The Pfabulous Pfeiffer Girl
She’s busy, she’s beautiful, she’s had two Oscar nominations… and she’s determined to take the next step. What will it take to make Michelle Pfeiffer happy?
By Robert Seidenberg | Photographed by Herb Ritts
Lurene Hallett’s bus has broken down, but damned if she’ll miss John F. Kennedy’s funeral. She’ll even blackmail a fugitive into giving her a ride.
“You’re gonna be an accessory to kidnapping and car stealing,” he warns her.
But she won’t budge. She won’t even let him drop her off at a nearby bus station. She declares, “I’m not doing any felony accessorizing just to sit in another damn bus.”
It was a struggle from day one-even though it was, by all accounts, a killer package. Michelle Pfeiffer and Denzel Washington were set to costar in Love Field. Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused) was set to direct.
Yet, when offered this interracial love story that takes place in the South during the weekend after J.F.K.’s assassination, practically every studio passed. Then, according to Pfeiffer, the first company to OK the project pulled the plug a week before Christmas 1989, when a batch of so-called serious movies bombed at the box office. Too risky, thought Hollywood’s other power-brokers, too controversial. Still others said, “We’ll make it if you make the relationship platonic.”
Pfeiffer was aghast. “I was completely shocked,” she recalls months later, her anger and frustration undiminished by time. “I wondered, What century is this? I mean, Jesus Christ, they’ve got people practically fucking each other onscreen, and they’ve got people blowing each other’s brains out. And here’s this really sweet movie, and just because he happens to be black and she happens to be white, everyone’s afraid to make it.”
Everyone, that is, but Orion Pictures, where Pfeiffer had just set up a production company. Even then, however, all did not proceed smoothly.
Shortly before production began, Denzel Washington dropped out for “creative differences,” casting doubt on the film’s future.
This time, Pfeiffer was devastated. “I remember crying after Denzel left,” she says. “It was right after a reading and then he walked out, and I felt like I had been broken up with. I felt like I had been completely rejected.”
Although Pfeiffer says she had no intention of leaving the film, for Kaplan it was a moment in which the actress showed her true mettle. “It was clear then that if Michelle felt uncomfortable working with an unknown, it was time to give up on the project,” he says. “And I would have understood her decision. But Michelle didn’t bat an eye. It made her more resolved. She’s someone who goes on instinct, and if you tell her she can’t do something, she’ll want to do it twice as much.” Sure, Pfeiffer could have walked; and that may well be what her advisers recommended. It was after all, a big-risk picture plagued by bad luck. But like Lurene, her character in Love Field, Pfeiffer runs on determination. From the moment she read Don Roos’ script about a Dallas housewife who is obsessed with Jackie Kennedy and who, with her country, leaves behind her innocence that November weekend in 1963, Pfeiffer knew it was special. And no legion of bozo executives was going to stand in her way. If anything, the resistance to Love Field inspired the actress to fight harder till she got what she wanted. Which is pretty much the story of her career.
But before Love Field, there was The Russia House, a pivotal challenge in Pfeiffer’s transformation into a formidable talent.
The moviegoing masses accept Meryl Streep as an Australian (A Cry in the Dark), a Brit (Plenty) and a Pole (Sophie’s Choice)—and award her handsomely for such anthropological expeditions. But will they accept Michelle Pfeiffer, a 33-year-old native of Orange County, California, as
Katya, an educated Soviet woman in The Russia House, the film adaptation of John le Carre’s best-selling novel? Probably-now that she’s been nominated for Oscars for her last two films, Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys. Just a few years ago, the idea would have been considered preposterous.
And yet, in 16 films, Pfeiffer has amply demonstrated versatility, playing, among others, the strong-willed widow of a Long Island Mafia hit man (Married to the Mob, 1988 ); a fervent woman of honor destroyed by an evil, conniving man (Dangerous Liaisons, 1988); a sultry, tough-as-nails lounge singer (The Fabulous Baker Boys, 1989 ); an actress making a film about colonial America (Sweet Liberty, 1986); a comely damsel who during daylight turns into a beautiful hawk (Ladyhawke, 1985 ); and a suburban mother of six smitten with the devil (The Witches of Eastwick, 1987).
