Entertainment Weekly | No.155 January 29, 1993
Is it fear to commitment or the search for the perfect role that keeps Michelle Pfeiffer from making the most of her stardom?
By James Kaplan | Photographs by Matthew Rolston
Michelle Pfeiffer is telling a story on herself, doing a pitch-perfect imitation of her agent, the mellifluous, legendary Ed Limato of ICM: “He says, ‘Michelle, darling. If you think the public wants to see you in another wig, doing another accent, you’re mistaken. That’s not what they want.’”
“What do you think?” I ask. We’re ensconced in the back room of a French/Southwestern ladies-who-lunch restaurant near Pfeiffer’s West Los Angeles house. It’s a couple of weeks before Christmas; a fire crackles in the fireplace.
“Well,” she says, “he’s probably right. The things that interest me are not usually easy sells. But they keep letting me make movies, so that’s all that really matters to me. Basically, for the last five or six years, I’ve done movies because I like them. Some have been successful, and some haven’t. Some I wear a wig, and some I don’t. Some I have an accent, and some I don’t. And I’d like to keep making choices in the same way. He was very relieved when I did Batman Returns, though,” she adds, with a laugh.
It’s a serious laugh. At 35, Michelle Pfeiffer is at the zenith of her career. Yet there were three years between her Best Actress nomination for The Fabulous Baker Boys and the release of the fabulously successful Batman Returns, and they were a commercial minefield for her. There are those who maintain she sold short her greatest success by choosing character roles that emphasized her extravagant acting talent over her extravagant good looks. While she’s universally admired, even revered, for her acting, she is by no means above Hollywood’s harsh calculus. “Look,” says one insider, “the jury’s still out on whether Michelle Pfeiffer can open a movie.” Yet, if such assessments bother her, she gives no sign. She knows as well as anyone that nobody—certainly no woman—is given tenure in Hollywood.
LAST JUNE, PFEIFFER finished shooting Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence, and adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel about upper-class mores in 1870s New York City. She plays Countess Ellen Olenska, a woman liberated before her time and ostracized for her nonconformity. The picture was to have come out last fall, but it was pushed back a year to accommodate Scorsese’s intensive editing process. The result has been one of those odd lacunae that becalm even the most productive carers now and then. On the one hand, it’s been nice (“I think I sufficiently burnt myself out to where I could plan to relax,” Pfeiffer says); on the other hand, heat—which the world cares about, even if the actress doesn’t—cools.
Into this gap fall the problems of another wig-and-accent Pfeiffer picture, Love Field, a small road movie about an interracial love affair, set in the South at the time of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was finished in November 1991, but then the bankruptcy of Orion put it in cold storage. Now the reorganized studio is hoping Love Field will spearhead its return to the business. It seems a fragile spearhead, and Pfeiffer is having a hard time hiding her ambivalence about it.
“I like the movie very much,” she says, her flat voice belying her words. “I think that its message, if it has one, is one of hope and crossing boundaries—of sex, of race, of class.” Her voice trails off.
“Do you have any quibbles with it artistically?” I ask.
A thick, juicy silence. She looks me straight in the eye for a long time, her pupils tiny in pale-blue irises. “Okay,” she says bluntly. “Movies are bound to come out different from the way you see them in your head. But a lot of people bled for this movie. And there were a lot of hurt feelings, and a lot of anger, but I think we all put it behind us and said, ‘Okay. Now the movie’s out, let’s give it our best shot.’ Because there’s a lot of good work in the movie; there’s a lot of—effect, and a lot of good intentions.”
The road to video limbo is, of course, paved with good intentions. “The movie was a difficult one from the get-go,” Pfeiffer admits. Orion badly wanted Denzel Washington to costar, at the point when he and Pfeiffer were being nominated by every award outfit in sight, he for Glory, she for The Fabulous Baker Boys. But Washington was worried that the male lead was too passive. A week before shooting started, he backed out, and Dennis Haysbert, a virtual unknown, was called in to replace him. Due to financial pressures from the afflicated studio, the shooting schedule was unrealistically short, and then Orion went into Chapter 11.
“Once the studio went belly-up,” says the film’s director, Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused), “we never got to show the movie to an audience.”
