EMPIRE | February 1990
The Fabulous Pfeiffer Girl
Michelle Pfeiffer has traded in life as a one-time check-out girl and beauty queen for a career as “a character actress disguised in the body of a classic screen siren”. Now, in The Fabulous Baker Boys, she gets to roll around on top of a piano while crooning to a visibly enthusiastic Jeff Bridges. “This movie is all about human beings who follow their dreams,” she tells a dubious Martin Kasindorf…
HOLLYWOOD’S MEGA-phone men have found themselves a new golden girl in Michelle Pfeiffer. Take Jonathan Demme, for instance, who directed her in last year’s Married To The Mob and who could scarcely conceal his delight after filming. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “the sky’s the limit in what Michelle’s capable of doing. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who, on a level of quality, would have an edge on her.”
Stephen Frears, director of multi-Oscar winner Dangerous Liaisons, would tend to agree. “She just has this wonderfully expressive face,” he says. “She’s what it must have been like, I expect…sort of like what Garbo was. She seems born to be in the movies.”
Except she wasn’t. Pfeiffer’s story has certainly not been one of a natural star quietly taking her rightful place among the “A” list of Hollywood’s workers. Now 31, Pfeiffer has been on the fringes of the film industry for 15 years, taking non-speaking parts, playing bimbos, and floating unseen among the hundreds of other pretty Californian blondes desperate for a slice of the action.
Even as late as 1987, she was spearing in deadbeat movies like the somewhat ill-fated Amazon Women On The Moon, yet she wouldn’t even have been seen in this uninspiring vehicle had not boredom and a moment of inspiration forced her to “give acting a try”.
“Beauty? I kind of scowl at it. I wouldn’t recommend it to a single soul.”
Born on April 29, 1958, Pfeiffer grew up in a suburban backwater in Orange County appropriately named Midway City. Her parents, Dick and Donna Pfeiffer, had moved to Southern California from North Dakota before she was born to set up a heating and airconditioning business which prospered in the conservative small town. The second of four children, Michelle was an unremarkable Southern Californian girl: part-time jobs began at 14, life revolved around the boyfriend and the beach, and acting simply wasn’t in the frame. At school, academic endeavour came a poor second to experimenting with drugs, and she only appeared in one High School theatrical production, a day-long skit on Christmas. “She was OK, I guess,” remembers classmate Tony Varb. “But u wouldn’t say she’d go out and do anything big.”
In fact, Pfeiffer went out and got a job as a check-out girl at a supermarket. She worked there for a year until she gave in to the constant nagging of her hairdresser, had some photographs taken and began to capitalize on her looks. She won the Miss Orange County beauty contest, and although shortly afterwards she lost the Miss L.A. contest (“Thank God”), she did start auditioning for commercials, modeling assignment and the odd TV role. While attending acting school in L.A., Pfeiffer took her first speaking part in an episode of Fantasy Island, delivering the single line “Who is he, Naomi?”. Her finger-bleeding crawl to fame had begun, and it continued at an unhurried pace with her first TV series, Delta House, a spin-off of the film Animal House. Her role in this unprepossessing sitcom was as a bimbo called Bombshell, all padded bras and tight skirts. “She particularly hated that,” recalls fellow actor Bruce McGill of Pfeiffer’s predominantly visual role. “She almost never got to speak a line, and I know it was hard on her.” He pauses. “She was drop-dead gorgeous, of course.”
Pfeiffer’s “drop-dead gorgeous” looks are not the actress’ favourite conversational subject. “Here they were presenting me like I’m this sexy thing,” she says now of Delta House, “and I was thinking, ‘What if people don’t think I’m sexy? I’m gonna look like an asshole,’”
Indeed, her beauty—Harper’s Bazaar have named her one of the top ten most beautiful women in the world—is something Pfeiffer herself purports not to appreciate. “I don’t know that I ever felt that I was extraordinary looking,” she says. “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 not in others. It’s a really hard thing to talk about. You know, it’s like one of those things where you’re fucked either way.”
Director Jonathan Demme, clearly not unimpressed with Pfeiffer, agrees. “I think that more than any other quote-unquote beautiful actress, Michelle has been handicapped by her appearance,” he says. “She has such an overwhelming face that people have tended to cast her because of the way she looks. I have a feeling she has been in touch with her gift all along and that she’s exhibited enormous patience with those of us who tend to focus first on how gorgeous she is.”