But the public has been slow to recognize Pfeiffer as a serious actress. Perhaps it’s because, unlike Streep, Pfeiffer has little theatrical background and didn’t attend the Yale School of Drama. Most likely, it’s because people prefer to judge books by their covers. Wisdom and strength line Streep’s face; they demand that she be taken seriously.
Pfeiffer, however, is blessed with pristine beauty, a surface so striking that most folks don’t bother to search below. It’s a mixed blessing.
Pfeiffer fought a long battle to prove that she could be more than decoration. It probably didn’t help that she entered the business through the Miss Orange County beauty contest and with cheesecake roles in lowbrow TV series (Delta House, B.A.D. Cats) and cheapo movies (Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, The Hollywood Knights). And that her first lead, as the singing and dancing Stephanie Zinone in Grease 2 (1982 ), poised her for a lifetime playing the Sunny California Blonde. But, determined to be taken seriously, she confounded expectations with every job choice, beginning with Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of Scarface, in which she plays Elvira, AI Pacino’s icequeen wife.
Now, with The Russia House, she enters the deep waters guarded by the likes of Streep-and the thick Russian accent is just the tip of the iceberg. She must convince however many millions of viewers that for those two hours she is from a completely different culture, one that developed in virtual isolation from the Western world.
Although Pfeiffer barely had time to prepare for the film, her portrayal of Katya is so complete you’d think she had studied for months to nail the walk, the talk and the attitude. As always, she brings a rich emotionality to the role. Pfeiffer’s powers of empathy make it easy for us to sympathize with her characters. So, just as we felt the emotional suffering of Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons and understood Angela’s desperate attempt to forge a new, more law-abiding life in Married to the Mob, we hope desperately with Katya that the man she has fallen for does not disappoint with his disloyalty.
Pfeiffer’s method cannot be learned, taught or explained. To make her character as real and sympathetic as possible, she says, “I become her.” Then she corrects herself: “Actually, that’s not true. She becomes me. And if all goes well, she’s constantly inspiring me.”
Risking her life and the lives of her children, Russia House’s Katya Orlova delivers to British publisher Barley Blair (Sean Connery) a manuscript detailing strategic information about the Soviet nuclear-war capability. Though his heart has been frozen over for years, the cynical Blair, a hard-boozing jazz-lover who describes himself as a “large unmade bed with a shopping bag attached,” falls for Katya, whom he dubs “Russia’s answer to the Venus de Milo.” But when British Intelligence recruits him to find out as much as possible about Dante, the Russian who has leaked the security secrets, Blair’s loyalty to his country comes into conflict with his fealty to the woman he loves.
Directed by Fred Schepisi (A Cry in the Dark, Roxanne), The Russia House is a classic, large-canvas, international love story/adventure done in grand Hollywood fashion, with style and smarts to spare. Unfortunately, the film dwells on the espionage and too lightly on Katya’s relationship with Blair; the movie’s big decisions belong not to Katya, but to Blair. All of which made the already-challenging role even more difficult for Pfeiffer.
“I really have to care about the person that I’m playing,” she explains, “which is why Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons was so hard for me. It’s really hard to play a victim for that many scenes, because I don’t really find victims that interesting on film or that likable. And Katya was tough to play because even though she is an active participant in the events [as the link between Dante and the British], she’s still somewhat passive.”
So how does a former beauty contestant, former Bombshell in a lowbrow frat-house sit-com, former Pink Lady in Grease 2, turn up in the company of Sean Connery, Fred Schepisi and scenarist Tom Stoppard for the glamorous Russia House? And how does she run the race at their pace? Mostly by working her ass off.
When Pfeiffer says with a laugh, “I’ll do anything not to embarrass myself,” she reveals a lot about what makes Michelle run. She seems driven by insecurity. “I feel fear every single role I ever do,” she admits.
