Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cat Dancers: The Strangest HBO Documentary Ever

If you like TV programs about Ebola, chimeras, comets, tsunamis and wild animals that bite, you might consider giving Cat Dancers (HBO) a gander. If you watch Meerkat Manor, Air Jaws, old Judy Garland movies and Oprah only when conjoined twins are making an appearance, then Jane's special algorithm for determining what you might like to watch based on your past viewing choices says, "run don't walk" to Cat Dancers on HBO. If you have ever once searched the web for information on "Plushies" (people who dress up like stuffed animals) trust me, this one's for you. It's very special.

Cat Dancers tells the story of Ron and Joy Holiday, and their lover Chuck Lizza. Their menage- a-trois would be weird enough, but the happy threesome went on to form one of the world's first exotic tiger entertainment acts. That's right, before Sigfried and Roy, there were the Cat Dancers. And without being too much of a spoiler, let's just say both acts experienced similar tragic grand finales.

Most of the film is narrated by Ron Holiday, an enthusiastic but oddly emotionless fellow given to wearing wigs, eyeliner and ballet tights. He was married for over 40 years to Joy and they had a very successful adagio dance team that performed at Radio City Music Hall in NYC. Joy Holiday is a cheerful busty blond who once wanted to be a nun. Chuck, their paramour, was a young man who once worked for the circus. Together they formed the "Cat Dancers" and they performed for 14 years with leopards, panthers and a white tiger hybrid named Jupiter.

Don't read the whole story on the HBO site unless you want to know how this odd documentary ends. I'm not going to reveal it here, because I've been haunted by it for days. It's disturbing on so many levels. As an animal rights activist, I can't endorse the idea of big cats being used as circus performers. If my own little cats Bob and CNN can't stand to be cooped up in a house all day, I can't imagine how bored and unhappy big cats must feel being in a cage.

Nevertheless, if your tastes in TV gravitate to the extremely unusual, then I can't recommend Cat Dancers enough.

Cat Dancers debuted on Dec 15th, 2008 at 8pm on HBO. Check your guide for repeat air dates, or see HBO on Demand.


Lisa said...

I finally watched the whole documentary early this morning. Incredible...haunting is the word. It's a beautifully made, undeniably odd but completely authentic look at the fringe where show business meets obsession meets love meets exotica. Wow. I loved it. I think Ron is sweet and sincere, and his love of his cats touching. His marriage and home life in some ways were so normal and other ways so unconventional, as is he.

Ultimately tragic, and inevitable, probably.

What a tremendous doc!

Jill said...

I just watched it while sitting on the sofa with my little mini-cats (housecats), and I'm just shattered. Unfortunately, too much of the talk about this is going to be about the ménage à trois, and it shouldn't be, because however we might not be able to understand it, it worked.

I also don't like the whole idea of taking these animals and using them as circus performers, but it's clear that Ron loves these beasts as much as we love our little cats purring on an afghan. Ron is certainly an odd duck, but no odder than most people who make their lives in show business, and his tendency towards the theatric makes his telling of his story that much more compelling.

This film is one of the reasons I love documentaries so much; because real people's lives are so much more interesting than any fiction can be.

Jane said...

Lisa and Jill, since you've both seen the documentary I feel like I can talk about the ending. It was a perfect example of why no one should ever try to domesticate big cats. Jupiter was behaving naturally when he attacked Joy. In the wild, big cats survive by knowing when to go after sick or starving animals. Joy clearly gave off those signals and when she turned her back, his big cat instincts took over. Thanks for your comments, ladies!

Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze me. Despite knowing and understanding big cat behaviour better than most people, animal trainers still make the mistake of thinking that animals that they train somehow becoome "more understanding" of humans through the constant interaction of trainer and animal, which leads to familiarity and risk with these precious creatures. They still cannot develop cognitive thinking skills, and the only reson why they don't eat the trainers is because they are fed plenty of meat as an "alternative" food source. They are one dimensional creatures, and sooner or later, they will prove it, despite sometimes tragic consequences.