Scene Stealer – Michelle Pfeiffer Takes Big Risks for the Right Roles | November 6, 1989

Scene Stealer – Michelle Pfeiffer Takes Big Risks for the Right Roles | November 6, 1989

Fabulous Pfeiffer

The versatile, risk-taking ‘Baker Boys’ beauty has become Hollywood’s hottest new star. Will her winning streak continue with ‘The Russia House’?

NEWSWEEK: NOVEMBER 6, 1989 | by David Ansen

Evening is falling over Moscow, and her work in front of the cameras — in cold, unfriendly Russian weather — is over. It should be time for Michelle Pfeiffer, a California girl a long way from home, to put up her feet, buthe hard part is just beginning. She’s sitting in her dimly lit, high-ceilinged suite at the Sovietskaya Hotel staring at a row of white paper slips laid across the coffee tableAcross from her sits her interpreter and accent coach Inga. They are practicing scene for the film of John le Carrés The Russia Housein which Pfeiffer as the Russian heroine Katya must speak to her children in her native tongue. In two days, her pronunciation must be authentic.

“Shto .. . vy .. . budyete . .. dyelat . . . yesli . . . oh, god what’s this one? … vasha . . . mamochka . . . nye vernyotsya odin … vecher.” It’s bad enough that she has to play a Russian who speaks English with a British/ Russian accent. But this! This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Pfeiffer says, sweeping a cascade of blond hair back into an untidy ponytail. “I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.”

Dragging on a cigarette, Pfeiffer may look pale and waif-like in her oversize green sweater, but this “extreme perfectionist,” as one of her admiring directors describes her, is up for the challenge. It’s her biggest gamble in career that keeps getting riskier: will audiences accept Michelle Pfeiffer as a brave Russian book editor who becomes  caught up in international intrigue?

Only a few years ago the idea would have been considered a joke. It took the better part of a decade for Hollywood to wake up to the fact that this painfully beautiful woman had untapped reservoirs of talent. But since the light dawned, and the plum parts came rolling in, Pfeiffer has been on a demonic working spree. In the last two years, she has gone from her breakthrough comic role as a Long Island mafioso wife in Married to the Mobto the cool restaurateur in “Tequila Sunrise” to an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a pious victim of love in Dangerous Liaisons” to the scintillating lounge-bar chanteuse Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys.” In  this bluesy romance, as a hard-shelled former escort girl, she stakes her claim as the current cinema’s reigning object of desireBut there’s more than sex appeal radiating from the screen: she’s funny and brittle and touching, and when she launches into her audition song, “More Than You Know,” it’s not just the Baker boys who are startled by her musical talent.

It was daring enough exposing her vocal stylings with only a two-piano backup, but she upped the ante again, not altogether successfully, by plunging into the role of Olivia in Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Twelfth Night.” The plan then was to take a break but she couldn’t turn down ”Russia House.” There was the chance to work in Russia, on a Tom Stoppard script, with a director of Fred (“Roxanne,” A Cry in the Dark”) Schepisi’s stature. It was too much to resist.

“I don’t really like working this much,” she says, in her old-style hotel. But something will come along that I really love. And I think, ‘This is your time. You spent years unemployed, when you desperately wanted to work but the opportunities weren’t there, and now they are …’ This is the time when I’m supposed to be living out of a suitcase and going to distant places.”

This is her time. At 31, Michelle Pfeiffer can properly be anointed a movie star. She has passed the acid test of stardom: when she’s on screen, all eyes are on her. But why? She is not, like Meryl Streep, an actress who overwhelms with technique. She isn’t, like Goldie Hawn, someone who stamps each role with an unmistakable persona, or like Jane Fonda, whose presence embodies a particular set of values, or Barbra Streisand, whose every move is larger than life. No, if Pfeiffer evokes comparisons you’d have to reach back to the ’40s, to those hot and cold sirens like Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth. At least that’s who comes to mind when watching “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” Coiled catlike atop a piano singing “Makin’ Whoopee” to a hot and bothered Jeff Bridges, she’s as fatale as any of the great femmes. What’s different about Pfeiffer from these formidable predecessors is her vulnerability-she can break your heart.

None of her precursors had her range. Whether she’s playing tough cookies (“Scarface”) or good bad girls (“Into the Night”) or poised Grace Kelly types (“Tequila Sunrise“) or a witch with a cold sore (“The Witches of Eastwick”), there’s an egoless quality to Pfeiffer’s acting, an ability to bury herself inside the skin of a character, that always renders her life-size. Its the reason, perhaps, that women who might otherwise shun such a bombshell warm to Pfeiffer as much as men do. There’s never the sense of an actress over-selling herself, or conversely, the feeling that she’s just sliding by on her looks. To borrow a favorite sportscasting cliche, this is an actress who stays within herself. And has, year after year, steadily raised the level of her game.