Despite the smallness of the picture, Pfeiffer’s moving performance as Lurene Hallet, a chatterbox of a Dallas housewife who finally transcends her own vacuity, is strong enough to have generated talk of an Oscar nomination. But the movie’s commercial prospects—it goes national on February 12—seem modest.
And Pfeiffer chose Love Field over another road picture, Thelma & Louise.
“Michelle loved the character in Love Field,” says Kate Guinzburg, her production-company partner, adviser, and best friend. “I mean, YOU LOOK AT [Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon on] the cover of TIME and go, ‘Huh? Huh? How could she have made this choice?” But commercial considerations are the last thing on her mind when Michelle’s deciding on a project.”
She didn’t always have this luxury. Pfeiffer had been through her TV period (The B.A.D. Cats, Delta House) and her B-movie period (The Hollywood Knights, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen) when roles in Grease 2 and Scarface ratcheted her into respectability. Then, with Oscar nominations for Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys, in 1988 and ’89, she was suddenly close to the top of her profession. But choosing the next step proved strangely tough.
“I think one of her problems has been the choices she’s made,” says George Miller, who directed her in 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick. “She’s a hesitant decider—she tends to withdraw when she gets scared.” He speaks from experience: Pfeiffer came very close to committing to his current release, Lorenzo’s Oil. “And what we really all ought to be doing is what scares us the most.
One project that particularly scared her was The Silence of the Lambs.
“I think the more confident I’ve become over the years, the more I’m able to venture into those unsubtle territories. I’m not so afraid to make a fool out of myself anymore.”
Lambs director Jonathan Demme, and admirer since they worked together on Married to the Mob (1988), passionately wanted Pfeiffer for the role Jodie Foster wound up with. He wasn’t alone. “Kate [Guinzburg] wanted me to do that movie very badly,” Pfeiffer says. “But my agent actually had ambivalent feeling as well. I was kind of surprised that he did.”
“Michelle felt that evil won out at the end of the story,” says Guinzburg. “She struggled with that decision, but I finally understood. And I think she’d make the same decision today.” Instead of Lambs, she did Frankie & Johnny with Al Pacino. On the face if it, it was not an odd choice: Director Garry Marshall’s previous film had been Pretty Woman. Frankie plummeted out of sight, but Pfeiffer has no regrets. She rarely does.
“She never says, “I shoulda,’” says Marshall. “She doesn’t dwell.”
PFEIFFER WAS HARDLY an obvious choice for the much-coveted role of Batman Returns’ Catwoman. But she lobbied as hard as anyone—well, except Sean Young—for the part. When the first choice, Annette Bening, got pregnant, the plum fell to Pfeiffer.
I remember she once told me (I interviewed her for the release of Married to the Mob) she had no confidence in her comic ability—then I think of the terminally mousy Selina Kyle jamming her stuffed animals down a garbage disposal. “How’d you get so funny?” I ask.
“Well, this is the problem,” she says. “I’m never gonna think I’m funny. That hasn’t changed. I might get a little snicker out of myself every now and then.” She laughs.
“I have a different thing,” she says. “I have a funny bone. It’s more slight and more subtle.”
That doesn’t quite describe Catwoman.
She smiles. “Yes. Not my most subtle work. I think the more confident I’ve become over the years, the more I’m able to venture into those territories. I’m not so afraid to make a fool out of myself anymore. It was hard work, but I really had fun.”
The work, and the fun, showed. In Batman Returns—the smash hit of 1992, with a $163 million take—“she went from being very well regarded to being an international star,” Guinzburg says. Their production company is now developing an eclectic mix of projects: a commercial CIA thriller-romance; an adaptation of Jane Smiley’s epic farm novel, A Thousand Acres; a love story about Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. And Pfeiffer is looking at other options. “I’ve been encouraging her to direct,” Gary Marshall says. “My sister [Penny] did very well with it, and I think Michelle could too. She has a great understanding of other actors, of material, and the visual. And the truth for her is that there are only so many scripts she can act in.
THE FLAME in the restaurant’s fireplace has gown down, and, our waiter being scarce, Pfeiffer simply reaches in and shifts the cool ends of the logs around with her long thin fingers. It comes back to me that she’s one of the least self-important stars I’ve ever met, and one of the few who uses the word you with any regularity.
“She’s from a working-class background,” Jonathan Kaplan says. The daughter of a heating and air-conditioning contractor and a homemaker from blue-collar Midway City, Calif., “She knows damn well she could survive without all that star stuff.”
