Michelle Pfeiffer Smolders With Al Pacino In ‘Frankie and Johnny’ | October 1991

Michelle Pfeiffer Smolders With Al Pacino In ‘Frankie and Johnny’ | October 1991

PREMIERE | October 1991

PREMIERE | October 1991


Eight years after ‘Scarface,’ a more confident Michelle Pfeiffer and a happier Al Pacino reteam for director Garry Marshall’s diner romance, ‘Frankie and Johnny’
By Cyndi Stivers | Cover Photographed by Herb Ritts
JOHNNY: I bet you have a beautiful…
FRANKIE: I hate that word, Johnny.
JOHNNY: I wasn’t going to say that one.
FRANKIE: I hate both of them.
JOHNNY: All right, thing! And I’m asking you to open your robe so I can look at it. Just look. Fifteen seconds.
FOR MICHELLE PFEIFFER, THOSE FIFTEEN seconds were misery. At this point in Frankie and Johnny, Frankie the waitress (Pfeiffer) is about to expose rather more than her emotions to Johnny (Al Pacino), a short-order cook in the same diner. “I hated doing this scene,” she confesses. “It was very difficult for me. I was really a pain in the ass when we shot it—for about three days. Then we had to reshoot it. It was, like, this thing: everybody knew it hated it.” Before long, the crew knew her lines by heart.
When the scene was finally in the can, produce-director Garry Marshall figured some kind of celebration was called for. “We played music, and I gave out T-shirts that said I SURVIVED SCENE 105,” he reports. But that wasn’t the end of it. “I would say fifteen members of the crew then put on the robe and shot the robe scene for the gag reel,” the director says. “Everybody did the robe, just so she wouldn’t feel bad.” An assistant director even imitated Pfeiffer’s mannerisms—rubbing under her nose with her index finger and tucking her hair behind her ear—while the Pacino stand-in leaned in and out of the shot. (“I was so tired,” Pacino recalls, “Sometimes my head would start drooping, and it would get into the shot.”)
Pfeiffer’s pain was worth it, according to Marshall. “It came out quite a good scene,” he says in the pungent Bronx accent that can make him sound like a kind of vaudevillian rabbi. “She was a bit uncomfortable, but it’s very charming. It’s sexy, in a way, but it’s more just charming.”
On the set of Frankie and Johnny, uncomfortable moments were often turned into set-ups for practical jokes. Even Pacino—an Actors Studio votary who’s notoriously no-nonsense about his work.—was not spared. In a scene where Johnny and Frankie fight in the women’s changing room of a bowling alley, Pacino was distracted by his reflection in a mirror could be found.
Barreling into the room on the next go-round, Pacino was startled to see that Marshall had indeed replaced the mirror—with one that stretched clear across the wall. He burst out laughing. Later, in the gag reel, Marshall used the shot of Pacino breaking up, cut to a clip of him and Pfeiffer in Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), and then cut back to him laughing.
“With Garry, you’re ready for it,” Pacino says amiably. “He throws those things at you all the time.”
FRANKIE: You don’t know me.
JOHNNY: Of course I don’t know you. You don’t know me either. We got off to a great start. Why do you want to stop? What do you want? What do you want from a guy?
FRANKIE: I want a guy who’ll love me no matter what.
JOHNNY: You got him.
FRANKIE: Shit. This is worse than Looking for Mr.Goodbar.
IN THE EIGHT YEARS since Scarface was released, Pfeiffer says that she and her costar have changed a lot. “I’ve warned him that I was going to tell people that he had become much nicer and I had become much meaner,” she says, grinning. “He’s much more relaxed in his own skin.” Playing Pacino’s wife in Scarface was her first serious role, and she recalls being “so terrified. The two of us in a room together was a disaster. He was much more introverted and much less accessible. I tell him things he did, and he can’t believe it. He says, ‘I did not do that.’ I say, ‘Yes, you did. And then you said this…’
“But we really had fun on this movie together. The first month or so of shooting, every day I would stop and say, ‘I can’t believe these are the same two people working together.’ Because we both have come to such different places.”
Pacino laughs when asked about it. “Maybe I was just a jerk and I didn’t know it,” he says. “It always happens that way, right? I don’t know; I feel the same.
“On Scarface, I didn’t speak with Michelle much,” he concedes. “I think it had something to do with her being early on in her career. She seemed much less involved. I saw the early seeds of somebody she’s become, [but] she wasn’t as prominent in the rehearsals as she is now. Now she’s full of ideas and contributions.” Echoes Marshall: “I think she means that when she was in Scarface, she was a young ingenue who was afraid to speak. And now she’s certainly not afraid to speak. She speaks right up.”
