Michelle Pfeiffer Casts a Spell as Star and Single Mother by Leslie Bennetts
Michelle Pfeiffer snagged an Oscar nomination with her piano-top vamping in The Fabulous Baker Boys. As Batman’s Catwoman, she roared to the crest of the celebrity wave. Now starring on-screen in the upcoming The Age of Innocence and in real life as a single mother, she’s shedding her image as the most elusive star since Garbo. Pfeiffer tells LESLIE BENNETTS about the challenges of change—and why she no longer wants to be alone.
Photographs by HERB RITTS • Styled by MARINA SCHIANO
A fierce sun is broiling the Sony Studios lot, a sprawling expanse of trailers, soundstages, and assorted debris with all the glamour of a construction site. The sky over Los Angeles is a glaring white, the air thick with heat and humidity and pollution. Michelle Pfeiffer, who was up half the night with her new baby, who started working out at 5:30 this morning, and who had a 7 A.M. call for the set of Wolf, has just emerged from Stage 27, where an enormous number of people are laboring to create the illusion of a rural setting in upstate New York in late winter. “It smells like Christmas in there,” Pfeiffer observes. Bounding into her trailer, she sniffs to see if her lunch has arrived. “I’m starving,” she exclaims. She appears unnaturally cool for this hellish day, and she doesn’t look like a movie star at all, let alone one in costume and full makeup. Wearing blue jeans, a loose gray shirt, and a suede jacket, she could be an ordinary woman on her day off. She even has on one of those makeup jobs where somebody worked for hours to create the impression of no makeup at all. Her honey-colored hair looks slightly messy and entirely natural, although she assures me it took a lot of hair spray to get it that way. She peers around, then stops and looks straight at me.
It’s like locking eyes with a wary fawn; Pfeiffer has the skittish hyper-alertness of a wild animal who may pause momentarily but is ready to take flight in an instant. She is famous for her antipathy to the press, to celebrity, to self-exposure; for years virtually every interview has focused on her intense aversion to being interviewed. “Hi,” I say apologetically. “I know you’re looking forward to this about as much as—“I hesitate , and then: “Root-canal work!” we both say simultaneously. She nods. “Yeah,” she says, her expression amused and ironic.
Not that I haven’t been warned: Pfeiffer is “difficult,” they say. She hates talking abo herself. She won’t talk about her private life. Absolutely no questions about the baby she just adopted. She doesn’t like talking about the work she’s doing, either. (Forget work, forget love, forget children-so what else is there?)
And then, to my amazement, she starts to talk about her baby. And her private life. And her work. We sit down and have lunch. (A great deal of lettuce with a little bit of broiled salmon mixed in, after which Pfeiffer complains that she ate too much.) No matter what we’re talking about, she is smart, irreverent, unpretentious, and quite down-to earth. First we talk about sleep deprivation and how hard it is to function during the day when you’re up at night with an infant. Pfeiffer may be a movie star, but she is also a real mom. Adamant about taking care of her own child as much as possible, she refused to hire live-in help, and when Claudia Rose starts fussing at three A.M. there’s no nanny to deal with her. “It’s me,” Pfeiffer says ruefully. “I wanted to do all that. People think I’m nuts. I am completely sleep-deprived. But I wanted this child to know who her mother was. And it also goes back to my same issue of privacy. I thought for a long time there was no way I could have a child without a live-in nanny, and I don’t want a live- in nanny. I’ll never get comfortable with my housekeeper cleaning my house and going through my drawers.” She shudders.
Pfeiffer’s adoption of a bi-racial baby last spring came as a considerable surprise to many of her friends and colleagues as well as fans. “I was shocked,” says actor Fisher Stevens, her former boyfriend. Pfeiffer’s extreme penchant for privacy extends even to intimates; her friend Cher has often joked that she wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Pfeiffer confided one day that she had a 10-year-old child stashed away somewhere that she’d never told her about. Characteristically, when Pfeiffer decided last year to adopt a child , for a long time she told virtually no one. “It was the most important thing I’ll ever do in my life, and I wanted time by myself to get used to it,” she says.
