MICHELLE PFEIFFER AS A WORK IN PROGRESS
by Hal Hinson
Between the first interview with Michelle Pfeiffer and the second, a message came from her via her publicist. It said: “I’m a changed woman. Forget everything I said before. We’ll start again at square one.”
The first meeting, in Manhattan, took place as she was about to leave for Moscow to make The Russia House with Sean Connery, and the conversation, it would be fair to say, was intense. Oh the verge of being tortured, to be more accurate. Movie Stars. Remember, during the preceding year she had emerged at the very pinnacle of her profession. She had been nominated for an Oscar for her work in Dangerous Liaisons; shown a galvanizing flair for comedy in Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob; solidified her box-office stature by appearing opposite Mel Gibson in Tequila Sunrise; and was about to win every major critic’s award, plus another Oscar nomination, for her tough, intoxicating performance in The Fabulous Baker Boys. So what could be wrong?
We’ll allow only one quote from that conversation: “I can see how someone could just walk away from it, give it all up,” she despaired. “Your life doesn’t belong to you anymore. Every minute of every day, you feel as if a million eyes are on you. You’re never allowed to just be yourself. And, for me, it’s not worth it. I hate it. I don’t know how long I can take it. I don’t even know if I want to.”
And so on.
IT’S ROUGHLY NINE MONTHS, two movies—The Russia House and Jonathan Kaplan’s interracial love story, Love Field—and a trip to the Soviet Union and Italy later. Her dog meets me at the kitchen door of Pfeiffer’s West Los Angeles house. Michelle follows close behind.
“Sorry,” she says, giggling. “Sasha, down. She’s one of the mongrels who run this place.”
Michelle does seem, well, changed. Sunnier.
The house, a sprawling Spanish hacienda-style place built in 1917, is crawling with workmen. Out in the garage, a power saw chews up the afternoon quiet. “The men are installing a security system,” she says, walking first in one direction, then another. She’s in loose black trousers, a patterned double-breasted vest, and black Chinese slippers—all very casual. The four tiny silver earrings in her left ear are the only traces of ornamentation. No rings. No makeup.
“They have to cut into the walls and it just kills me. They’re real adobe. And it pisses me off.
Maybe just a little sunnier. Pulling on her blazer, she grabs her Filofax and heads out to her hunter-green Range Rover.
“I know, I’ve become a complete cliche.”
For lunch, she’s picked out a ramshackle little fish place on the Pacific Coast Highway. We settle in at a picnic table outside, and after a few minutes a waitress comes over with one of the restaurant’s pink baseball caps.
“The owner’s a big fan of your movies. He’d like you to have one of these.”
“I hope it’s big enough,” Michelle says, pulling it down halfway over her eyes. “I have a huge head.”
“It looks incredibly goofy,” I say.
From underneath the brim, she beams.
Figuring that she’s now sufficiently off guard, I ask, “So what’s all this about your being a new woman?”
She explains, but the explanation, like most things with Pfeiffer, isn’t simple. All we can say with any certainty is that this new-woman stuff has something to do with the time she spent filming in the Soviet Union.
“I understood for the first time in my life how people could just give up. I’ve hit some lows in my life. But I never gave up hope. I was only in Russia for six weeks. But just getting from point A to point B was such an ordeal. Just to get home, you had to negotiate with the cabdriver. Just the feeling of not having any control.”
For a while, Pfeiffer says, she struggled against the privations and anomalies of Soviet society. She complained about the black market, about the bureaucracy, about the ban against smoking in some jazz clubs. “Jazz. Cigarettes. I mean, the two are synonymous. And at that time I still smoked, and I felt that I had been deprived of so much, that I was furious.” The weather, too, was getting to her. One day on the set, they kept shooting the same scene over and over, and it just wasn’t working. “I thought it was an acting problem,” she remembers, laughing, “until I realized that my face was frozen.”
Her epiphany arrived in response to a rule forbidding Western film companies from feeding the Soviet extras they hire. When Pfeiffer discovered this, she was furious and refused to work. “In a country where you can’t get food, where you can’t get soap, here they were watching us shoveling down these platefuls of hot, steamy spaghetti.” So she stomped off, very dramatic, and refused to come back unless they were fed.
I WAS A rotten kid, just rotten. I was like the Mafia don of my elementary school.