Pfeiffer’s professional self-assessment is simpler. “I have such a fear of embarrassing myself that I will do anything not to embarrass myself. That’s it. That’s the key to my success.” She got her first big break landing the lead role in the musical “Grease 2” (1982), but despite the studio’s massive promotional hype neither her career, nor the movie, took flight. Pfeiffer’s uncanny ability to make people believe she’s the character she’s playing boomeranged. As a bubble-gum-popping high school vixen, she gave a sly, delectably sluttish performance. But most people just assumed she was another vapid California cutie as crude as the part she played. Like Jessica Lange, who for years was stigmatized by playing King Kong’s bubbleheaded girlfriend, Pfeiffer was in danger of being consigned to what one headline writer has called “bimbo limbo.

Wising up: She waited a year before her next part, as the cokesnorting, contemptuous gangster’s moll Elvira in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” which was followed by the lead in Ladyhawke,” a medieval flight of fancy . that despite her ethereal presence  remained clunkily earthbound. Another year before landing John Landis’s moody little seriocomedy, “Into the Night.” The movie was a flop, but the critics, at least, were wising up to her gifts. A few years had added soul and tension to her face, and in this role, as a frightened fast-lane party girl pursued by mysterious Iranians through the streets of L.A., her sense of comedy emerged, alon gwith something both haunted and heartbreaking. But still no luck: it was another year until Alan Alda’s “Sweet Liberty,” a botched comedy in which Pfeiffer was doubly dazzling. Playing a movie actress cast as a demure Colonial lass, she was all sweetness and light in period dress and tart and neurotic in her offscreen guise. Those who knew her work knew how good she was; the problem was she’d never been in a hit. That didn‘t come until the part she landed a full year later, in The Witches of Eastwick.” She was loveland sprightly, but ironically this was her most forgettable role. Still, it transformed her career. She had been out of the country when Witches” opened. “I came back and everyone had seen it. It was the first time I had been in a really successful movie. And noticed a tremendous change, in scripts that were being offered to me, people recognizing me on the street.”

For the shy, resolutely unglitzy Pfeiffer, who shuns the Hollywood social whirl, celebrity is a mixed blessing: “I like the fact that I don‘t have to worry about money. like that the projects that I’m being offered get better and better and the people I’m with are really interesting. But I don’t like just about everything else about it.” For her, the prospect of attending premieres and going to the Academy Awards is “terrifyingI’m not real social; it’s not my strong point.” One of the nice things about working in Moscow, she says, is being totally anonymous.

Checkout girl: She wasn’t always like this. “I was pretty wild when I was younger, the pendulum just swung the other way. I’m pretty extreme.” Pfeiffer grew up in Midway City, Calif., a suburban Orange County town within spitting distance of Disneyland and Huntington Beach. Her parents had moved to southern California from North Dakota before she was born, and her father set up his own heating and air-conditioning business. It was a classic aimless, fun-in-the-sun childhood: enduring the boredom of school, hanging out with surfers and highschool athletes, brief enthusiasms for painting and dancing but nothing that reallstuck. But a drama class in high school struck a chord: the theater crowd, whom she was conditioned to think of as nerds, fascinated her. “It was the first thing that made the work and the commitment effortless.” From the time she was 14 she worked. She sold clothes, worked in an optometrist’s office, for a printing press, in a preschool, as a checkout girl at a Vons supermarket. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life.” She went to court-reporting school and made a short-lived attempt at junior college.

But the only thing that captured her imagination was acting. “But I was from Orange County and as far as any exposure to show business you might as well be from the Midwest.So she entered and won the Miss Orange County beauty pageant, which led to commercials and her first agent. It was when she moved to Los Angeles that Pfeiffer underwent an internal sea change-the sunburned beach girl put her ambition in focus and dug in. Along the way, she says, I got very introverted.Not knowing many people in L.A. (and nowanting to), she worked and she studied acting and she went out on cattle calls. Her first speaking part-one line-was on an episode of “Fantasy Island.” There were roles in quickly forgotten TV series like “Delta Houseand “B.A.D. Cats” and bit parts in movies such as “The Hollywood Knights” and “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.

