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The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing
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The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing

Although he began his career in bit parts in television and film Westerns, Burt Reynolds delivers a rare star-billed turn in the genre with The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973). The film, set in the 1880s Southwest, chronicles a man named Jay (Reynolds) on the run from the law after murdering the man who raped and killed his Native American wife. Along with two outlaw cronies, Jay takes to robbing trains, a situation which leads him to kidnap Catherine (Sarah Miles), a woman who is running away from her husband. Together the group heads west toward Indian territory where Jay hopes to reclaim his children, now under the protection of his dead wife's tribe. Meanwhile, a posse of bounty hunters led by Catherine's husband stalks them every step of the way.

The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing was made at the time Reynolds' fame was about to shift into overdrive. His performance in Deliverance the previous year had earned him critical praise, while a controversial Cosmopolitan magazine semi-nude centerfold gained him a certain notoriety in the Hollywood press. Over the next few years, Burt portrayed himself on-screen as a "good ol' boy" in such hits as The Longest Yard (1974), Gator (1976) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977).

"It was an astounding kind of time," Reynolds said of his early success in the 1970s. "I've often said to people, 'If I met you between '73 and '78, I'm sorry, I don't remember three or four of those years.' You're on such a fast track, and you're up in such heady air you can't breathe."

MGM studio head James Aubrey was convinced that Reynolds and Sarah Miles were going to generate a lot of publicity for their on-screen sexual chemistry and he even invited talk show host Merv Griffin to the set to do a TV special on the making of the film. What he didn't count on was the negative buzz the film generated during production - but more on that later.

Along with Reynolds and Miles, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing included a diverse cast of Hollywood veterans and Native American extras. Lee J. Cobb plays Harvey Lapchance, the agent tracking the fugitives across the West, and George Hamilton plays Catherine's spurned husband. Jay Silverheels, best known as Tonto on TV's The Lone Ranger, turns up as an Indian chief.

Helmed by Richard Sarafian, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing was allegedly turned down originally by several directors, including Steven Spielberg. Ironically, a future collaborator of Spielberg's, composer John Williams, signed on to create the music score.

The movie was based on a best-selling first novel by Marilyn Durham, but the film rights were bought before the book was even published. Screenwriter Eleanor Perry (The Swimmer, 1968, Diary of a Mad Housewife, 1970) had seen early proofs of the book and was instrumental in securing the property and for producing the original screenplay. She later disowned the finished movie which bore little relation to her script and was instead the result of several rewrites featuring contributions by Robert Bolt (Sarah Miles' screenwriter husband), Bill Norton, Tracy Keenan Wynn, Steve Shagan, and Brian Hutton.

Despite the attempts of MGM's publicity department to create a buzz about the on-screen paring of Reynolds and Miles, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing was not a box office smash. Most fans of the novel were disappointed and critics were decidedly mixed on the reviews, though Harry Stradling, Jr.'s Panavision cinematography and the striking Arizona locations were consistently praised. Typical of the criticisms is this assessment of Sarah Miles' performance by 'Murf" in Variety: "The femme lead role calls less for acting ability than a willingness to be dragged, beaten, stomped on, and abused in a variety of ways; in other words, the role depicts a dedicated masochist. Miles brings to her characterization a most avid acceptance of this challenge; in fact she seems to be enjoying it all immensely, a factor which nullifies in part the character's travails and makes her protestations amusingly close to those of a de Sade's Justine."

What most people remember about The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing wasn't the film at all but the scandal that surrounded the making of it. During production, David A. Whiting, Miles' personal assistant, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in his hotel room. Despite an inquest that ruled his death a suicide due to an overdose of drugs, no explanation could be found for the bruises and a star-shaped laceration on his body. Some rumors suggested he was beaten to death in a fight but no further evidence was produced. As for Miles and Reynolds, who had to testify in the ensuing investigation about their own role in the events (Miles found the body and Reynolds came to her aid), The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing is probably an experience both actors would like to forget.

Producer: Eleanor Perry, Martin Poll, T.W. Sewell
Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Screenplay: Eleanor Perry, Marilyn Durham (novel)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Jr.
Film Editing: Tom Rolf
Art Direction: Edward C. Carfagno
Music: John Williams
Cast: Burt Reynolds (Jay), Sarah Miles (Catherine), Lee J. Cobb (Lapchance), Jack Warden (Dawes), George Hamilton (Crocker), Bo Hopkins (Billy).
C-124m. Letterboxed.

by Amy Cox

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