To resolve the crisis, officials from the Soviet film commission had to be called in. Begging her to return to work, they explained that this was just the way things were done. “I didn’t sleep that night,” she recalls now, with some amusement. “It was very traumatic. Then I realized, You know, this is so typically American of you. This is what, as a country, we’re accused of all the time. Now, whether I was right or wrong isn’t the issue. The issue was, Do I have the right, as an outsider, to come in and force my sensibilities on this culture?”
The next morning she went back to work. “At a certain point, I decided to leave my identity at the border. I thought to myself, Okay, you have no identity. And at that point I was able to experience the country as it was, on a purer level, and finally to even embrace it.
It turned out, too, that the event provided the key to understanding her character, Katya, the young editor at a Moscow publishing house who smuggles out Soviet military secrets. “What I learned was that a Soviet woman is still much more passive than an American woman. It’s still a very patriarchal culture.”
She also discovered that the personal changes brought on by the experience were even deeper than the professional breakthroughs. “I don’t usually choose my projects for personal reasons,” she explains, pushing her granny sunglasses down on her nose. “But this time I did. I wanted to shock myself onto a higher plane. Or some plane other than the one I was on, because I was really in a rut. I had done the play in New York, Twelfth Night, for that reason, too, but it didn’t quite take me there. Almost, but not quite. Russia House did it, though. When you give up your identity, it changes you. It came back, but in a simpler and much clearer form. When you put yourself in a situation that is so contrary to who you are, it challenges you moment by moment, your identity. I got to a point where I didn’t know who the fuck I was anymore. I got rid of all the bullshit, and when I came out of it, all that was left was what was substance.”
She pauses briefly. She smiles.
“Then, of course, after I was home for two days, I lost it. It all came back. All the bullshit.”
So much for the new Michelle Pfeiffer.
OVER THE COURSE of lunch, the journeys of the old Michelle Pfeiffer are a little easier to chart. She was born thirty-two years ago in Midway City, on a strip of nowhere towns near Santa Ana in Orange County, California-places that are, for a young girl with ambition and talent, best seen through a rearview mirror.
Her father, Dick, was a heating and air-conditioning contractor, and his wife, Donna, raised their four kids. “We used to play Gilligan’s Island and we used to fight over who would be Ginger. My life’s ambition was to be Tina Louise.”
She was known by a variety of nicknames. “Michelle Mudturtle” is the only one she chooses to share. “ I was a rotten kid, just rotten. I was always in trouble. I tried so hard to be good, but I was incapable. Just incapable. With the greatest of effort, I would manage to get a C in citizenship. I was a bully. I was a tomboy. I used to beat up all the boys. Whenever there was a problem, they would come to me. I was like the Mafia don of my elementary school. I spent a lot of time alone too. I still have a really hard time … socializing. I become paralyzed when I have to make small talk. I’m really horrible at it. All I can do is hope that I won’t run out of questions to ask the other person, so I can keep the conversation off myself. Which is why I’m not good at interviews. I tend to go right into the heart of things, and get really personal. Then afterward I read them and I think, Aw, shit. Why the fuck can’t you just shut your mouth?”
She worked a lot of odd jobs, skipped school, surfed, tormented the lifeguards at Station 17 on Huntington Beach. She discovered that she could earn English credits, and thereby hasten her departure from high school, by taking theater classes. Carole Cooney, her theater teacher at Fountain Valley High, remembers very little about her except, of course, that she was “very attractive.”
“She didn’t go out for any plays,” the teacher recalls. “She was more the surfer chick than the academic or the thespian. She got a B in the class, though.”
Did Cooney have any sense that Michelle might become what she is today? “Absolutely none.”
After high school her only ambition was to become a court reporter, but she dropped out of stenography school. “My mother always stressed the importance of a career. And that was kinda the only career I knew about. But once I knew I could be really good at it, I lost all interest.”
While slipping in and out of psychology courses at Golden West College, she worked as a checkout girl at a Vons supermarket in El Toro. It was there, at eighteen, standing in her little red smock and nursing shoes, that she had her moment of destiny.
“I was frustrated and aimless and asked myself, What are you going to do with your life? And the answer I came up with, the only thing I really wanted to do, was acting.”
Pfeiffer talks about this part of her life—in fact; any part of her life—seemingly only with great reluctance. Leaving her after lunch I could tell that the session had been traumatic. And so after scheduling a time to talk the next day, I left. As soon as I walked into my hotel room, the phone rang.
“Hi. It’s Michelle. Listen, don’t you think you’ve gotten enough? I mean, this is so painful for me. I don’t know if I can bear it anymore.” I reminded her that we had yet to talk about her early years in L.A.