Vegetarian cult: Pfeiffer laughs now at the weirdness of those struggling years, which reached their weirdest when she fell under the sway of a cult devoted to “vegetarianism and metaphysics.” “The philosophy was so bizarre, I couldn’t even tell it to you now. I obviously needed to have somebody controlling me, real bad, and probably better it was them than drugs, or some lecherous man. But it did a lot of damage that had to get over for years afterwards.”

She was rescued, in true movie fashion, by love. She was 22 and in an acting class when she met her future husband, Peter Horton. Now famous himself as Gary, the English teacher on “thirtysomething,” Horton remembers encouraging her to leave the cult. They were very didactic, trying to control their pupils’ lives, what they ate, who they were with. I think it scared her a bit.” Pfeiffer says she “hates to admit” he saved her because I don‘t believe in women being saved by men, but I think it was true. I was very lucky.”

The marriage lasted seven years. Despite a painful breakup, they have remained friends. Pfeiffer describes Horton as one of the great people in the world.” He says of her: “She‘s a remarkable woman. She’s just one of those people who come along in life every once in a while.” Neither can quite explain the split, but she has suggested they married too young, and inflicted their growing pains on each other. “It took us three years to split up,” Horton says. “We’d look at each other and say, ‘We love each other, so what’s wrong?’ Turns out we just work much better as friends than spouses.”

Pfeiffer’s growth as an actress has clearly echoed her personal changes. The searching, uncentered cult member has become confident and intellectually curious. Horton puts it succinctly: “She is a much bigger person than she was raised to believe.” Steve Kloves, who wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys,” overflows with praise for her character and her professionalism. “She‘s really a sweetheart in real life. She’s about as far from the cliche of the actor as you could come. Never wears makeup in public, never looks in a mirror when she passes one, very comfortable with herself in a strange way.”

She lives alone with two dogs and a cat in a house in Santa Monica (when not on location) and still, by her account, struggles with her hermitlike tendencies. “I tend to have a very small group of people that socialize with. I‘m very guarded. It takes me a long time to get loose with people, to allow myself to open up to them, but once I do, I’m really friends for life with them.”

Hidden child: One of those friends is Cher. The two became close making The Witches of Eastwick,” but it wasn’t instantaneous. “She’s very guarded,” says Cher. I said to her one day, ‘You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if you had a 10-year-old child hidden away somewhere.’ Neither of us are very trusting. But we do trust each other.”

There is no secret child, but her maternal instincts express themselves in her close relationships with her two younger sisters, Dedee, 25, and Lori, 24. Though both are aspiring actresses, there seems to be no competitiveness. They‘re incredibly protective of me,” Pfeiffer explains. “Heaven forbid anyone should say a bad word about me. No matter where I am, I like to just check in [with them] before I go to bed. It

makes me feel connected.” Lori corroborates: “It’s nice: we have a mom in Orange County and a mom in L.A.”

Never having gone to college, she’s now a compulsive autodidact. Her friends mention her voracious curiosity. “She‘s an avid reader,” says her friend Kate Guinzburg, with whom she recently formed her own production company. “Mention a book and she’ll go out and buy it-and every other book by the author. We took a course in medieval philosophy at UCLA this spring.” Says Kloves: “She‘s someone who constantly wants to improve herself and widen her appreciation of the world. You shouldn’t underestimate this girl.”

Yet there are contradictions aplenty in this fragile-looking, intense woman, who’s capable at one moment of seeming utterly defenseless and the next as tough as nails. If her friends and family emphasize how centered she is, why has she said that from day to day she feels like a different person? One senses that the wild, impulsive Orange County child (whose mother called her “the little drama queen”) and the self-sufficient hermit who likes to read books and builds adobe fireplaces in her house are still duking it out for dominance. Perhaps her creativity depends on those swings of the pendulum. One of her costars, who acted with her during the tough times of her marital breakup, describes a woman completely lacking emotional defenses. Yet Beau Bridges, who costarred with her in “Baker Boys,” says that on the set, “She never got out of control. She was always composed.”

Romantic fantasy: One recent article on Pfeiffer claimed she was prone to fits of testiness. “It’s just not true,” she protests, but then qualifies, “Well, I’m difficult with the press. I try to be polite and a lot of times it comes off as bullshit because I’d rather not be there.” And she admits there have been a few colleagues she’s been angry with. “So to say I’ve never been testy would be a lie. I’ve been downright pain in the ass, but I think it’s rare.” Especially with “people who continually piss me off.” Though she won’t name names, it’s clear from earlier interviews that she was less than delighted working with director Richard Donner on “Ladyhawke” and with Robert Towne on “Tequila Sunrise,” a movie that’s better than she thinks it is. It’s easy to see, however, why she felt constrained by that role: the part is so totally a man’s romantic fantasy of the perfect woman that it must have rankled her sense of truth.