To an outsider, the timing might seem decidedly odd . She had, just broken up with Stevens after a three-year romance, and she hadn’t yet started going out with David Kelley, her current beau. For the moment, she was very much on her own, and she did some serious soul-searching about how much her yearning for a baby might be an aftereffect of the rupture with Stevens. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just the acting out of a relationship ending,” Pfeiffer says. “And fortunately it wasn’t. I had been ready to be a mother for a very long time. I’m 35.1 have spent more than a third of my life being independent and leading this narcissistic existence where everything is about me, and it’s boring already. I was just ready for a change.
Anytime I saw somebody with a baby, I started salivating. It was just time. And then I thought, even today, with men sharing in a lot of parenting, with all the women I know, the majority of the responsibility falls on their shoulders, even though they have a career as well. Men are like pinch hitters. So what’s the deal?” She shrugs. “I thought about all my options, and certainly one of those options was to just have a baby with somebody, which I guess is the obvious option. But when it came right down to it, I just couldn’t do it. I thought, I don’t want some guy in my life forever who’s going to be driving me nuts. And I always wanted to adopt-always. I want to have my own children too; I want to do both.” Her cool blue eyes are steady and intense. “And I will,” she says evenly. Her will is formidable, as tangible as a physical presence in the room. It is impossible to doubt that Michelle Pfeiffer will accomplish anything she sets out to accomplish.
Her careful, methodical approach toward becoming a parent is typical of how she operates. “She never does anything on a whim,” says one of her closest friends. “She’s very deliberate, and she gave this a great deal of thought. She went to Mexico for a month to study painting last fall, and she thought a lot about it, and she realized she’d always wanted to adopt a baby as well as having her own child, and she didn’t necessarily want to sit around and wait for Mr.Right. She was in a position to do it, and although it was scary, she knew it was the right thing for her at that time.”
Not that Pfeiffer wasn’t awed by the responsibility she was about to assume. “When I made the decision, I didn’t sleep for two weeks,” she admits. “I thought, Holy shit! Are you nuts? This is not like a house you decide to buy this is something serious! But the last month I was like an expectant mother: I’m ready, the nursery is ready, I have all my books, I want the baby here now. Every day was like Chinese water torture. And every step of the way, everything pointed to the fact that it was such a right decision. It’s absolutely, positively the smartest and best thing I’ve ever done for myself. Nothing comes close. It’s changed my life, but it’s moved me in a direction that’s more natural to me. I tend to want to stay home anyway, and this is a great excuse: ‘Sorry, I can’t get a baby-sitter!’ ‘Time to get home!’ ‘Sorry, the baby’s sick, can’t go out!’ “she trills with a broad grin . “I’m a homebody, to a fault; I nest. I just nest in a different way now. I ran out of room; I needed a family room—I got tired of tripping over Claudia’s toys—and the only room available was the dining room, so I got rid of the dining-room table and chairs. We have no place to eat now. We eat on the floor, but it doesn’t matter. The aesthetics are out the window.”
As far as Pfeiffer is concerned, it’s irrelevant that her baby has a different racial identity. “It isn’t an issue for me,” she says flatly. “It will become an issue for her later, and that’s something I certainly have to think about and prepare myself for. It will take a lot more education on my part to know how to help her deal with certain prejudices that may arise and certain situations that may arise that I haven’t had in my own experience. But I love what she is and what she represents, and I think it’s something we need to see more of.”
And then, like any new mother, she adds proudly, “She’s the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen.”