Patience was a virtue Pfeiffer certainly needed. Bit parts in movies like Falling In Love Again, The Hollywood Knights and Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen kept her working, but the leads were slow in coming. Eventually, in 1982, her break arrived in the role of Stephanie Zinone in Grease 2. The film bombed, and Stephanie was a bimbo, but at least Pfeiffer got to sing and dance and show how she comes alive in front of the camera. “She didn’t think she could dance,” recalls director Pat Bitch. “But she moved beautifully. And she could act.”
Pfeiffer didn’t work for another year, determined to restrict herself to roles that would both “challenge” her as an actress and allow her to escape the potential confinement of her looks. “When I first went into the business, someone told me that being able to turn a part down was the only thing that would ever give me power,” she once said. Cher, her colleague on The Witches Of Eastwick, and now her friend, sums up her attitude of the time: “It’s all part of someone who has a definite purpose, who’s a lot stronger than even she knows sometimes…it’s not possible to mess with her and come out on top”. If Pfeiffer now has trouble taking a rest, it is perhaps because her earlier discrimination has ensured that she is now constantly offered “women of substance.”
Elvira, Al Pacino’s bored, coke-sniffing wife in Scarface, her next film, is a far cry from Grease 2, and Pfeiffer created a disdainful, dead-eyed moll who knows that she herself is a commodity but is determined to make Pacino pay through the nose for his pleasure. Pfeiffer was so convincing as a bitch that she was offered more of the same for the next year or so, eventually scraping into Richard Donner’s medieval fantasy Ladyhawke, John Landis’ confusing comedy-thriller Into The Night, and Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty. None did serious damage at the box-office, but each contributed to Pfeiffer’s growing reputation as what Newsweek has since described as “a character actress disguised in the body of a classic screen siren”.
While Pfeiffer’s own assessment of The Witches Of Eastwick remains reserved, George Miller’s special effects-ridden version of John Updike’s novel gave her both her first box-office hit and a best friend in the shape of Cher. Pfeiffer may have little time for the glitzy showbiz world Cher plays with such skill, but she does appear to share her friend’s determination, her sense of independence and her ability to lose herself in others.
The Witches Of Eastwick’s success enabled Pfeiffer to begin to pick and choose her roles. “I have such a fear of embarrassing myself that will do anything not to…That’s the key to my success,” she has said. Indeed, Pfeiffer has shown great versatility over the last two or so years, moving between the plucky Angela in Demme’s comedy Married To The Mob, the cool yet passionate hostess in Robert Towne’s stylish Tequila Sunrise and the hunted innocent of Dangerous Liaisons.
In the forthcoming The Fabulous Baker Boys, she finally lets her smouldering sexuality off the lash as the nightclub singer Susie Diamond, while she recently completed the role of a Russian book editor, Katya, opposite Sean Connery in Fred Schepisi’s film of John Le Carre’s The Russia House.
As her star has risen (she now commands over $1 million per picture), she has devoted herself to work, separating from her husband Peter Horton (the Bjorn Borg lookalike from thirty-something) a couple of years ago, and is currently living alone in Santa Monica. She remains intensely private, and seemingly far from content with the world she inhabits. “I like grey days,” she has said, “because it means you don’t have to feel guilty about being depressed. I have a horrible, sadomasochistic streak. I have to work at having fun.”
Critically acclaimed for her portrayal of bar room chanteuse Susie Diamond in the Fabulous Baker Boys, Pfeiffer celebrated the end of 1989 with a rare hat-trick, winning the year’s Best Actress award from the American National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Circle, and from their counterparts in New York. The Fabulous Baker Boys opens in the U.K. on March 9…
“There was one point on The Fabulous Baker Boys when I thought ‘You just screwed yourself. You’ve really outdone yourself this time, Pfeiffer’.”
So what do you think of your singing in The Fabulous Baker Boys?
I think I did an OK job, you know? I think that I’m passable. I didn’t embarrass myself. It helped that one of the songs I worked with was More Than You Know. It’s one of my favourites. That really inspired me. Linda Ronstadt is one performer who really does a good job on that song. For Grease 2, I auditioned with a couple of songs she did. I learned how to sing from her. I was a real, real big follower of hers. For this picture, I listened to a lot of music—Billie Holliday, Helen Merrill. I didn’t copy anybody, but I heard a lot. For me, it helps to act the song out. Of course, I did a lot of singing in Grease 2 but this was much more difficult. First, I hadn’t had a voice lessen in seven years. Also, the songs I had to do in The Fabulous Baker Boys are really written to showcase the voice. I was not accustomed to phrasing it in that way, because I didn’t really listen to that kind of music, so I had to retrain the way I listen to music. I’m out there backed up by only two pianos, and it had to sound live, not synthesized. So it was pretty naked.
I was really nervous about it. There was one point I thought, “You know, you think you can do anything. You know what? You just screwed yourself. You’ve really outdone yourself this time, Pfeiffer”.
