Vogue | October 1991
She may be Hollywood’s hottest, but Michelle Pfeiffer is decidedly cool about stardom. She’d rather play any part than be herself, finds Jonathan Van Meter. Photographed by Herb Ritts
The honest-to-God-truth,” says Michelle Pfeiffer, “is that this is a way for me to try to tolerate doing publicity. Period. It’s like, all right, I’m an actress. How can I begin to enjoy this process? Because obviously it’s a huge one, and it’s not going away. So on my way to the shoot I said, All right you bitch, you’d better have fun. You set this whole thing up your way, and this is it, so don’t complain.”
Pfeiffer has just sent three days being photographed as six wildly different characters who could not be further from her own. At the end of the three days she puts on a dress and prepares to be photographed as Michelle Pfeiffer. She looks in the mirror. “You are just so boring,” she complains, remembering the reason for all effort with period costumes and makeup in the first place: she doesn’t like the way she looks. “This is really fascinating,” she says later, as if talking to herself. “You find yourself a lot more interesting in the form of another character.”
In every interview with Pfeiffer, the overblown clichés are eventually hauled out: Michelle Pfeiffer, the civilian, is a beautiful, if bland, California every-girl. Wow, they will say, this captivating woman on the screen is really plain in person. But it sounds like a cliché because it’s true. She is plain. She works at it, as if plain were more interesting than pretty. Which is why when confronted with unanswerable, no-win questions about her looks, she freaks out just a little bit. She seems to anticipate the disappointment people will feel when they meet her, so she beats them to it, slags herself, and winds up sounding just a little bit ridiculous.
Hence these pictures. An experiment. All her idea, really. This is the way Michelle Pfeiffer wants to be seen. She is comfortable (and less boring) hiding behind other guises—all covered up to look like someone who has more character in her face, her dress, someone who doesn’t look like her. “I asked a lot of people,” she says. “I had lists and lists compiled, and I did a lot of reading, and it kind of all boiled down to these characters”—Lulu from Pandora’s Box, Laurence from Private Lives, Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Eliza Doolittle from Pygmalion, Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, and Joan of Arc. She refuses to explain the thinking behind the choices, except to say that is was nothing terribly intellectual. She wants to preserve whatever “mystery” may be left.
Michelle Pfeiffer has admitted that she “kind of learned how to act on-screen.” In spite of that (or perhaps in light of it), critics love her. Always have. She is, in various reviews, “a cover girl with the inverted-searchlight soul of a Woody Allen heroine” or an actor with “a sense of comedy…along with something both haunting and heartbreaking.” In dud after dud, said one critic of her early screen career, “she has never been less than bewitching.” Lately, however, the pickings have gotten better; she’s had five consecutive critical, if not commercial, hits: The Witches of Eastwick, Married to the Mob, Tequila Sunrise, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Fabulous Baker Boys (followed by an ambitious mistake, The Russia House). Of her Oscar-nominated performance in Dangerous Liaisons, one critic wrote that she “hits just the right note of bold yet frightened emotion, modesty, and pain. She works that old white magic as superbly as the stars of Hollywood’s golden age,” which pretty much nails it.
Pfeiffer seems to have bubbled up from the past. While thoroughly nineties women such as Annette Bening, Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, and Kathleen Turner seem to act themselves, Pfeiffer’s characters, as she has said, become her. It’s a bold thing to say, but a distinction that somehow seems right. “I don’t like talking about the characters I do in film, ever,” she says. “There’s no deep, dark meaning. It’s just an idea. It’s just an idea.”
This month two new characters will become Michelle Pfeiffer. In Jonathan Kaplan’s Love Field, she plays a sassy, bottle-bold Dallas housewife who is obsessed with Jacqueline Kennedy. On a bus trip to Washington, D.C., to Dallas on the weekend following the JFK assassination, she meets a black man and his daughter. “Just because there’s a black actor and I’m white,” Pfeiffer says, “they’re calling it an interracial love story—which I guess is a big theme these days. But hopefully it’s about more than that.” she is also costarring with Al Pacino in Frankie and Johnny (directed by Garry Marshall) in the role Kathy Bates originated off Broadway in the Terrence McNally play (titled Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune). Pfeiffer is the lonely, wounded waitress in a greasy spoon; Pacino, the cook in a story that is essentially a tug-of-war about intimacy between two doggedly ordinary working-class nobodies. Says Pfeiffer, “I’m so happy with it.” Then, whispering, “I never say that. You will probably never hear me say that again in my lifetime.”
Admitting for the first time in her career that she likes one of her own movies may be a signal that Pfeiffer—a woman who has professed that her “basic nature is dark” and that she dresses to “hide”—is finally becoming a bit more comfortable with herself. And if not, then she’s landed the perfect role: Catowoman in Tim Burton’s Batman sequel. She actually gets to wear a mask.