“Oh, great,” she moaned. “Everything that I would want most to hide.”
NEXT MORNING, SHE CALLS early to report that we are still on, but not until after she informs me that she felt like vomiting after I left and hasn’t slept. Still, when I arrive again at her house, she is, if anything, even more relaxed and gregarious than the day before. She is … a changed woman. “I’m going to make us lunch. Do you like pesto?
Nine months before, I remind her, she was quoted as saying that she acts for free but demands a huge salary as compensation for all the annoyance of being a public personality. That sentiment, she says, still goes. “And you know what? I earn every fucking dime I make. I can afford to go anywhere in the world I want to go. On the other hand, I have no idea who’s going to be there waiting for me when I get off the plane. Am I going to have to be self-conscious of how I look because I’ve been drooling or something and my eyes are all puffy and red?”
“Fame is something that Michelle has never even been very curious about,” says Peter Horton, who is now Gary on thirtysomething, and to whom she was married for seven years. “I know that some actors are more in love with the idea of being an actor than in actually being an actor. Michelle is the opposite.”
Pfeiffer met Horton in 1980, in an L.A. acting class with Milton Katselas. She had already entered show business through a southern California beauty contest, with the mission of meeting an agent who was one of the pageant’s judges. The panel proclaimed her Miss Orange County. She failed to win the title of Miss Los Angeles-“Thank God, I didn’t have to go to all those supermarket openings”—but she got the agent.
While still working as a checkout girl, she did commercials, including a Ford spot in which she sang from the back of a pickup truck in cutoff shorts. “I was terrible at it,” she says. “There’s an exuberance needed for commercial work that I don’t have. It’s not my nature. Whenever I would leave an interview feeling like a complete asshole, I knew that I had a really good chance of getting the job.” Her first real acting role was on Fantasy Island. She had one line: “Who is he, Naomi?”
When I hear an actress say, ‘I’m gonna have my tits raised,’ I say, ‘More power to you.’
PREDICTABLY, PFEIFFER PAID her show-biz dues with bimbo parts—a shot on the television series Delta House, and movies like Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen and The Hollywood Knights. Routinely, she would call her agent, crying, “They’re putting me in hot pants again.” Most often a year or so would pass between roles. “I remember that I used to get on the phone with Ellen Barkin. We were both unemployed. Nobody would hire us. Every part that we wanted, Debra Winger would steal. We could not get a job and we’d be hysterical for hours on the phone, bitching and moaning and kvetching.”
When Michelle was twenty-two, she and Horton were married in their backyard. On their honeymoon the big news came that she had gotten the part of tough-girl Stephanie Zinone in Grease 2. “It was the first big step for either of us,” Horton remembers. “The notion of people pursuing and giving her that much attention has always been scary for Michelle. I know it scared me. I didn’t know where it was going to lead.”
But Grease 2, in which she spends most of her time popping her gum, wasn’t the breakthrough role she hoped it would be. Her real emergence wouldn’t come until a year later, when she landed the part of cokehead Elvira in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Even then, the film’s producer, Martin Bregman, remembers, she had to be shoehorned into the movie. “I forced that to happen against strenuous objections from almost everyone. But when she read the part onstage with AI Pacino, it was magic. There was such an intensity.”
The critics agreed, but the parts that were offered after the film came out were more of the same-bitches. And she wasn’t interested. Ladyhawke took her in a different direction; again, her role was a relatively small one, but she gave this slight medieval fantasy the quality of crystalline enchantment that it needed. She followed this with a larger and vastly different role opposite Jeff Goldblum in John Landis’s comedy Into the Night. Both movies were bombs, but audiences and people in the business were starting to notice her.
After Into the Night, Pfeiffer made Sweet Liberty, performed with touching candor as the title character in the PBS production of John O’Hara’s Natica Jackson, and costarred with Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick.
The same year that Pfeiffer appeared as Angela, the hit man’s wife in Married to the Mob, she played Jo Ann, the silky restaurateuse, in Robert Towne’s Tequila Sunrise. While her performance in the latter was almost unanimously praised, she remembers the experience only bitterly, deflecting for her work by saying that she hasn’t seen the film and has no plans to. “What I look for in a director is freedom, and that’s not what I got from Bob. It was a matter of chemistry.”
(Towne says only that “of all the actresses I’ve worked with in Hollywood, going back a lot of years, to my earliest days, Michelle was the most difficult. Perhaps it was because she didn’t really want to play the character.”)