That was fine by Marshall, whose last film, Pretty Woman, was the second-high-est-grossing film of 1990; his unfettered, improvisational directing style can be overwhelming to the uninitiated—such as Pfeiffer. “It was a little shocking initially, working with Garry,” she admits, smiling. “I’m a bit of a control freak. When you’re doing something that is well written, it has a certain rhythm to it, and for me, it’s like music. I find that rhythm, [and] I don’t like it disrupted.” She laughs at herself. “Well, Garry likes to stir things up a lot. Al’s a little looser, so it wasn’t so upsetting for Al.
“Garry directs a movie much like you would make a stew,” she continues. “He sort of puts everything in the broth, whether it be having five of his friends on the set every day—or in the movie—or changing this line and throwing in that….” She’d come to work with the script down part, only to be dealt a page of new jokes. Shifting into Marshallese, she parrots, “ ‘Ahh, things, see if you, I don’t know, if you wanta…’”
Eventually, she says, “I let go of all my need to control everything and trusted that in the end, if it didn’t work, he wouldn’t use it.” Thanks to the Marshall no-plan, she says, “we found things that we wouldn’t have found. I really loved working with Garry a lot.”
“It took a while,” says Marshall, “and then she saw that if there was a problem, we would fix it with her. We wouldn’t leave her out. I was very happy that she did relax and have a good time.”
It seems Marshall has an extraordinary gift for winning his actors’ faith and making them feel secure. “When you’re on the set, you are the most talented, most beautiful, most appreciated human being in the world,” says Kate Nelligan, who plays another waitress at the diner. “He wants everybody to feel that they can try anything.”
“He’s very much a paternal figure,” offers Nathan Lane, who plays a gay pal of Frankie’s. “You just kind of want to be related to him,” says Laurie Metcalf, who portrays a friend of Johnny’s.
“He has his priorities right,” Metcalf continues. “Your personal life always comes first. He found out my daughter was sick, and he was rushing to get me off that set.” After directing Wrong Turn at Lungfish (which he cowrote with Lowell Ganz) at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, she adds, he made a quiet donation to the group—in the name of the actors. And according to coproducer Nick Abdo, he often makes tapes of scenes that are cut from his films and sends them to the actors for their reels.
Marshall’s secret with actors, Nelligan suggests, is his disarming eccentricity: “He doesn’t scare them.”
“He’s a walking caricature,” says Hector Elizondo, who plays the owner of the diner. “The most highly imitatable man in Hollywood. Eventually, everybody talks like him. Nouns are all over the place, the syntax is his own—‘A long time, I haven’t seen ya!’ He’s sort of the Casey Stengel of directions.”
Marshall has a similar problem with proper nouns. “He never remembers anybody’s name,” says Nelligan. “The closest he ever got to my name was Nate. It’s a tribute to his charm that you’re never offended by it.” (“I do have trouble learning names,” Marshall admits, “so I usually call everybody Mister or Lady, and Kate I kept calling Nate because I got it mixed up with Nathan Lane. So anything that sounded like that, that was them.” And this despite the fact that Nelligan was one of his “favorites to work with of all time.”)
Perhaps his most amusing crotchet is his obsession with food. “He eats like a hamster,” exclaims Pacino. “He shakes your hand, and you go away with a plum pit.”
Recalls Pfeiffer, “He has his horsd’oeuvres in the afternoon, which is a rice cake with peanut butter and a little slice of banana on top. He has about five of those on a little plate. And he likes his frozen yogurt or his Jell-O Pudding Pops.”
“I eat a lotta yogurt,” he confirms, “and tuna fish. It makes me do better, think better. And rice cakes of all varieties. Tastes like cardboard, some of it, but cardboard couldn’t hurtcha.”
When he’s not planning his next snack, he’s plotting his next prank. “They’re done in a certain kind of spirit, so it’s pleasant,” says Pacino. But he believes that Marshall’s japes are more than fun and games: “You want to make the work as tolerable as possible, so you can function. That’s his technique; he sends out that flier. Actually, he’s one of the more obsessive directors I have worked with. He’s really trying to get into it, so he can do his best work. So it’s a ruse, of a sort.”


Of Pacino and Pfeiffer, Marshall says, “Probably these were two of the most serious actors I’ve ever worked with, as far as craftsmen. They come to do their job, and there’s not a lot of fooling around. I food around. I have a crew that I’ve worked with before, and we carry on a little bit. But we never hurt anybody’s scenes. We wait till it’s the right time.
“Al will say, ‘I think I got it on take 4 of take 5,” and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, between 4 and 5.’ And then we do a few more. That’s where we fool around.”
Both stars had birthdays during production, and Marshall surprised them with cakes. But the best joke was played on Pacino during a scene where Johnny returns home and is supposed to be startled to find friends there. On one take, he opened the door and found the crew from Star Trek: Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Bones. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley had been walking across the lot in costume, and Marshall recruited them for the trick. “I thought something was gonna happen, bit never that!” Pacino recalls, laughing. Cries Marshall, “That was a good one!”
JOHNNY: Something’s going on between us, something important. Don’t you feel it?
FRANKIE: I don’t know what I feel.
JOHNNY: You don’t want to feel it. We’re talking about two people coming together: sure it’s a little scary, but it’s fucking wonderful, too.
I LIKE THE RELATIONSHIP,” says Marshall, explaining how he was seduced by Frankie and Johnny. “I like people communicating, the difficulty of communication between people. I like pictures with people in rooms and in their lives, rather than great vistas or exploring Africa or Yugoslavia.” (The reason he’s avoided foreign locations: “It’s the food. I don’t know how I’d eat.”)
Frankie and Johnny is an adaption of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which ran fro a year and a half off-Broadway and is still on the boards in Boston. (Marshall lopped off the end of the title: “Too long.”) The story of two middle-aged lonely souls who find each other, McNally’s play was first performed at the Manhattan Theatre Club on June 2, 1987, with Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham in the title roles. Indeed, they were the only two characters, and the entire play took place in Frankie’s one-room apartment. Frankie and Johnny, the film, has a cast of 96, a budget that ended up at about $29 million, and locations in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and New York City.
Marshall had expressed interest in film rights to the play early on—producer Scott Rudin hoped to set it up as a project for them at Twentieth Century Fox—but Marshall and Rudin were outbid by Paramount Pictures, which bought it for director Mike Nichols. After about two years, Nichols dropped out and Marshall stepped in. McNally was convinced that Marshall could do right by his characters on the basis of the director’s 1984 film, The Flamingo Kid, which is one of the playwright’s favorites: “That had such a wonderful feeling for blue-collar people, without patronizing them. So I felt I was in very good hands.”
To open up the work for the screen, McNally says he “basically put the play in a drawer and rethought the whole thing.” As executive producer Alexandra Rose describes it, “You see their back story instead of just hearing them talk about it, and you see the other characters in their lives instead of just hearing about them.”
“Very little dialogue from the play is in the movie,” McNally observes. “I was shocked how little I used—I’d say no more than 15 percent—but this is a different kind of writing; it’s more naturalistic.”
The most memorable speeches are still there but rearranged, and there are far-flung additions: Johnny is seen coming out of jail; Frankie goes home to Altoona, PennsyIvania; and they both stroll the streets of New York. Scenes are refined; references are updated. While he was at it, McNally created parts for two of his favorite actors—Lane, a star of McNally’s latest play, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and Nelligan, who appeared in a revival of McNally’s Bad Habits.
Paramount gave the go-ahead last fall, and Pacino and Pfeiffer were signed within a few weeks for salaries estimated at $6 million and $3 million respectively. Marshall had met Pacino while casting Pretty Woman—“We talked about doing that together, [but] schedules didn’t permit”—and he knew Pfeiffer from another, never-made project.
Pfeiffer recalls reading the script on a flight to Canada, where she was heading to visit her beau, actor Fisher Stevens. “Thirty pages into it, I knew I wanted to play this part,” she says. “Usually I mull over things forever. I called Garry when I got there and committed. It was really quick—for me, particularly.
“Love is funny thing,” she observes. “Nobody will ever really be able to figure out why you love certain people, or why you don’t. it comes when you least expect it, falls apart when you least expect”—she makes a goofy face—“and human nature is such that no matter how bruised or beat-up you’ve been. We somehow manage to muster enough courage to open ourselves up one more time. Frankie is somebody who’s terribly wounded and believes that for her, in this lifetime, it’s just not going to happen. And that intrigued me.”
The tapping of Pfeiffer, 33, drew hisses from some in the theater community, who thought her too young and pretty for the role. Wrote Newsday theater critic Linda Winer, “Either this is the funniest casting since Dustin Hoffman was Sean Connery’s son in Family Business, or director Garry Marshall has rethought the concept.”


