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Engrossing "Cat Dancers" stranger than fiction

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - This seems to be the season for documentaries that chronicle mind-boggling true romances.

Audiences recently gaped at “Crazy Love,” the story of the 50-year-long relationship of a couple that stayed together even after the man deliberately blinded the woman he loved. And now “Cat Dancers” zeroes in on a bizarre menage a trois that ended in tragedy. This HBO documentary will stir up conversation when it airs on the cable network, but it also has a shot to generate healthy box office business in theaters.

Ron and Joy Holiday met in 1954 and eventually married. They began as ballet dancers, but when their dance careers dried up, they started an act performing with exotic animals, primarily such large cats as tigers and leopards.

In one of the film’s fascinating footnotes, we learn that it was William Holden who helped launch their second careers by offering them a baby leopard as pet. The Holidays’ act thrived, and in 1988 they decided to expand by bringing into the show a handsome young circus performer, Chuck Lizza. Before long Chuck, a couple of decades their junior, became the lover of both Ron and Joy, and so their lives were even more intimately intertwined. But in 1998, Chuck was killed by a white tiger in their menagerie. Soon after that, a despondent Joy also was killed by the same tiger, under circumstances that have never been fully explained.

Much of the film is told by Ron, who still is going strong and training young performers. There also is a good deal of home movie footage, along with TV news broadcasts showing the trio at various points in their lives.

The film provokes a great many questions. Like Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” “Cat Dancers” asks us to ponder what drives people to spend their lives in close proximity to dangerous animals. This was not simply a job for Ron and Joy but a consuming passion. There are, of course, many animal lovers, but they generally stick to more domesticated pets. As well trained as jungle beasts may be, they are never entirely predictable, so the people who work with them knowingly assume a huge risk.

Another question that the film stirs concerns the dynamic of the romantic relationships. Because Ron is the only person around to describe this three-way love affair, we wonder if we are getting the whole story. Would Chuck or Joy offer a different perspective? We have no reason to doubt Ron’s veracity, but we do miss hearing from the other two parties to the triangle.

Given the sensational nature of the subject, the film was bound to be riveting. But it happens also to be skillfully executed by director Harris Fishman and his editor, Alexis Spraic, who does wonders weaving together the preexisting footage and brand new material. Another asset is the haunting musical score by String Theory and Peter Salett. This story of various forms of crazy -- or at least unconventional -- love might leave us with more questions than answers, but it tantalizes long after the lights come on.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter