Review: ‘Cat Dancers’

Berlinale

The cat never has the tongue of Ron Holiday in "Cat Dancers,"

The cat never has the tongue of Ron Holiday in “Cat Dancers,” Harris Fishman’s sympa-thetic portrait of a showbiz life full of complex relationships, exotic animals and macabre turns. Holiday, with wife Joy and later with partner Chuck Lizza, forged a sort of low-rent Siegfried & Royact, only to see it collapse in a round of unexpected events. As a glimpse of the volatility of lives sprinkled with sawdust and tinsel, HBO-produced doc will be a fine choice for midlevel fests, though its cable life is as much of a lock as its theatrical prospects are iffy.

Holiday is always the star of his own show, and his verbose self-involvement will strike viewers as either irony personified or excessively tacky. Because he’s effectively the narrator of his story, it’s impossible to separate him from the pic, though Fishman strikes a deft balancing act between telling Holiday’s story and portraying him as one of those oddities the American entertainment scene regularly serves up.

Evenhanded approach presents images of Holiday in the present tense (teaching ballet school in Flor-ida, instructing students on the art of cat-taming), accompanied by his conversational account of his career as a ballet artist-turned-performer. Central to it all was Joy, whom Holiday first met when she was a gawky 11-year-old, and who eventually budded into an elegant ballet partner. Vivid (and some-times optically slowed-down) color clips from the 1950s suggest how far they rose up the ladder of the international dance scene during the period.

The pair parlayed their retirement from ballet into a successful act that inspired Holiday’s idea for a bit involving tigers, leopards and the like. The eventual show, “Cat Dancers” — initially bankrolled by actor and cat enthusiast William Holden — progressed to the point where the couple could open their own exotic cat ranch in Florida.

Pic builds in emotional drive when Holiday’s story describes the pair’s encounter in the late ‘80s with Lizza, a classic runaway-to-the-circus who quickly bonded with the performers. Lizza took to the act with apparent ease, and the extensive archival material reveals a show that — while hardly on the grandly cheesy scale of Siegfried & Roy — rocked with the spectacle of human beings and ferocious beasts literally dancing with one another.

Trio took their act, in a real sense, all the way, forging a love triangle that included exchanging wed-ding rings. Holiday remains mum on how exactly the multi-relationship was managed on a day-to-day basis, but it never seemed to get in the way of the show.

As pic repeatedly returns to Holiday, lovingly tending to his last remaining animals in pens operated by Amazing Exotics animal sanctuary in Florida, the story acquires a growing sense of doom, especially since auds will be aware that neither Joy nor Lizza are anywhere in sight. Holiday’s revelations include shockers that sent his life spinning out of control, providing post-screening talking points that could generate some B.O. buzz.

Auds may be divided on their sentiments toward Holiday, but there’s no questioning Fishman’s styl-ish handling of a wealth of visual materials, goosed up with lab effects and moody music care of group String Theory and composer Peter Salett.

Cat Dancers

Production

An HBO, Cinemax Documentary Films presentation, in association with Cactus Three and Submarine. (International sales: Cactus Three and Submarine, New York.) Produced by Harris Fishman, Amanda Micheli. Executive producers, Josh Braun, Julie Goldman, Krysanne Katsoolis, Caroline Stevens, Silas Weir Mitchell. Executive producer for HBO, Sheila Nevins. Senior producer for HBO, Nancy Abraham. Co-producers, Alexis Spraic, Christina Ferreira, Scott Kaplan. Co-executive producers, Chris Keenan, Michael Cash. Directed by Harris Fishman.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, DV, 16mm), Amanda Micheli; editor, Alexis Spraic; music, String Theory, Peter Salett; sound, Lee Adkison, Chris Kelly; supervising sound editor, Eric Liljestrand; re-recording mixer, Jamie Santos; line producer, Jill Soble; associate producers, D.W. Harper, Caroline Libresco, Ken Metz, Michael Wojciechowski. Reviewed at Wilshire screening room, Beverly Hills, June 5, 2007. (In Los Angeles festival -- competing; Outfest.) Running time: 75 MIN.

With

Ron Holiday.

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