He says the latter is true. “I did speak to Kathy Bates when we were first formulating the project,” Marshall confirms, but “the screenplay is much different than the play. And now that we’ve finished, it’s pretty legitimate to let the work speak for itself. If you say, ‘Michelle is too glamorous,’ now you gotta come and see if she is. It’s as simple as that.” Notes Pacino, chuckling, “If you listen to so many things that are said, you’d never leave your house.”
McNally says he wrote the part for Bates but is “thrilled Michelle is playing it. I wish they could both play it. I’d like two movies.” (Bates recently told Interview that she “laughed hysterically” when she heard about it, even though she thinks Pfeiffer is “a great actress.”)
“In a play,” notes Marshall, “you only have to have people have chemistry with each other in full-length shots. ‘Cause in a play, you kiss full-length. In a movie, the lovers have to have chemistry in two big head close-up. So acting and types sometimes tale a sidestep to see if you can get two people who have chemistry,” he admits. “And Al and Michelle had worked together before, so it was interesting for them to do it again.”
Nothing that she’s just one of several actresses to have played the part, Pfeiffer says, “The Description of the character is that Frankie is an attractive woman if she’d just put a little effort into how she looks. So that’s basically the way I played her. I consider myself an attractive woman, and I can be not-so-great-looking if I don’t put any effort into how I look. But more important,” she concludes, “the core of the character is someone who has given up on love, and that could be any age, any size, any form of beauty. That could be anybody.”
FRANKIE: Why do we keep going from one subject I don’t like to another subject?
JOHNNY: Hey, I’m being nice, and bingo! The armor goes up.
FRANKIE: What about your armor?
JOHNNY: I don’t have any.
FRANKIE: Everybody has armor. They’d be dead if they didn’t.
IT’S A NEW YORK PIECE,” says Marshall. “I wanted to go to New York if there was any possible way.” For the Frankie and Johnny production team, that wish was nerve-racking, because when shooting began January 29 on the Paramount lot in L.A., the studios were already two months into their Big Apple boycott. Local 52 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and Moving Picture Machine Operators had balked at accepting a proposed 30 percent pay cut, and there was no settlement in sight. “We had to make that commitment to New York, and it was very worrisome,” remembers executive producer Chuck Mulvehill. “Everything hinged on it.” If the boycott wasn’t over by the time in the California filming was done, “we were simply stuck.” (In the end, says Marshall, “we went over schedule to do it, but I think it was the right thing to do.”)
From the start of filming in L.A., Marshall, Pacino, and Pfeiffer strove to maintain a united front. “We stayed pretty close together, the three of us,” the director says. “That was our strength.” They met each Saturday during production to rehearse the next week’s work. (“There are times when it seems so meaningless,” recalls Pacino, “but if you just keep doing it, something’s bound to happen.”) On the set, serious discussions were held privately. “We worked a lot in AL’s trailer,” adds Marshall, “because he had the most yogurt. Michelle had yogurt, but Al had yougurt and six different toppings! ‘Do you think the scene’s working?’ ‘No, wait a minute; give me the nuts. Not the M&M’s, I want the nuts!’”
If, as Pfeiffer says, Pacino did seem more easygoing than he used to, it may be partly and benefit of his hiatus from filmmaking in the mi-‘80s. “Being out of the light for a while was good,” he says. “It was good for me.” The time away did not change the way he works, however. As Nelligan jokes, “Al likes to do 125 takes.”
Except when he’s doing love scenes. Nelligan—who wore nothing but gold stiletto heels and an ankle bracelet during their onscreen tryst—says, “He had a hard time doing that love scene. He didn’t once he got into it, but getting him into it was hard.” Pacino concurs. “That’s never comfortable,” he admits. “You try to see that [it’s] as much a part of the movie as any other scene—and just think that you’ve got all your clothes on; so as long as you don’t see the movie, you’ll be okay!”
Clothed or not, Pacino says he likes to stay “keyed” into his role at all times. “You’re not there to enjoy yourself,” he says. “You do that by your swimming pool.”
Pfeiffer, on the other hand, says she is “not the kind of actor who remains in character all the time.” She comes in with the script fully memorized and tends to peak about take 3. “Generally speaking, I get it early,” she says. “I am at the gate and ready to go,” although she adds, “Usually around take 10, I can come back.”
Marshall sometimes visited Pfeiffer first thing in the morning in the makeup trailer, where she prepared cold compresses for his eyes. “She got me a wet thing, and we sat there with little things over our eyes, cooling our eyes, chatting. Solved a lotta things, just talking like that.”
One of them was the Great Meat Loaf Debate. At the start of their big love scene, Frankie is making Johnny a meat-loaf sandwich, which gets abandoned in the heat of passion. “So I come back into the room [when] we’re going to make love,” recalls Pfeiffer, “and the entire kitchen is cleaned up. What happened to the food that was out on the counter?” Marshall had out it away so that the audience wouldn’t be distracted by it. “He doesn’t care If scenes match, you know?” she says, giggling. “He doesn’t care about any of that.”