Why then did you take the role of Susie Diamond?
Not to sing! I really liked Susie Diamond. I just thought she was a great woman. She was someone I really wanted to be like. This movie is all about human beings who follow their dreams. Susie, I don’t think she would ever do one thing—including being a singer—for the rest of her life. She’s a real adventurer. She becomes a mirror image for Jack (played by Jeff Bridges).
Jack thinks when he turns a corner that a bus is going to run over him. Susie would see the bus as an opportunity. It would have a sign on it saying, “Be A Stenographer”, and she’d do that. Susie is someone who embraces life. There’s a clue to Susie’s life—her back story—in Nina, the little girl in the apartment building who spends so much time with Jack because her mother has basically abandoned her. Susie is indomitable. In her previous work for an “escort service”, she has been the next thing to a whore. But in a sense, Jack’s much more of a whore in life than she ever will be. She still comes out of the hotel room with a guy as Susie, a vital human being. And jack has ceased to be a vital human being.
In The Fabulous Baker Boys, you had to be both a convincing actress and a convincing singer. Didn’t that make the role doubly difficult?
It took me a lot more time before production started. I was warned that it would be like twice the work. It would be like a musician preparing to do an album. And I had to prepare for the part, for the characterization. It was a lot of work.
But it beats checking groceries at Vons Supermarket in Orange County, California, right?
It beats checking at Vons. Some days, though…some days, the simplicity of that looks real nice. For about an hour.
Last summer you appeared in a stage production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Central Park in New York. How did stage work compare to films?
I’d like to do more Shakespeare. I’d love to do more plays. It was vey, very rich. The experience was exhilarating—exciting and fun and exploding and horrifying, with some fighting. The run was for four weeks.
Your next picture is The Russia House, with Sean Connery and Klaus Maria Brandauer co-starring, Fred Schepisi directing, and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard from John Le Carre’s novel. That’s pretty good company.
It sure is. Three years ago, my agent told me I was at top of t “B” list. These studios have lists! I couldn’t believe it!
By any measure, you are now on the “A” list. What caused the promotion?
I think it was a combination of, really, the four movies in the last two years (The Witches Of Eastwick, Married To The Mob, Dangerous Liaisons, Tequila Sunrise), after nine previous years in the business. I think Married To The Mob surprised people with my range. It shook people up a little, but in a good way. There was The Witches Of The Eastwick—not that I was necessarily good in it, but it made a lot of money, and it changed my career in a different way—in the eyes of a studio, and marketability, and things like that—when in fact its success had nothing to do with me.
Was the supporting actress Oscar nomination for Dangerous Liaisons an extra help for you?
It’s hard to say how much effect that’s had. That role, Madame de Tourvel, was a painful experience. My eyes got so red they were almost bleeding. It’s hard to play a victim like that. In Valmont, the Milos Forman version of the story which is about to come out, Meg Tilly plays Madame de Tourvel. She’s going to do just fine, I think.
Meryl Streep said recently that she’s feeling completely exhausted. With all your nonstop work recently, what about you?
I’m getting there. One problem is that I don’t have much time to exercise. It makes me feel better, emotionally more balanced, when I exercise. I’m not a runner. I like aerobics and the treadmill.
Considering where your career stood just three years ago, are you now satisfied with your current status in the industry?
I’m real happy with where my career is right now, but there are lots of things I still want to do. I don’t feel there are any obstacles. Some people say there aren’t any good scripts, but there are some gems out there. You just have to look for them.
I don’t really have a career plan. I just try to choose something that I think is good, meaningful in some way, that I would feel excited to be a part of, and hopefully other people will be as excited about it as I am.
I have to say that where I am now is what I had in mind when I started more than ten years ago. There are some additions that I didn’t anticipate. The worst is snoopiness. The general complaint of actors is that the loss of privacy is a difficult thing to deal with. But it all kind of balances itself out.
How do you spend your spare time?
I have two dogs and a cat. I paint oils.
Any plans for a show of your work?
Oh please, no. No, I don’t take myself seriously as a painter. I just play. I just started taking piano lessons, which is a lot of fun.
After your involvement with the beauty titles in 1978, you didn’t enter any more shows. Why not?
I had no interest in winning further beauty crowns, because the only reason I had joined the pageant was to meet a particular judge who was an agent for work in commercials. I didn’t want to have to go to the opening of every drugstore. I managed to meet and get signed by that agent, and that was my professional start.
So you never had any interest in advancing your career by using the beauty contest route?
Beauty? I kind of scowl at it. I wouldn’t recommend it to a single soul…