With three films in the next twelve months—including ‘Married to the Mob’—Michelle Pfeiffer is more than the movies’ prettiest face | By James Kaplan and Photographed by Terry O’Neill
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO? FOR EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD MICHELLE Pfeiffer, tan and pretty and bored out of her skull, that was no easy question. Her orange county, California, high school had been so mind-numbing that she’d taken course credit for her after-school jobs and grabbed a diploma at the end of her junior year. Since then, she’d dabbled in psychology courses at a junior college (dull), worked some odd jobs (duller), and spent a year at court-reporting school (imagine a bill Moyers special on the steam engine). Now it was 1975, and Pfeiffer was a checkout girl at Vons supermarket number 50 in El Toro, California, and going absolutely nowhere. In her life, there was the beach, her boyfriend, the supermarket—zzzzzzzzzz. And so Michelle Pfeiffer stood there at her cash register and thought to herself: What do you want to do?
“I can see me standing in the check stand in my little red smock and my black polyester pants and my white nurse shoes,” she says, her mind spinning out the details. “My black pants that had faded to gray, so that my boss was taking up a collection to get me a new pair. And I guess I just asked myself, ‘If you could have anything, somebody could just hand it over to you, what would you want to do?’ And it was acting.”
It is now thirteen years since that epiphany, and Pfeiffer, wearing dark sunglasses and a distressed-leather jacket and carrying her own garment bag, strides into the first-class section of a 747, where she is promptly snubbed by a flight attendant. Finally, and not without difficulty, her bag gets stowed. “My timing’s bad today,” Pfeiffer says as she sits down. She looks amazing, of course, and maybe the frazzled attendant could’ve used a little less amazing.
As for Pfeiffer, she’s in a complicated, contemplative mood, perhaps even a little frazzled herself. She is jetting back to Los Angeles for two final weeks of work on Tequila Sunrise, written and directed by Robert Towne and costarring Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell. After wrapping Tequila, Pfeiffer will fly to Paris to start work on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with director Stephen Frears and Glenn Close and John Malkovich. Adding to her concern is some personal turbulence: a divorce from her husband of eight years, actor Peter Horton, is apparently in the works, and future reports will have her paired with Michael Keaton.
But foremost on Pfeiffer’s mind is what may prove to be the breakthrough role of her ten-year acting career, in Jonathan Demme’s hilarious, polychrome farce-with-a-heart, Married to the Mob. Pfeiffer plays Angela, a mafioso’s widow who falls in love with her FBI tail, played by Matthew Modine. Pfeiffer, the essence of the California girl, simply nails the Long Island mob princess part, accent and all. It’s Angela’s movie, and even with Modine and Dean Stockwell doing letter-perfect work as Fed and Don, Pfeiffer walks off with the picture on her miniskirted hips.
Pfeiffer herself isn’t so sure. “I like Married to the Mob a lot,” she says. “But I don’t think I’m funny. I never think I’m funny, and I’m always in these comedies. See, I don’t know how this happens, or why this happens, but I always end up playing the heart of the piece. Like, in a comedy, I always end up playing the anchor, the person whose job is to be believable. And not necessarily funny. Happens to me all the time.”
To learn why that happens, Pfeiffer need only look in the mirror. It’s been no unmixed blessing, that face. “I think,” Jonathan Demme says, “that more than any other quote-unquote beautiful actress, Michelle has been handicapped by her appearance. She has such an overwhelming face that people have tended to cast her because of the way she looks.”
“Michelle’s a terrific comedienne,” says Patricia Birch, who directed Pfeiffer in the ill-fated Grease 2. “She’s like a little racehorse. She has both a delicacy and a strong will.”
“Her wit drew me to her,” says Robert Towne. “In Sweet Liberty, I loved the way she was able to create this movie actress who was sweet and genteel one minute and screaming on the phone the next. In Tequila, she plays a restaurateur whose calm exterior is a kind of mask; you’re constantly wondering what’s underneath this almost [Grace] Kelly-like cool.”
True enough, only it wasn’t so long ago that it was Pfeiffer who was doing most of the wondering. Now she seems poised to savor the movie stardom that seemed so far away thirteen years ago. “I have a feeling that she’s been in touch with her gift all along,” says Demme, “and that she’s exhibited enormous patience with those of us who tend to focus first on how gorgeous she is.”
“I have a feeling she’s been in touch with her gift all along,” says Demme, “and she’s exhibited enormous patience with those who focus on how gorgeous she is.”
Midway City, in Orange County, California, is as plain-vanilla as its name, a blip on the map between Huntington Beach and Westminster, Seal Beach and Santa Ana. Highway 39 runs through town on its way to better things. The land is flat, and the houses are old—for California—and boxy and small. All in all, a good place to get out of. Michelle Pfeiffer stayed there for twenty years.
