August 8 is International Cat Day, and that means I’ve been thinking about our feline friends and how much they mean to so many of us. However, I’ve got to come clean about a few things.
First, I grew up in an anti-cat family. Everyone in my house was allergic to cats, and I’m allergic to basically everything, so I assumed I was too. Second, I’ve never owned a cat; this is partly due to my concerns about allergies and partly because I’ve never quite felt ready to take on a pet on my own that doesn’t live in — for example — a contained fish tank.
And yet, I love cats, and I’ve had special friendships with many of the cats of my pals. I love how weird and particular they can be, and I love how their affection — as opposed to dogs, who will be affectionate with pretty much anything — feels special and even earned.
Where that leads me is here: I’m making a list of my favorite famous movie cats. I’m talking real cats here — no animated cats allowed on this list, sweet as they are sometimes. This list is made up of the movie cats that are most special to me — your list might be different. In any case, this is my ode to the cats that protect us, warn us and make us chuckle at their strange behaviors.
Ulysses from Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
I’m starting this off with my favorite movie cat ever. Ulysses is quite honestly one of the stars of this truly weird movie from Joel and Ethan Coen about the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s.
Ulysses — we only learn his name toward the end of the film — at times seems like a real cat: adventurous, hungry for a bowl of milk, and so on. At other times though, Ulysses exists as a haunting, spectral presence. We swing back and forth from Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) looking for Ulysses and being shocked to see Ulysses. Ulysses appears in impossible places at impossible times, or possibly has doppelgängers out in the world somewhere.
Whatever Ulysses represents, the cat serves to humanize Llewyn, and to teach him something about himself. It’s a beautiful and strange friendship in a movie that’s in many ways about recovering from the loss of another friendship. It feels like when Llewyn finds Ulysses, he finds a missing piece of himself.
Jonesy from Alien (1979)
As a person who was afraid of watching horror movies for a long time, director Ridley Scott’s Alien was one of the films that got me excited about overcoming my fears and exploring the genre. Part of that has to do with outer space: I love movies where people have to solve problems in cool and spooky-looking sci-fi settings. Part of it has to do with Jonesy, though.
Jonesy is the cat who happens to be hanging out with the crew aboard the Nostromo, the commercial space tug that ends up having to investigate a distress signal. As things in the movie get scarier, Jonesy’s innate cat-senses help us know when danger is imminent.
And maybe most importantly, Jonesy is part of what makes us fall in love with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the film’s main character. Jonesy even shows up in the sequel, Aliens, when Ripley kindly leaves Jonesy behind at her apartment to head off with the marines. She says, “And you, you little sh-t-head, you’re staying here.” That may sound rough, but it’s delivered with some real lived-in kindness that lets you know Ripley and Jonesy have something special between them.
Don Vito Corleone’s Cat in The Godfather (1972)
The Don’s cat doesn’t get a ton of screen time in The Godfather. However, given the fact that the idea of a mob boss ominously — and yet, somehow, sweetly — stroking a cat-friend has become almost a cliché in the 50 years since The Godfather came out, it belongs on this list.
According to Hollywood legend, the cat’s appearance wasn’t planned for by director Francis Ford Coppola. The cat just wandered on set, and Coppola handed it to Brando. And thus, one of the great cats in the history of cinema got a role in one of the most celebrated films of all time.
Pyewacket in Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
If you’ve never seen Bell, Book and Candle, do yourself a favor and watch it — especially if you get excited about magical cats in movies. Seriously, it’s a real treat in the realm of fantasy romantic comedies, and features wonderful performances by screen legends like Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon.
It also features a great performance from a cat. The cat is named Pyewacket — a name that comes from the testimony of Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century English hunter of witches during the persecution of witches during that time. Pyewacket was listed as one of the familiars of a witch who was questioned.
In the movie, Pyewacket the cat is a familiar of the witch Gillian Holroyd (Novak), and assists her in casting a love spell on Jimmy Stewart’s Shepherd Henderson. I won’t spoil the ins and the outs of the love story for you, but the cat plays a big role — and, somehow, everything works out in the end. This movie has been somewhat forgotten, I think, but it’s a total classic that’s really worth your time.
Mr. Bigglesworth in Austin Powers (1997–2002)
Mr. Bigglesworth, a hairless Sphynx cat belonging to the nefarious Dr. Evil (Mike Myers), is one of the more beloved characters across the Austin Powers series of films. Playing off the cliché mentioned earlier in regard to The Godfather, Mr. Bigglesworth’s strange, otherworldly cuteness lends an extra level of hilariousness to the whole joke that is Dr. Evil.
In the world of the movies, Mr. Bigglesworth lost all his hair during the cryogenic freezing process that allowed Dr. Evil to escape to the future. In real life though, Mr. Bigglesworth was a hairless cat named “Ted Nudegent,” and evidently his nephews appeared in American Horror Story and I Know Who Killed Me, so the family has lived on in show business.
Floyd in Ghost (1990)
Ghost is a perfect movie, and Floyd is pretty much a perfect cat. Floyd plays the time-honored cat-role of warning the good people in the movie that evil stuff is going to happen. In Ghost, Floyd manages to warn Molly (Demi Moore) that there’s an intruder in her apartment.
That’s the simple version of what happens, but the full story is much more complicated. What’s really going on is that the cat is one of the only beings around — Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown, who has access to the spirit world unbeknownst to herself, is another — who can see the ghost-version of Sam (Patrick Swayze), Molly’s recently-deceased partner. So Sam is able to spook Floyd into spooking the intruder.
If that all sounded convoluted, well, then I think you probably haven’t seen Ghost, and you should work on fixing that situation immediately. It’s one of the greatest, saddest, best romantic fantasies of all time, and the performances by Swayze, Goldberg and, yes, Floyd the cat are well worth your time.
The black cat in Kuroneko (1968)
The legendary Japanese director Kaneto Shindo — his 1964 film Onibaba is another must-see — centers this film on Japanese folktales about bakeneko, or supernatural cats that take the form of human beings.
In Kuroneko, which literally means “black cat,” a pair of women who are murdered by samurai return as spirits to get revenge. They get this revenge by luring samurai into an illusion of a mansion, seducing them and then tearing them apart with their teeth, like cats. Pretty intense, right? It’s also just an incredibly gorgeous, haunting movie, and it’s got the added benefit of having a cat right at the center of the story.
Keanu from Keanu (2016)
There are lots of cats I could give honorable mention to, but a list like this should be a little exclusive. Still, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t wrap up with Keanu, the cat whose name is the title of the film. Keanu’s cuteness is basically what drives the entire plot of the movie, which is hilarious and stars Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as cousins who take on a whole gang to rescue their kitten.
How we get there is hard to explain, and you’ll enjoy the movie more if you don’t know what’s coming. For this list, let’s just say that the adorable cat is the reason you’re ultimately watching this movie. That’s exactly how it should be, as far as I’m concerned.