Right now Pfeiffer is in the middle of filming Wolf and industry insiders are already touting her performance as Countess Ellen Olenska in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which will be released this fall. Despite her work schedule, Pfeiffer’s focus seems entirely on Claudia. She would have preferred to wait until the baby was somewhat older before resuming work, but when Mike Nichols began shooting Wolf Pfeiffer rose to the task with her usual painstaking professionalism. She describes the movie as “kind of a romantic-comedy thriller, sort of.” She plays “the love interest, of course-the rebellious daughter, a wanderer, the black sheep of the family.” Jack Nicholson, who had earlier co-starred with Pfeiffer,
Cher, and Susan Sarandon in The Witches of Eastwick, co-stars in Wolf as a book editor who gets bitten by a wolf and soon begins to exhibit some decidedly lupine characteristics.
In real life, Pfeiffer’s romantic interest is David Kelley, the creator of Picket Fences. The relationship is relatively new, and she’s reluctant to talk about it, although she does say it’s “the most grownup relationship I’ve had.” Her friends are amused by the way she’s thrown herself into it. “She’s the world’s best girlfriend—she’s even started going to hockey games,” observes one intimate. Kelley is a former hockey player as well as a lawyer and a former executive producer of L.A. Law. At the moment their affair looks serious, but Pfeiffer is nothing if not cautious. Typically, when they began seeing each other, she took her own sweet time telling him that she had decided to adopt a baby. “When he started dating me, that wasn’t part of the deal,” she says mischievously. “All of a sudden, we’re in bed one night, and I said, ‘Oh, by the way…’ He was a bit stunned, a bit awed. It took a little getting used to. But he respected what I was doing very much.” Kelley has since become an enthusiastic participant in baby care, she adds. “He’s completely besotted, utterly crazy about her.”
Kelley was being tested as well, of course. While some single women might worry that adopting a newborn would prove a barrier to finding romance, Pfeiffer considered it something of a Rorschach. “I thought any man who couldn’t deal with this wasn’t the man for me, so it would really make things easier,” she says. “It would be a natural-selection process. Give me a lot of time.” Her eyes glint like steel. “Separate the boys from the men.”
‘I was probably the least likely to succeed in high school. I was just a delinquent. I was a party girl.”
The dreams still come, but they’ve changed. Pfeiffer used to have a recurring dream in which the roof was caving in. “The dream was that I was telling people about the roof caving in, and nobody believed me, and, sure enough, the roof caved in,” she says.
More recently, her dreams have featured a different kind of panic. “I’m in a public place, and I’ve forgotten an item of clothing,” she reports. “Either the top is naked or the bottom is naked. That, I think, has to do with opening up, being vulnerable, being exposed. Sometimes I get really scared. Then I go, ‘Calm down, it’s fine.’” She sighs wearily. “I don’t really dream much right now. I don’t sleep long enough to have dreams.”
Those particular dreams are quite literal manifestations of two of the major themes in Pfeiffer’s life: the fact that her basic nature is “dark,” as she puts it, and she always expects the worst; and her profound difficulty with any kind of self-revelation, and thus with trust. She is working on both issues, but they are deeply ingrained. Looking at her, one would never guess at the carefully controlled turmoil within. Those wide-set blue eyes, the golden strands running through her hair, the taut, slender body , all add up to a classically American conception of beauty. Pfeiffer’s is not, in fact, a perfect face; her mouth is asymmetrical, the upper lip almost bee-stung in its fullness, and the nose is crooked, curving slightly to one side, with an unexpected upturn at the end. But that’s what makes it interesting, of course. Her face is slightly off—not enough to be disconcerting, or to mar her exquisiteness, but enough to prevent her looks from seeming bland or vapid. Still, few would suspect that such a stereotypical Southern California beauty queen harbors an interior landscape more reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman than Walt Disney.
“When I met her, the glass was definitely half empty,” says Katherine Guinzburg, who has known Pfeiffer for eight years and is now her partner in PfeifferGuinzburg
Productions. “The glass is not half full now, but it’s fuller. I think Michelle sees good things in the world, but I’m not sure she sees the world as a good place. She expects the worst. She’s waiting for the ‘undertoad.’”