Obviously Pfeiffer’s life since her marriage broke up has not been all work, reading and playing her favorite game of Pictionary. But on the subject of her romantic involvements both Pfeiffer and her friends fiercely guard her privacy. Last year the gossip columns were buzzing with rumors of an affair with her “Dangerous Liaisons” costar John Malkovich, who eventually returned to his wife, actress Glenne Headly. Pfeiffer will not address the subject, but when she speaks of being “in a haze” when she began filming “Baker Boys” the implication is that she was recovering from an agonizing romantic quandary. There were reports for a while that she was seeing “Batman” star Michael Keaton, and there  definitely is a new-although nameless boyfriend on the scene, for he recently flew into Moscow to be with her during the filming of “Russia House.”

And there must have been some pain from the harsh criticism that greeted her first foray into the theater this summer in “Twelfth Night,” an eclectically star-studded production with Jeff Goldblum, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Gregory Hines. She recalls the 24 hours after a devastating New York Times review that accused the production of exploiting her celebrity“I remember driving to the theater in a cab. I wanted to get into a car accident, anything, just don’t make me get back on that stage. And then we went up and gave great show and we had a great audience and I never gave it another thought.” Shakespeare was a totally new experience for her, and many observers thought it exposed her technical weaknesses. While she says she had a wonderful” time she now sees it might have been a mistake doing her first show inN ew York. What she underestimated was the enormous media attention this production would draw. Fortunately, have a pretty good survival mechanism.” Joe Papp insists he was delighted with Pfeiffer though he admits she needs to work on her vocal range. “She has an open invitation here,” he says. “There are several roles she could play.” One of his more fanciful Pappian notions: Michelle Pfeiffer as Lady Macbeth.

More likely, however, Pfeiffer is going to follow up “The Russia House” with another movie. “I’d like to take a break but there’s this movie I love.” It’s a tale of racial prejudice, a black/white love story called “Love Field” with director Jonathan (“Immediate Family,” “The Accused”) Kaplan. She was outraged when she heard that one nervous studio wanted to change the script to make the affair platonic. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘What century are we living in?”‘

Sweet anticipations: It will be fascinating to see how Pfeiffer uses her new clout in the movie industry. Like many powerful actresses before her, she’s set up her own production company-under the aegis of Orion studios and with partner Guinzburg-to develop movies to star in or simply to produce. Guinzburg explains: “She’s saying, ‘I want to take control over my destiny.’ We want to create women protagonists you don’t see.One of their projects is an adaptation of Carol MuskeDukes’s acerbic comic novel “Dear Digby,” in which Pfeiffer would play the letters editor of a feminist magazine. Another is an original script written for her and Cher about yellow journalism and the right-to-privacy act. They are roles in which her beauty will not be the primary object. “Beauty is a boring topic for her,” Guinzburg claims. Indeed, if Pfeiffer is asked a fanzine-ish question, like “How do you feel about being a sex goddess,” the reply is fast and tart. “I’ll tell you how I feel. I feel really bored with that question.”

Across the hotel room, Inga, her Russian interpreter, pipes in innocently: “Are you a sex goddess?”

“Am I? A sex goddess? don’t think so. I don’t see myself as a sex goddess.”

The truth is, she’s a character actress disguised in the body of a classic screen siren. Still, a certain skepticism is unavoidable when she repeatedly says that what sh”e’d really like to play is a bag lady. No doubt she could, and no harm in trying, but when blessed with Michelle Pfeiffer’s looks, why pretend otherwise? People go to the movies for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is the hedonistic pleasure provided by a glamorous movie star. The prospect of spending the ’90s watching this gifted, funny, versatile beauty is one of those sweet anticipations that will make it a little easier getting through the rain to the local cinema.