She was the second of four children (and the first daughter) of a heating and air-conditioning contractor and his wife. Dick and Donna Pfeiffer inculcated their children with the value of work. When Michelle was small, her father would pay her 50 cents apiece to clean old refrigerators that he reconditioned and sold. From the age of fourteen on, she had a variety of jobs: in clothing stores, with an optometrist, at a jewelry manufacturer, in a preschool, and, for the longest stint, in a series of local Vons supermarkets.
Pfeiffer was, it seemed, thoroughly unexceptional: a pretty blond in an ocean of other pretty blonds. “I had her as a sophomore in my world history class,” says John Bovberg, who still teaches at Fountain Valley High School. “She was a little cutie. My class includes quite a lot of participation—we do skits. One was the Truman Trial: What if we had lost World War II, and Harry Truman was being tried for war crimes for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima? I remember Michelle dressed up as one of the victims of the bomb.”
Was she bright? “Very,” Bovberg says. “An A to B student. Oh, she was a little sweetie. She came every day.”
BUT THE LITTLE SWEETIE STARTED to grow up. Fountain Valley High was sharply divided into cliques—the surfers, the jocks, the low-rides, the nerds—and Pfeiffer, as an attractive blonde, bright or not, gravitated in a predictable direction. Her relationships with Danny Jackson, a football player, and then with Mickey Swenson, a handsome, funny athlete, placed her squarely in cool territory. But her academic performance began to decline as her beach attendance increased.
“I did a lot of lying to keep out of trouble with my parents,” Pfeiffer recalls. “I once got caught doing something so radical—you know, I’d ditched school, I had spent the weekend with all these kids in this unchaperoned house—and I knew I was busted. And I came in, and I forget what kind of lie I told my father, but I actually burst into tears. I was so shocked at myself!” She laughs at the memory.
When Pfeiffer found out she could get English credits by taking theater courses, she jumped at the chance. “I’d always thought that theater people were really weird,” she says. “And I got into this class, and I just fell in love with the people there. They were funny, witty; they were very interesting. It was the only class that I made an effort to go to.”
But if she had any ambitions, she did a god job of hiding them. “She didn’t try out for any of the major productions,” says Carole Cooney, who taught Pfeiffer’s theater class. “I saw her as this sunshine surfer beach girl. She was more out of the class than in.”
The only high school production Pfeiffer ever acted in was a daylong Christmas skit written by her theater classmates and performed at Fountain Valley. “She and I were twins waiting up for Santa Claus,” classmate Tony Vrab remembers. Was she talented? “She was okay, I guess, but I wouldn’t say I thought she’d go out and do anything big.”
Pfeiffer took the extra credits she had gotten from working outside jobs and graduated a year early. She was living at home, but her spirit drifted. She worked at Vons for a year. She went to the beach. She went to court-reporting school in Garden Grove the following year. She was bored out of her mind. She dropped in and out of Golden West College. She went back to Vons. Then she had her revelation. “I just made the decision to try [acting],” she says. “I didn’t know then, you know, where do I go from here.”
She didn’t know, but she knew. Her hairdresser had been bugging her for a while about modeling. But the idea of exhibiting herself had always embarrassed Pfeiffer. Now she swallowed her embarrassment and called the hairdresser. She had some pictures taken.
SOON SHE WAS MISS ORANGE COUNTY. She lost in the Miss L.A. contest—“Thank God,” Pfeiffer says—but met a commercial agent and began auditioning for commercials. She hated it. “In order to be a good commercial actor, you have to learn how to do a specific kind of bad acting well,” she says. “If you walk out of an audition feeling like you made a complete asshole out of yourself, chances are you got the job.”
She got a couple of commercials but didn’t quit her standby job. Not that she was languishing unnoticed at Vons. “She was real pretty; she had kind of unique looks,” says Bob Heimstra, then a clerk at store number 45, in Santa Ana. “I went out with her a couple of times, in group situations, to Angels games. Once I asked her for a date, a one-on-one thing, but she said she made it a rule not to go out with anyone from the store.”
She could do the more subtle forms of acting, too. Before long there were results. “One day I was in the Vons in El Toro,” John Bovberg remembers, “and Michelle came running across the store. ‘Mr.B.!’ she said. ‘I got an agent!’ she said she was trying out for some TV show. And I took her aside, and I said. ‘Now, Michelle. Not too many people make it in the movies.’ I recommended she give junior college [another] try. But she seemed driven; she seemed to have a lot of confidence.”
The agent’s name was John LaRocca. “She was working at Vons down in Orange County,” he says. “And she came into my office, and I said, ‘Michelle, excuse me for saying this, but you’re in the wrong business.’”