Steve Kloves, who directed her as Suzie Diamond, the lounge singer and former call girl in The Fabulous Baker Boys, says he would be surprised to hear that Pfeiffer pulled away from playing a tough character really tough. “If anything, Michelle wanted to make Suzie tougher. The studio was always looking for ways to soften the character. They weren’t comfortable, really, with the fact that she was, basically, a hooker. Michelle loved to appear on camera without makeup, to show the circles under the eyes.
During a discussion with Pfeiffer on beauty, talk turns to the photographer Diane Arbus, who wanted to do a series of pictures of beautiful women, because, she said, of all her subjects, they were the most tortured, the most freakish. “I’m becoming enlightened, I think, on the subject,” Michelle says. “I’m beginning to realize that it plays a much more important role in how people react to me-both men and women-than I ever realized.”
She recently heard about a woman who went to a plastic surgeon asking for Michelle Pfeiffer’s lips. “Now, that’s pretty scary. I don’t get it. I really don’t. I mean, my face is completely crooked. People accuse me of having a nose job. They accuse me of having my lips injected. First off, I would have gotten a straight nose instead of this thing. My lips are lopsided. It’s very strange. I was thinking the other day how everything is cyclical. When I was in school, I was so ruthlessly teased about my lips. I used to run home weeping. I used to tell people that the reason my lips were so big is that I fell off my bicycle facefirst, and they swole up and they never went down. And I so convinced myself that this was true that when I was about twelve my mother had to say, ‘No, Michelle. That’s not what happened.’”
She admits, however, that one of her greatest fears is that she won’t age gracefully. “You know, I said my whole life, I’ll never have a face-lift. Oh, how horrible, I always thought. But I understand the desire. I mean, when I’m sixty years old, are they going to let me do Russia House? With a thirty-two-year-old leading man? I don’t think so. So when I hear an actress say, ‘You know what, I’m gonna have my face done, get my tits raised, and I’m going to get another ten years out of this business,’ I say, ‘More power to you. Go do it.’ Even though for myself-well, I say, ‘Never say never.’ Otherwise you’re sure to wind up on that table.”
Nothing is halfway with me. If I were Sean Penn, I would have killed someone by now.
SHE’S DISHING OUT the last of the pasta. “The last three and a half, four years have been a real whirlwind for me,” she says. “Personally, and professionally, I’ve been more familiar in the past with chaos than with order, and I think that’s changing now.
“The problem is that I’m really impatient with myself. I’ve always been this way. I’ve always wanted everything yesterday. My basic nature is dark. My essence. That doesn’t mean that I’m that way all the time, but that’s where I work from most often in my life. I always believe that I can do everything, and handle everything, and keep all these balls in the air, and then I don’t understand why I’m hysterically crying at the end of the day and why I feel overloaded and can’t sleep. It’s my greatest asset and my greatest curse-that I’m so fucking self-sufficient.” How self-sufficient? Her friend Kate tells about the time Michelle singlehandedly built an adobe fireplace in her house. “Do you have any idea how hard that is to do?”
But is Michelle Pfeiffer about to become a changed woman? “I’ve been working since I was fourteen years old. I’ve never not worked. And I want a life now.”
After declaring that this was probably going to be her last interview-a proclamation she makes with some degree of regularity-she picks up the exploration of her squeamishness about interviews. At the root of it, she thinks, is the fear that she is going to be found out.
As what? I ask.
“You think I’m going to tell you that?” she says, laughing.
A fraud? I suggest.
“I think, probably,” she ventures. “I’m sure after every movie that this is the one where everyone finds out that I really can’t act. I know that everybody goes through some version of that, but I wonder if everyone goes through it as extremely as I do.” The portrait she sketches of herself, in this and all things, is that of someone who takes everything to extremes. “Nothing,” she says, “is halfway with me. If I were Sean Penn, I would have killed someone by now. If I had the male instinct, the male aggression, I would be in jail. I have shoved these people-the paparazzi. Really shoved them.”
I left her house thinking that the only problem with Michelle Pfeiffer is Michelle Pfeiffer. Right now she’s too contradictory, too rough and unfinished, to be anything but an eternal work in progress. Like her roles, she’s varied. She alternates, she admits, between openness and paranoia, candor and distrust. She has the self-confidence to take on challenging roles, then can’t bring herself to assess her work with any generosity. And what does she think of this evaluation? “What can I say, I’m a mess.”