With CARROLL BOGERT in Moscow, MICHAEL A LERNER in Los Angeles and bureau reports

In Moscow With ‘Fayfer’ and ‘Oh-Oh-Seven’

The crew of “The Russia House” shivers in the Moscow rain as production assistants bark orders in ·English and Russian. Curious passersby are shooed from the steps of the Ukraina Hotel where one of the movie’s show-stopping moments is being filmed: British publisher Barley Blair meets the stunning Katya, for whom he will ultimately defect to the Soviet Union. None of the Soviet onlookers seems to know they’re watching two of moviedom’s biggest stars, Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer. “Fayfer?” says a teenaged boy loitering on the sidelines. “I don’t know her.” He shows a flicker of recognition at the mention of Connery’s former persona, James Bond. “Ah yes, oh-oh-seven, the American spy. He is here?” Thanks to glasnost,. “The Russia House” will be the first of John le Carre’s best sellers to have been filmed behind the Iron Curtain. Australian

director and coproducer Fred Schepisi read the novel in galleys and leapt at the chance to make the first major foreign film in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. He assembled a stellar cast that includes Connery, Pfeiffer, Roy Scheider and Klaus Maria Brandauer, but what most delights Schepisi is the country itself. “I think people will be surprised to see this place on screen,” he says. “The streets, the trucks, the shops, the churches-the dilapidation and the glory. I want to put it all in.”

Five weeks of shooting in the Soviet Union-{)ne in Leningrad, four in Moscow-has meant headaches. Plenty of them. The pipes from the rainmaking machine haven’t fit local sockets. As the crew was preparing to shoot in the streets of Leningrad, the city government suddenly erected scaffolding in preparation for a holiday no one had foreseen: the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Much of the crew has been stricken with the flu after days spent shooting in the cold autumn rains. (Pfeiffer won high marks from her Soviet colleagues when, between takes one blistery day, she wrapped her coat around the shivering child who plays her daughter. Very generous,” says the Russian casting director. “Responsive and sympathetic,” hails actor Nikolai Pastukhov, adding, “She looks just like a beautiful Russian girl.”)

Then there’s been the food problem. To circumvent severe food shortages, supplies are flown in from England and Finland and hot meals are prepared daily on the set. “Soviets come by and look at our feast with awe,” acknowledges coproducer Paul Maslansky. “Sometimes you sense resentment.” Another crew member recalls a painful moment while shooting outside a Soviet shop. Schepisi asked that more food be displayed in the shop windows. When the store manager obligingly sneaked out supplies from a hidden storeroom, desperate shoppers pounced on them, only to have them whisked out of their reach.

The snaillike pace of Soviet workmen is an ongoing frustration. While foreign professionals direct all the technical departments, many of their staff are Soviets accustomed to long lunch breaks and longer production delays. “It’s worse than the mañana attitude in Mexico,” complains a crew member. “There, if you tell them you need it urgently, at least they walk off at a fast pace. Here, they just stand there looking at you.” Setting up  a shot of the Moscow International Book Fair entailed interminable negotiations with countless authorities. “In England you could have done it in a day, but here it took four,” said assistant art director Richard Holland. “I was actually spotted knocking my head against a brick wall.”

Schepisi seems unperturbed by any complications. Rugged and rangy, he lopes about the set in a worn leather jacket and heavy workman’s boots, apparently oblivious to the lousy weather. Co-workers describe him admiringly as man “who knows absolutely what he wants.” He shrugs off their complaints about the Soviet work style. “I’m from Australia, and we’ve grown up making do,” he says. “British filmmakers used to come around and say we were unprofessional because we didn’t call a lamp a ‘bubble.’ You can’t try to impose your system on other people.”

For the Soviets, the film is a welcome opportunity. A new division of the giant state studio Mosfilm is cooperating with West Germans to bring more foreigners to Moscow, and “The Russia House” is their first big catch. The hard currency earned by the production will help finance the filming of the wildly popular Russian novel, Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” by a Soviet director in Israel next year. More important, for the 70 Soviet crew members working on the set, “The Russia House” offers a chance to see how American movies are made. “We are learning to shoot faster and to be more flexible,” says Leonid Verechtchugin, the Soviet production manager. “I like this style.” And for local employees, “The Russia House” is also highly lucrative. Members of the kitchen staff, working in the mess tent for 18 rubles an hour, are actually earning higher wages than members of the Politburo.

As for the foreigners, they seem to have adjusted well. Finding few bars and restaurants in which to entertain themselves, they’ve sought other diversions. Connery quickly tracked down Moscow’s sole golf course; in fact, he helped inaugurate it. Pfeiffer has hit the culture trail; she was last spotted attending Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” The Soviets, for their part, entertain themselves by studying the elaborate maneuverings of the foreign production team. “Our crews don’t use so much equipment,” said Vova, 22, surveying the booms and reflectors outside the Proletarskaya metro one drizzling afternoon. “It looks like a lot of trouble.”