“Michelle has no goddess time,” Marshall says. “Except when she’s on the screen. And then she’s home. I’ve worked with a lot of stars, and she’s different. She doesn’t get obsessed with hair and makeup. She’s not a happy girl on the set—she’s very prepared, very serious.”
Ironically, one of Pfeiffer’s very best roles was as a goddess, in the haunting but largely unseen 1987 PBS movie Natica Jackson, an adaptation of a John O’Hara story; it is about a ‘30s movie star whose brash, wistful essence she captured with eerie perfection. Michelle Pfeiffer made you believe that, had she been around then, she could have shown Garbo and Lombard a thing or two.
It’s an impression she has made more than once. “Of all the screen tests I’ve given,” George Miller says, “the two I most remember are Mel Gibson’s for Mad Max and Michelle’s for Witches. The minute the studio people saw her test, they were scrambling all over themselves to say they’d thought of her first.”
“Michelle has something very rare on the screen, and that’s mystery,” says Steve Kloves, who directed her in The Fabulous Baker Boys. Baker Boys solidified Pfeiffer’s myth by suggesting similarities between Susie Diamond’s harsh beauty and Pfeiffer’s own: a tough past and plenty of somber undertones. “At the same time, there’s a raw quality that comes through in her performance. It’s unique combination.
“She’s a dark soul,” Kloves goes on. “She questions everything. But I think she’s happy now.”
“When we were shooting Frankie & Johnny,” Marshall recalls, “people would say to me, ‘That girl’s too pretty to have any trouble.’ And I said to them, ‘I know Michelle.’”
When we first met, she was just coming into her own commercially, but she had plenty of trouble. Her seven-year-marriage to actor Peter Horton had just ended; she was smoking too much, and working too hard.
“It was hard for me to be famous initially,” she says now. “But then I got older, and I got more famous. And it wasn’t going away. So unless you come to terms with it, you’re gonna have a miserable life. I chose not to have a miserable life.”
Did this choice involve the recent ending of her relationship with actor Fisher Stevens?
“Fisher and I had a wonderful three years, and he’s an extraordinary human being,” Pfeiffer says. “However, all relationships are not meant to last. Ther was no terrible deed done—contrary to what was reported.” (Tabloid accounts blamed the breakup on his infidelity.) “It just ran its course,” she says.
Pfeiffer does seem to have found an even keel. “I’m basically a happier person,” she says, weighing her words. “I’m never gonna be a perky person—it’s not my nature.”
“Has Michelle changed?” repeats her close friend Cher. “Oh gosh, yeah. She’s coming into her own. Being an artist isn’t always so good for your everyday life. But I think she’s merging the two really well.”
“You have someone new in your life,” I say. Her latest involvement is with TV producer David Kelley (Picket Fences). “Yes, but I think I was in a very good place before I met him,” she replies quickly. “You know what?” she adds, after a moment. “I’m really happy. I want to have children—at some point; don’t know when. I guess basically in my life I don’t know that I would change anything.”
WE’RE IN A HUGE West Los Angeles antique market, buying Christmas presents. Pfeiffer looks fetchingly casual in her shopping clothes—bib overalls, T-shirt, black Doc Martens—but she’s not down-dressed enough to fool fawning salespeople. Every time we turn a corner, a new one appears, describing items, offering to open another cabinet. An especially persistent blue-haired saleslady shows up for the third time; Pfeiffer makes a flea-flicking gesture when the woman isn’t looking. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do as you get older?” I ask.
“I’ve thought I should invest my money very, very wisely,” she says. She smiles. “I had a really interesting thing happen when I was working on Age of Innocence. We were in Brooklyn Heights, and we were on the street, and all of the neighborhood people could come out—we were like the circus that came to town. And I was in my trailer, and they were being—so loud. And I kept trying to find a place where they couldn’t see in. so I find myself I the back of trailer, and they can’t see me, but I can hear them a little clearer. Now, these are people who are usually, like, ‘Michelle, Michelle! We love you! Michelle!’ And I hear somebody say, ‘Hey, man! I saw her, and she look old!’”
She laughs delightedly.