And even when it doesn’t show up, there’s always the toad within. “I think people have basic natures,” Pfeiffer says resignedly. ‘”We can veer from that slightly, but we’re never going to become really different from that. I’m not a sunny kind of person. My basic nature is rather serious. I’ve never found that to be terribly interesting. I’ve always wanted to be more lighthearted, and I’ve become more so-with a lot of effort. “But clearly the improvement is incremental, and limited;
Pfeiffer was imprinted at an early age. “My father’s a little like this,” she explains.
“I think I got it from him. He would say things like ‘Trust everyone, Shel—but cut the cards.’” There is a heartbreaking mixture of toughness and vulnerability on her face as she repeats these words.
I ask whether she’ s a worrier. She grimaces and nods. I ask what she worries about. “Everything,” she says with a sigh. One of those things, obviously, is revealing herself. “I am slow to open up,” Pfeiffer acknowledges. “I have a lot of people in my life I really like, but I probably don’t share a lot with them. I probably share what is important with a very few of them. It just feels more appropriate for me. I don’t feel the need to discuss my private life. I think it takes a really long time to know somebody. I think we think we know people, and we end up gathering a lot of acquaintances we think are friends but, when you get right down to it, aren’t, really. I’ve had partners accuse me of withholding, but the truth is I just kind of forget to tell them things sometimes.”
However, when I suggest that the ability to make decisions alone and maintain an emotional self-sufficiency indicates a kind of strength, Pfeiffer shakes her head. “It also might be from a fundamental and even bigger need,” she points out. “I’m guessing, but maybe it’s to protect my own tendency to be affected too much by other people’s opinions. It’s like the fact that I never discuss my character, my work, with the people in my life, with my boyfriend or my best friend. It’s because I know how easily influenced I am, and I know that when I put myself in that kind of situation it will lead me astray from my own instincts. So I go overboard to protect that.”
Fame, of course, has exacerbated her mistrust. “I think I’ve become increasingly more careful with people I entrust with any personal information about myself, the more famous I’ve become,” she says. “It’s just too tempting for people to share it at a dinner party. I was like this before, but I’ve gotten more so.”
Pfeiffer’s horror at the invasiveness of fame is very real, but her tendency to keep things to herself pre-dates her celebrity. She was only 22 when she began her eight-year marriage to Peter Horton, the former thirtysomething actor and director. She was a total unknown, but her intimate circle was scarcely larger than it is today. “At a certain time, I had Peter, I had my sisters, and I had no friends,” Pfeiffer admits. “It’s not healthy. You become too insulated.” She is still close to her two sisters and her brother, but even now, says Fisher Stevens, “she doesn’t have many friends.”
Although Pfeiffer isn’t interested in sharing her demons with others, denial isn’t her style, either; she has made an earnest and enduring effort to unravel the secrets of her own psyche. She has been in therapy so long she used to refer to it sardonically as her “part-time job,” and she has been known to remark that if she weren’t an actress she would have liked to be a psychiatrist. “It’s the same thing that intrigued me about acting,” she explains, ‘”the investigating and the uncovering of what is really motivating people—the whys.”
For public consumption, she is not about to delve too deeply into her own whys, but it is obvious that her childhood was a troubled one. “Michelle ended up being a parent to her sisters,” Horton says. “She never had a chance to be a kid . She’s a survivor, and if you’re taught at a young age that you have to be a survivor to exist, those patterns are set; you don’t give those things up.”
Raised in a blue-collar suburban town in Orange County, California, Pfeiffer was the second of four children and the oldest girl. Her father, whom she describes as “very strict,” was a heating and air-conditioning contractor, her mother a housewife. “My mother never had a career,” Pfeiffer says. “She always wanted me to have one. She always said, ‘I don’t care when you get married,’ but she thought it was very important that I live on my own first and have a career. I was raised with a man’s work ethic. My mother was really caught at the crossroads; I think that’s a very difficult generation of women. When they got to be in their early 30s, it all changed on them: the life choices they had made weren’t socially acceptable anymore, and certainly weren’t socially valued. I have a newfound respect for my mother; she raised four children on her own, and she did everything.”