“Some roles are more terrifying than others. I had so much work to do in the preparation for Russia House, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to give in to my panic. But it was there.”
Those who know Pfeiffer attest to her diligence. “She disproves the theory that people can’t make themselves better actors by studying and working hard,” says Love Field director Jonathan Kaplan.
Or take The Fabulous Baker Boys, which, Pfeiffer maintains, was one of her scariest endeavors. Not only did she have to act, but in the role of Susie Diamond, a singer who joins up with the piano-playing Baker brothers, she also had to sing. “I did not want to use someone else’s voice for the vocals,” explains writer-director Steve Kloves. “Even though we were doing lip-synching, I wanted it to be her voice. I have a thing about this—and it was borne out with Michelle—which is, if it is your voice that you’re lip-synching to, you know what you did when you laid it down.”
“I was terrified,” she recalls, “but the guys [Jeff and Beau Bridges] were so supportive. They’d lie and tell me how good I was. Steve kept saying, ‘Look, I heard you sing in Grease 2; I don’t want you to sing any better than that.’ I said, ‘Steve, you don’t understand! I haven’t had a voice lesson in seven years. I didn’t smoke two packs of cigarettes a day then.’ I really had to work to get my voice in shape.”
For two months preceding the film’s start date, she worked with a voice coach and strengthened her vocal chords in all-day rehearsals.
She also worked long and hard with musician John Hammond, who plays Beau Bridges’ piano parts in the movie. “A lot of what she did was, she worked with karaoke machines at home,” explains Kloves. “She’d stay up to 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning singing to a karaoke machine. One morning when we were rehearsing, she gave me a tape where she’d laid down ‘My Funny Valentine,’ and it was just amazing. And I said, ‘We’ll definitely find a way to get this in.’
“She’s just extraordinary in terms of work habits. She’s determined not to hit a false note and to know as much as she can about the character. She also created a sort of bible for the character, and her instincts were almost always what I had in mind; she was right on the dime about what I had thought Susie’s childhood was like.”
For The Russia House, Pfeiffer spent most of her time developing Katya’s Russian accent and refining the actual Russian language she speaks in the film. “Much to my delight,” says Schepisi, “I found out that she’s got a mynah bird’s ear for accents. Quite extraordinary. But also she’s very sensible about it. She knows what area she needs help in and who to get to help.”
In this case, she chose Tim Monich, a veteran dialect coach. “Mostly through the voice, you’re asking people to believe that she’s from a completely different culture,” says Monich, who also worked with Pfeiffer on Love Field, in which she drawls with a “down-home Texas” accent. “Of course, there are other things—dress, state of mind in the character—to signal that, but it’s a huge leap. And Michelle carries it off beautifully. On the very first day of shooting, I knew that it was a outstanding job because suddenly I hearing Michelle doing a dialect, I was earing Katya; I was hearing a different person.”
In a sentimental mood, Susie Diamond waxes nostalgic about her days in the Triple A Escort Service, the nights spent at luxury hotels like the Hartfod. “Hard to believe sleepin’ in a room like that don’t change your life,” she says to Jack Baker, “but it don’t. The bed may be magic, but the mirror isn’t. You still wake up the same old Susie.”
Countless nights at luxury hotels later, Pfeiffer still lacks that unbearable strain of self-importance that runs rampant in the biz. If anything, she’s her own toughest critic. Past interviews show she’s more comfortable slagging herself than tooting her own horn. Significantly, her favorite article on herself is a lengthy cover story in which she’s barely quoted. “What everybody else had to say was a lot more interesting than what I had to say,” she clarifies. “And probably more flattering. I’m sure all I did was tear myself apart.”
Stories from colleagues confirm that Pfeiffer’s not just being coy. “I was most impressed that she’s extremely open about her feelings of insecurity about her own ability,” says Kaplan.