Pfeiffer dug in her heels. “Garry, no,” she told him. “You can’t do this. Frankie would never have taken the time to put the food away. I will not let you get away with it.” She laughs. “That was our biggest fight, over this meat loaf.”
“She carried on pretty good,” says Marshall, a shrug in his voice. His rationale was this: “Time had passed. So to pan, and the meat loaf’s still left out there, like flies or whatever—who knows what’s going on? I didn’t want that audience to say, ‘Ooh, look, the meat loaf isn’t covered’ over there, while we were going over here. Anyway, she gave me the idea of how to end the love scene! And it came out great. Without her carrying on, I would’ve never thought of it. Instead of putting the meat loaf away—we always find a compromise—we just covered it. So people wouldn’t go ‘meat loaf,’ they’d go, ‘Ooh, look what Al and Michelle are doing!’”
Marshall says there were “a lot of good squabbles” in the course of production. “This is what makes a movie: you argue, you all got different opinions, and you carry on. It was kinda fun, I must say.
“I came out very impressed with them,” Marshall says of his stars. “they were doing a dramatic performance that was filled with comedy, and they had to swing back and forth. It was not easy for them. I personally would work again in a minute with Michelle or Al,” he concludes. “I probably next time would switch he meat loaf to a chicken, but other than that…”
FRANKIE: God, why do we get involved with people it turns out hate us?
JOHNNY: Because…
FRANKIE: Because we hate ourselves. I know. I read the same book.
JOHNNY: I want to go upstairs, watch you get ready for bed, then climb in and make love to you for ten hours.
FRANKIE: You expect me to be fooled with a line like that?
WITH EXACTLY those lines, Johnny is trying to get Frankie to invite him back to her apartment. “It’s the prelude to the very last scene of the movie,” Marshall explains. “The next ten minutes are inside that apartment.” He’s pointing at a brown-stone on West 45th Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues. Yes, the Marshall clan has finally made it to New York; shooting began a mere five days after IATSE accepted a new contract.
Since Frankie and Johnny is the first Hollywood production in town in seven months, paparazzi have been swarming the set, taking hundreds of shots of Pacino and Pfeiffer walking back and forth across a street. Even The New York Times has printed a story, along with a photo of Marshall chewing. “They always take pictures of eating,” he grumbles. “It’s a plot by Ron Howard to make him look cuter than me.”
On this steamy night, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, Marshall is pacing the sidewalk, talking on a cellular phone. Three Guardian Angels patrol the end of the block. The scene begins with Frankie and Johnny walking along the street, past a big green garbage truck marked MARANGI’S GOBBLER, and ends with them talking to her stoop.
“Where are our hookers?” Marshall murmurs. The unit publicist points out some transvestites on a nearby fire escape: “Are they ours?”
“I don’t think so.” He plucks a toothpick out of a battered cigar box and absentmindedly pokes it around in his mouth. (The box, always kept in the pocket of his director’s chair, contains Marshall’s necessities: “my things,” including a comb, a pern or pencil and notepad, gum, “sometimes something to eat,” and “Tic Tacs for kissing—we were doing so much kissing in this picture, we all got hooked on Tic Tacs.”)
Pacino and Pfeiffer start slowly down the block. As they pass the truck, Marshall calls to the garbagemen, “Throw it in from the side.” The actors reach the stoop, and Pfeiffer starts to climb stairs as Pacino waits below. “Yes,” the director says gently, “sit at the top step. Up, up, up, sit. Good!” Pacino is still at ground level, but Marshall hesitates to tell him what to do. Instead, he offhandedly says, “if he wants to join you, it’d be nice.” Pacino trudges up the steps, and they sit.
The camera cuts. “Nice,” Marshall tells to the actors. “That’s not so bad.” Then he turns back to his crew, arms outstretched, and proclaims, “In the middle of muck and garbage comes love!”

1 Comment

  • Laura Lockwood
    June 21, 2011

    Thanks for sharing

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