult composed predominantly of queer people. Drag queens have organized shows in tribute to the film, indie cinemas have hosted sing-a-long screenings à-la-Rocky Horror Picture Show and individual Cats fans have taken to attending late-night showings, launching jokes at the screen themselves.
Adam Linton, a media production student at Ryerson University in Toronto, and a group of friends got together to attend a late-night screening of Cats last week. He was hoping for a desolate theatre so he and his pals could dance, sing and jeer as the movie played without interruption. When he got there, he found a few strangers had the exact same idea.
“They were all joining in,” Linton said. “We were all carrying on. It was lots of fun.”
Linton, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ2 community, said he was drawn to the movie’s queer energy.
“It has a camp sensibility that’s almost lost,” he said. “The idea of these completely androgynous cat people that obviously have no genitalia, except for [some with] massive breasts, running around doing Broadway numbers—it has a sense of performance and gender identity performance that is fun to see.”
In the movie, Jennifer Hudson delivers a heart-wrenching performance of “Memory”—one of musical theatre’s most iconic numbers—while blurry, CGI tufts of fur shroud her pained, tear-stained face. Jason Derulo belts out a tuneless song about being a “curious cat” while unironically squirting white, frothy milk into the begging mouths of at least a dozen seemingly “sexy” lady cats. Sir Ian McKellan, esteemed actor of stage and screen, inexplicably yelps “meow meow meow!” with glee when we first see him, although no character before him has meowed in such a way.
It’s precisely this sense of camp that inspired Toronto drag troupe House of Filth to organize a Cats tribute performance. Nancy Bocock, a member of the House, said the tribute attracted an eclectic, predominantly queer group of people that included some of the cast of the touring production of Cats, which was in the city at the time.
“We had a bunch of alternative people, people of all queer identities and races and so forth,” she said.
According to Bocock, people arrived in outfits ranging from cat ears to full-on Jellicle drag—more than what she and other organizers expected.
“I thought we were kind of just doing something ridiculous and stupid by going with Cats, but the way people react to it just shows that, clearly, people are engaging with it more than you would expect them to,” she said.
Bocock and three other drag queens each performed a number based on a different character from Cats. Bocock played Mr. Mistoffelees, the magical cat. She wore a rhinestone catsuit and performed a number interpolating the character’s titular song with Justin Bieber’s new single “Yummy.” In many ways, she explained, Cats is like drag. It’s escapist, it’s tongue-in-cheek and, most importantly, it has an inherent sense of camp.
“Cats, in general, is ridiculous,” said Bocock. “It’s so campy and over-the-top, it hardly makes sense. As much as it’s kind of tacky and in poor taste to like Cats, we still love the over-the-top production and the ridiculousness, even if it is so weird.”
For these reasons, some have gone so far as to proclaim Cats as our generation’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, calling for future late-night, participatory screenings in the vein of the Rocky Horror and cult classic The Room. “I can’t wait for the midnight screenings,” wrote one Twitter user, who self-identifies as non-binary, adding they “Can’t wait to see a 30-year-old shirtless man pour milk all over himself and having mouse cat toys be thrown at him while everyone drunkenly sings.”
And that person is not alone. A small, fiercely devoted—and a predominantly queer—army of Cats fans has taken to Twitter to express their primal affection for the film.
“Skimbleshanks the Railroad Cat and Mr. Mistoffelees and Rum Tum Tugger are all Queer culture,” posited one Twitter user, while prominent New York-based queer writer John Paul Brammer tweeted, “I hope studios are learning a lesson from Cats: As long as you’re willing to lose millions of dollars and repulse the average American viewer, you can engage the key demographic of ‘me.”’
Anthony Oliveira took the Twitter discourse to the next level. He hosts Dumpster Raccoon, a monthly series at the Revue Cinema in Toronto which he described in an interview as: “An attempt to rummage through the garbage of pop culture and see if we threw something out that was of great value.”
He’s screened camp masterpieces like Flash Gordon and Showgirls, but this month he’s screening—you guessed it—Cats. But not only is he screening Cats, he’s also throwing a full-on Jellicle Ball complete with performances from drag queens, burlesque performers and whoever else is willing to get up on stage and emulate the Jellicle cat of their choice.
“[Cats] is so fascinating to so many people because it has presented itself as a largely unreadable and undiagnosable text, and I think that’s always the key to a good camp masterpiece,” Oliveira said.
The movie, he said, has attracted such a dedicated queer fanbase because of that inherent camp quality.
“Queer culture is always fascinated with the application—and misapplication—of taste,” he said. “We want to see moments of failure, whether it’s a John Waters movie which is doing it on purpose, whether it’s a drag queen sort of pantomiming the performance of gender or whether it’s Cats, which has sort of attempted to be a good movie and instead has produced something so manifestly ugly that people literally do not want to look at it.”
Personally, I’m not so sure Cats is the next Rocky Horror. The latter was a singular, magical cultural moment that pioneered so much about contemporary queer culture, and has been quality enough (and fun enough) to remain entrenched in pop culture for over four decades. It’s also, on a very explicit level, a work of queer art, and never once waters itself down to become palatable for straight audiences.
Cats is simply Cats. To compare it to anything that has come before would be impossible—it’s a wholly new cinematic experience. Never before has a studio flubbed a movie, from concept to delivery, this hard. Never before has such a star-studded cast been made to look so stupid. Never before has Dame Judi Dench gleefully licked her own computer-animated crotch.
It’s absolutely astounding that this torrential disaster of a movie was made at all, and that fact alone is enough to qualify it as a work of High Camp. Even calling it a “movie” feels insufficient. Cats is something new. It’s a visceral, delightfully queer cinematic experience that has never happened before and will likely never happen again.
Perhaps, the producers behind Cats are licking their wounds after the film’s catastrophic box office performance—the movie has only grossed a little more than $59 million USD on its astronomical $95 million budget—and poor critical reception. But the mainstream hate of Cats just makes it all the more counterculture, making the film an increasingly inviting option for an entire community of LGBTQ2 people to lap-up in theatres for many midnights to come—with kitty ears and the loudest of meows.