Baker Boys’ Kloves concurs. “We were about halfway through the picture and Michelle pulled me aside and said, ‘I think I’m really screwing up. I’m really giving a horrible performance, aren’t I?’ And I remember, it was such a surreal moment. I thought, Is this really happening? I said, ‘Michelle, this is the best performance I’ve ever seen you give. Believe me, this is something I’ve held dear for five years, and if I thought you were screwing up, I’d let you know.’ It’s not a funny story, but it really shows how incredibly difficult she is on herself. And I think that’s what makes her good. She never stops trying to get closer and closer to the truth of what a moment is or what the character is about.”
Coupled with her unsparing self-criticism, Pfeiffer’s desire for perfection seems painfully unattainable. “I’m never happy with my performance,” she says when asked her opinion of her turn as Katya. “And I never go back and review my films. It’s too upsetting for me. I find it’s better that I sort of live in the moment, I guess.
At the risk of sounding too reductive, Pfeiffer’s work divides into two categories. She has given fine performances as women who obviously differ from her greatly-Katya and Madame de Tourvel—performances that rely on research and technique. But she’s done her most impressive work with roles she responds to more intuitively. She says that Angela in Married to the Mob, Susie in Baker Boys and Lurene in Love Field are the women who have spoken to her most directly and immediately. Keeping in mind that she has to like a character to play her, it’s safe to conclude that Pfeiffer admires strong, assertive women who, at the same time, are vulnerable and sensitive, and women proud of who they are whether they’re housewives, escort girls or mob molls.
Madame de Tourvel has rebuffed Valmont’s every advance. But he’s developed a new tack. “I’m not going to deny I was aware of your beauty,” he admits while chasing her through the lovely French gardens, “but the point is: This has nothing to do with your beauty. As I got to know you, I began to realize that beauty was the least of your qualities.”
It’s Monday—a big lawn day in Hancock Park, a bucolic district a few blocks from the bustle of Hollywood. Here, lawn mowers drown out the chirping birds, the wide streets are nearly car- less, the lawns roll like putting greens, and the rambling old homes front swimming pools, guest houses and tennis courts.
Ed Lima to, an ICM agent who has represented Michelle Pfeiffer since 1983, lives in one of these homes. Though the back of the house is in the midst of renovation, the living room needs no work. Enormous throw pillows cushion the sofas and chairs, and atop the polished grand piano sit framed photos of Limato’s clients: Pfeiffer is the only woman in a group that includes Richard Gere and Mel Gibson.
A minute later, a white convertible pulls up and Pfeiffer climbs out of the passenger side. The driver is not thirtysomething’s Peter Horton, Pfeiffer’s ex-husband. Chances are, it’s actor Fisher Stevens (Reversal of Fortune), her current boyfriend. But she’s not saying. Just before she knocks on the front door, his voice shouts from the car, “You’ll do fine.”
Dressed down for the occasion—in baggy gray trousers and white vee-neck T-shirt—she is friendly, though a bit edgy. But first things first: She’s starving.
The two of us settle at an enormous round dining-room table that could handle 10 comfortably, and Raymond, the housekeeper, serves us tuna salad and croissants. For nearly three hours, we talk.
Pfeiffer is cautious; she never speaks before thinking. She runs her hand through her hair, her movie star-blue eyes stare into space, and she takes a deep breath-then she answers. Questions about her personal life make her uneasy, as if they cause her physical pain. Instead of being completely self-involved, she asks plenty of questions of her interviewer, questions about magazine design and movie industry vagaries. When the conversation turns away from her, she smiles with a sigh of relief as the pressure lifts, at least temporarily.
Marveling at the beauty of an actress is like being awed by a basketball player’s height. It goes with the territory. What’s there to say? Plus, in Hollywood, where two out of two waitresses turn heads, exceptional looks are hardly enough to guarantee stardom. It takes drive and perseverance—which Pfeiffer today has in spades, but both of which seemed lacking during her formative years.
The second of four children (and first of three daughters) of a Midway City heating and air-conditioning contractor, Pfeiffer was not exactly headed for greatness. Most of her days at Fountain Valley High School were spent partying with the surfers at nearby Huntington Beach. “I was completely wild,” she recalls with a smile. “I was completely self-destructive. I was completely out of control.”