Asked about Michelle Pfeiffer today, LaRocca exhales heavily. “It’s a difficult subject to talk about,” he says. “To have represented her during the most difficult years in her career, and then to have her leave and go on…” He sighs. “It wasn’t just that she was beautiful,” LaRocca says. “She had a sense of character, a sense of family, a sense of love. She was a deep person. I got her her SAG card.”
Pfeiffer began going to acting school in Los Angeles. She commuted for a while, then moved to the city. And LaRocca finally got her the big break: a line on Fantasy Island. “I’ll never forget it,” Pfeiffer says. “ ‘Who is he, Naomi?’ I practiced and practiced that line. I remember being so discombobulated, because I had to find my mark—you know, you don’t learn that in acting class. And the lights were so bright I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I remember showing up for work and having my name on the dressing room.
“And then,” Pfeiffer says, “I got a series.”
The year was 1979, and the series was Delta House, a spin-off of You Know What. Bruce McGill, who had played D-Day in Animal House, reprised his film role and starred in the sitcom. “Michelle was absolutely unschooled as an actress, but she was always asking the right questions,” McGill says. “I developed a kind of paternal interest in her. She was drop-dead gorgeous, of course, and the producers put her in this tight red dress, with a padded bra. She particularly hated that, I remember. Her character was called Bombshell. She almost never got to speak a line. She was a very good sport about the whole thing, but I know it was hard on her.”
“I used to call up my agent, crying on the phone: ‘They’re putting me in hot pants again,’” Pfeiffer says. “I had two sets of falsies on. Here they were presenting me like I’m this sexy thing, and I was thinking, ‘What if people don’t think I’m sexy? I’m gonna look like an asshole.’”
At the same time, LaRocca had landed Pfeiffer a small role as the younger version of a character played by Susannah York in an independently produced picture called Falling in Love Again. By day, she shot Delta House; at night and on weekends, she got her start in movies. She kept going to acting class, and LaRocca got her more parts, with a nod to the Bombshell: she showed up in The Hollywood Knights, in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. It wasn’t much of a career, but Pfeiffer was working, and working hard. “Even though the films that I was doing weren’t exactly what I ideally wanted,” Pfeiffer says, “each time I made a choice, I made sure it was something a little better than the last one.”
Then she made a big choice: she fired her agent. “It wasn’t my decision, and it wasn’t because of a lack of work,” says LaRocca, who was left with only his memories of Pfeiffer and an autographed picture: “To John, who has taken me from crayons to perfume. Thank you for your hard work, never-ending faith & love. I love you, Michelle.”
The new Michelle Pfeiffer knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. She signed with Gary Lucchesi and Alan Lezman at William Morris, and they promptly got her a big audition: Grease 2.
“She sort of wandered in very late in the day,” recalls director Pat Birch. “And she was just kind of delectable. I liked her right away. I remember there was this humongous dance audition a few days later, and she was hanging around in the background, very shy, and the only way I was able to pick her out was because she was wearing these purple boots. She didn’t think she could dance, but she moved beautifully. And she could act.”
Pfeiffer won her first lead: the singin’, dancin’ Stephanie Zinone, leader of the Pink Ladies. All right, it was Grease 2, but it was a lead. And Pfeiffer was delectable in the movie, both beautiful and magnetic. Grease 2 coproducer Allen Carr felt the same way. He thought both his movie and Pfeiffer were going to be huge.
But Grease 2 went nowhere, and Pfeiffer didn’t work for more than a year afterward. She says there were plenty of offers, but they all had something to do with Stephanie Zinone. John LaRocca tells a different story. “She couldn’t get any jobs,” he says. “Nobody wanted to hire her.”
Take both stories with a grain of salt, and look for the truth somewhere in between. Meanwhile, Pfeiffer’s acting teacher, Peggy Feury, Pfeiffer’s own instincts had told her to raise her sights. And time passed, and people forgot Grease 2, and her agents looked for possibilities. Then one arose.
“I used to call up my agent, crying, ‘They’re putting me in hot pants again.’ I was thinking, ‘What if people don’t think I’m sexy? I’m gonna look like an ass.”
Pfeiffer auditioned—and auditioned again—for the role of Al Pacino’s ice-queen wife, Elvira, in Scarface. The casting director, Alixe Gordin, thanked her and said she was looking elsewhere. A month later, Pfeiffer was called back.
Pfeiffer acted her performance in Scarface. But it was a Pyrrhic victory: Elvira’s eyes were as dead and cold as everything else around her. “After Scarface,” Pfeiffer says, “I got offered every bitch that has ever been.” Instead, she took Ladyhawke.