“I’m not worried about age,” Pfeiffer says. “But I’m very aware that this is my window of time. I mean, I costarred with Sean Connery in Russia House, and nobody batted an eye. When he was 60, he was voted the sexiest man in the world. This just is not gonna happen for women—not in my lifetime. I want to be allowed to age gracefully, but they don’t let you do that in this business.”
Pfeiffer picks put a present for her agent: a gilded statuette of a man wrestling a wolf to the ground. Should we see symbolism here? No doubt the agent has done some grappling to get his most beautiful client all she deserves. No doubt the client has wrestled with some tough decisions herself.
But just for a moment—back in the parking lot, under a fierce L.A. sun, as she pops on shades, climbs into her four-wheel drive, and wave goodbye—she makes it all seem easy.
A Concise Pfeiffer Pfilmography
The growth of an actress, from happy high schooler to kitten with a whip
HERE’S MICHELLE Pfeiffer’s dilemma: She’s beautiful. She’s blond. She’s got them big blue peepers. So she can’t be one of today’s best screen actresses. But that common assumption is also the source of her art-Pfeiffer’s unshowy performance work because they don’t call attention to themselves. This didn’t happen overnight, though, and her filmography on video shows a maturation from awkward starlet to performer of subtle creativity.
FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN (1980, Sultan) Also known as In Love, Pfeiffer’s first film is a sappy coming-of-age-in-da-Bronx tale. She does hold her own as the love interest, however, even managing a British accent. D
CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN (1981, Media) She’s game but hapless as hero Richard Hatch’s dumb-bunny fiancée. F
GREASE 2 (1982, Paramount) This is Pfeiffer’s first lead role: Rydell High’s new top Pink Lady. Too bad it’s one of the worst sequels of all time. D-
SCARFACE (1983, MCA/Universal) Her wan sadness as Al Pacino’s WASP moll goes deeper than anything else in Brian De Palma’s delirious gangster opera. B
LADYHAWKE (1985, Warner) The Middle Ages for mall brats, with Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer as a knightly couple under a curse. She doesn’t get to do much except quiver her lips, but it’s passable silly stuff. C
INTO THE NIGHT (9185, MCA/Universal) This comic thriller is where things get interesting: Pfeiffer rings deft changes on the stock femme-fatale role as she leads schmo Jeff Goldblum into danger. B
SWEET LIBERTY (1986, MCA/Universal) Alan Alda’s comedy about a film crew invading a college town is good-natured, articulate, and a little too coy to stick. Pfeiffer is nicely brittle as a neurotic starlet. B-
THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987, Warner) Before getting lost behind the horror goop, Pfeiffer brought her timidity to the fore as the intellectual of the three suburban spell casters. B-
DANGEROUS LIAISONS (1988, Warner) This courtly sexual roundelay is as nasty as any soap opera and twice as penetrating. Pfeiffer goes the acting distance and picked up a Best Supporting Actress nomination as a virtuous woman betrayed by love. A
TEQUILA SUNRISE (1988, Warner) Pfeiffer is an icy restaurateur who taws for both cop Kurt Russell and criminal Mel Gibson. It doesn’t make a shred of sense, but everyone’s so beautiful you won’t care. B-
MARRIED TO THE MOB (1988, Orion) This velvety mob farce plays like humane screwball, and Pfeiffer, as a Mafia widow torn between the godfather and a cute fed, comes off like Carole Lombard’s shyer sister. B+
THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS (1989, LIVE) It’s just a bunch of smoky romantic clichés, but so what? Watching Pfeiffer sing “Makin’ Whoopee” as she crawls on a piano is a major movie moment. And she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination. B
THE RUSSIA HOUSE (1990, MGM) Sean Connery’s the main show as a raffish publisher-turned-spy, but Pfeiffer, as the Russian editor he falls for, fills in her role with unexpected grace notes. A-
FRANKIE & JOHNNY (1991, Paramount) Pfeiffer as a dowdy waitress? Hard not to call it miscasting. But this is an affecting, tough-minded romance, with Pfeiffer’s cautious blooming matched by Al Pacino’s happy hamming. B
BATMAN RETURNS (1992, Warner) You can keep Jack’s Joker, Danny’s Penguin, even that uptight guy in the rubber hat. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the real prize. Her transformation from a much-abused secretary to a dazed, latex-swathed mistress of kink is both comic and scarily on the money. This is the performance that deserves an Oscar. B+ —Ty Burr