But Pfeiffer always made sure she could pay the bills. From age 14 on, she held down a variety of jobs-at a jewelry manufacturer, a preschool and a clothing store, then at a series of Von’s supermarkets as a checkout girl. “I always liked to work,” she says. “I found at a very early age that work gave me an independence and a freedom that I latched onto. For instance, it allowed me to buy my first car when I was 16, and that was a tremendous symbol of independence and freedom.
“A ‘65 Mustang. Ref. I trashed it,” she adds with glee.
After graduating from high school a year early, Pfeiffer spent more time at the beach, took court-reporting classes, dropped in and out of junior college and went back to Von’s. One day, she asked herself what she wanted to do. She fondly remembered some theater classes she had taken for easy English credits and decided to try acting.
“I constantly doubted what I was doing,” she recalls, “and I doubt it every day still. But at the same time, I always knew it was the right thing. It was the first time that I had ever felt that way about work. It wasn’t just self-discipline. It just had a pull over me.”
It wasn’t until after Witches of Eastwick that Pfeiffer first noticed a considerable change in both the quality of scripts being sent and the quantity of people recognizing her on the street. She’s level-headed enough to realize it had more to do with box office than performance.
“That was a rude awakening for me,” she says. “I sort of lost my cherry on that one. I had been fighting the notion that this business is really based on money, not talent, but finally I had to accept that as reality.”
Trying to convince himself he’s better off without her, Jack Baker says to Susie, “There’s always another girl.” And she rips into him. “Jesus, you’re cold. You’re like a fuckin’ razor blade.” Then she calls him on the fact that he’s abandoned his dreams. “I had you pegged for a loser. But you’re worse. You’re a coward.”
I don’t care how many guys slobbered over her now-famous scene in Baker Boys where she sexily slithers atop the piano while purring “Makin’ Whoopee.” For my money, Pfeiffer’s best when hurling insults and cussin’ with the best of ‘em. Kloves agrees. That’s why he cast her as
Susie Diamond. “Something I’ve always liked in Michelle is that she has an edge,” he says, “and that was necessary for Susie.”
That’s exactly why, when Pfeiffer first read Kloves’ script, Susie rang in her ears. Pfeiffer says she also felt she could learn some valuable lessons from the tough-talking singer. Which explains how a discussion about Susie turns into a monologue about Michelle.
“There’s something very streetwise about Susie that I think I have,” she offers. “She’s a fighter. She’s a survivor. Susie’s not passive. And one thing that I found that I wanted to pick up from her was that she’s a real initiator in life. I’m a real initiator in my career but I tend to not be in my personal life.
“My first instinct is to find something to occupy me by myself. If I had a free afternoon, I’d think, Well, I could read this book or I could maybe paint. My first instinct wouldn’t be to call up a friend and say, ‘Let’s go to a movie.’ I just wouldn’t think about doing that. Fortunately, I have friends who are that way. Who do call me. I do actually have a few friends .
“I think one of the worst qualities I have as a friend, though, is I sometimes check out of people’s lives for a while; I just kind of drop out. Sometimes you just have had enough of shelling out little sections of yourself, and you have to go into hibernation to replenish.”
Kate Guinzburg, one of Pfeiffer’s closest friends and her partner in their production company, focuses on the upside. “We love playing Pictionary,” says Guinzburg. “And we love making guacamole. Who she is, is not about being a movie star, it’s about being a serious actress.”
In between mashing avocados, Pfeiffer and Guinzberg have put together a full load of upcoming projects, including Dear Digby, about the letters editor at a feminist magazine; a story developed by Pfeiffer and Cher about an actress betrayed by her tabloid-reporter friend; and an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.
She may be pulling in $3 million per picture these days, but Michelle Pfeiffer remains as hungry as ever.
Rob Seidenberg is the executive editor of Creem magazine and a contributing editor for American Film.