“I almost didn’t do the movie,” Pfeiffer says. “I didn’t want to play this little princess running around in the woods. Then I spoke with [director] Dick Donner, and he said that wasn’t how he saw the character. He wanted to cut my hair off real short, like Joan of Arc, and I thought that was interesting: and I just loved the script so much. It was one of the most charming, sweet script I had ever read.”
It was a shrewd movie. The role wasn’t exactly a lead, bit it was a terrific showcase. Grease 2 had bombed; Scarface had covered her in a frozen shell. And now, all at once, here were stills and TV spots for Ladyhawke revealing, almost casually, this…face: perfect white skin; a wide, slightly smirking, thin but sensual mouth; and eyes to die for. Here was a woman around whom a myth might credibly be constructed.
Next, as Diana in John Landis’s Into the Night, Pfeiffer’s blue-jeaned, gum-cracking fugitive-waif (opposite a deadpan Jeff Goldblum) brought a badly needed emotional core to a comedy-thriller that was intriguing but mostly too hip for anyone to care. Pfeiffer’s work looked effortless and utterly natural, which was the first clue that something major was up.
Bruce McGill played a small role as Pfeiffer’s brother, an Elvis impersonator, in Into the Night. “She’d changed,” McGill says. “For the better. Without being a prima donna, she now had as much faith in her opinion of a scene as in anyone else’s.” Next came Alan Alda’s saccharine Sweet Liberty, in which Pfeiffer was nevertheless able to pull off a small comic coup as the Hollywood actress who’s all sunshine and cheekbones when she needs to be, and tougher than the rest when it comes to business.
And then Pfeiffer took on an unusual project: Natica Jackson, a television film for PBS, based on a John O’Hara short story, set in Hollywood of the mid-‘30s, it’s about a movie queen who falls in love with a commoner—a married chemist—when she accidentally rear-ends his car. With her looks, Pfeiffer was perfect for the role, but she took it far beyond beauty; she inhabited Natica Jackson to eerie perfection. “Michelle was the first person we thought of,” says Paul Bogart, who directed the film. “She identified very strongly with Natica, who could be bartered and exchanged like a piece of merchandise. Michelle felt she understood what it was like to be a kind of commodity.”
Next came The Witches of Easwick, which made Pfeiffer more of a household name than she’d been before, but which she regarded with some ambivalence. “The first time I saw it, I hated it,” she says. “It was so different than the way I had envisioned it. The original script was more of a dark comedy, as opposed to…there were no special effects; there wasn’t all of that flying in the air. For me, what was interesting about it was how it played on a psychological level: the power play between men and women.”
It was the success of that film that made her a logical choice for the lead in Married to the Mob. To capture Angela, Pfeiffer eagerly sought out her character’s peers. “I met some great gals out in Long Island,” Pfeiffer says. “They’re fantastic. The Press-On Queens.” She shifts into her Angela voice. “Cawla and Anna Maria. They were sistuhs. And Cawla was a hairdresser, and she was going to be getting her own chair. We talked about nails, we talked about hair, we talked about makeup.” She goes back to her own voice. “They were great. I wanted to be more like them after I’d met them. There’s a certain art in really enjoying life that’s in everything they do.”
Regardless of her acting skills, conversation about Pfeiffer tend to double back to her beauty. Surely her looks opened the doors for movie business to her—but her beauty every held her back? Indeed, how conscious of her looks has she been? “I have to be really honest, and I don’t know how this is gonna sound. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that I was extraordinary-looking. In fact, I know that I’m not. If anything, I’ve always felt that I was conventionally pretty, which is an asset in some ways, and in some ways not. It’s really hard subject to talk about,” she says. “You know, it’s like one of those things where you’re fucked either way.”
She pauses for a moment. “I think,” she says, “that, if anything, I am in touch with my passion about acting. I’m not necessarily in touch with my talent. When I see my work, I never feel like I reach where my talent is. I must say that torments me.” Then she brightens. “But I remember Mrs. Cooney saying to me that I had talent.”
These days, Mrs. Cooney isn’t the only one singing her praises. “I showed Stephen Frears a couple of reels of Married when he was considering Michelle for Liaisons,” says Jonathan Demme. “And he was clearly under her spell. But maybe he hesitated for an instant. He said, ‘You know, she’s gonna be out there with John Malkovich and Glenn Close.’” Demme laughs. “And I thought, but didn’t say, ‘They better watch out.’”
And what of Pfeiffer’s future? “Michelle’s growth has been astonishing,” says Robert Towne. “I think she’ll keep on amazing us.” If that’s so, this may be the year that Hollywood starts asking Michelle Pfeiffer an old question: What do you want to do?
James Kaplan interviewed Sean Penn, Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper in the April 1988 issue of PREMIERE.