Michelle was a rebellious child who constantly acted out the conflicts it would take her decades to understand. “I probably didn’t know then what I was angry about,” she says. “I had a big mouth, and I used to mouth off to my mother all the time. But I’d make sure my father wasn’t in earshot, because he’d let me have it. I was very strong-willed, very stubborn, and fairly dramatic, I guess. I remember my mother calling me a drama queen when I would be carrying on: ‘Here’s my little actress,’” she echoes mockingly. “And I was a real tomboy. I wasn’t a terribly feminine little girl. I never thought I was attractive to boys; I remember when the first boy liked me, I couldn’t believe it. All the little girls with ringlets and crinoline dresses were the ones the boys liked. I was always beating them up why should they like me? I was always the biggest girl in the class, and if somebody wanted someone beat up, they’d come and get me. I was the school bully.” She grins. “No wonder I played Catwoman. It all comes full circle.”
No one would have guessed, back then, that Pfeiffer would end up playing anything at all. Even her high-school drama teacher failed to discern her potential; she dismissed Pfeiffer as a “surfer chick,” she admitted years later.
“I was probably the least likely to succeed in my high school,” Pfeiffer says sheepishly. “I was just a delinquent. I was always in trouble; I was never in school. The only class I didn’t cut on a regular basis was theater. I was with the surfers. I went to the beach. The girls laid out and baked in the sun and the boys surfed. I was a party girl. I have so much to catch up on. I never read all the things people were reading in high school; I was going to the beach and getting stoned. I just read The Catcher in the Rye five years ago. I always have this feeling like I’ll never catch up, reading the classics and everything. It’s not so much catching up with other people; it’s more for myself, feeling like I’m missing out, and that I’ll never get it all done in this lifetime.”
She does try, dragging her best friend to join in such recreational activities as a medieval-literature course at U.C.L.A. Even as a teenager, however, despite her lack of interest in academics and a victory in the Miss Orange County beauty contest, Pfeiffer was no blonde bimbo. “I was never in school, but I graduated in three years, with honors,” she says with a certain shy pride. “I just skated on through, because I knew how to manipulate the system.”
And although her adolescence may have seemed unpromising, Pfeiffer believes that the very qualities everyone deplored were what enabled her to triumph in later years. “I’m really glad now that I had that rebellious spirit,” she says. “I think it’s one of the biggest influences on my success. It’s why I moved away from home. It’s the thing that gave me the courage to move to L.A. and enter such a foreign world that I was completely unprepared for. I think there’s a certain amount of fate involved, but I think probably what was driving me was to find out where I belonged. I don’t think I ever have felt like I belonged anywhere. I always felt a little like an outsider looking in, even with my family. There are participants in life and there are observers; and I’ve always been an observer. I’ve been working to try to become less so, because I think it’s terribly lonely and isolating to be an observer all the time.” For a moment she looks forlorn. “Being famous works against you when you’re trying to change that,” she adds sadly. “But it’s not impossible.” She sounds as if she’s trying to convince herself.
The first time I ever saw Michelle Pfeiffer on-screen was in Into the Night, an otherwise forgettable thriller in which she co-starred with Jeff Goldblum. I had never heard of her before, but the first words out of my mouth when the movie ended were “Who was that girl?” It wasn’t simply that she was beautiful; she was riveting, despite the standard femme fatale role and the silliness of the vehicle, which made very little sense. She was just getting started, but she was, at this early date, already a star.
It was immediately apparent to her agent, even from a distance. Ed Limato, who is now vice-chairman of ICM, met Pfeiffer when he was at William Morris and another agent brought her in to see him while he was on the phone. They did little more than wave, but “I was terribly taken with her,” Lima to says. Within a week, the casting director for Scarface told him she was looking for a young actress to play AI Pacino’s cokehead gangster moll, Elvira. “I said, ‘I’ve just met this fantastic girl who’s perfect for this,’” Limato reports. “I wasn’t even her agent, but I was really knocked out by her, so much so that I was selling this woman I didn’t even know for this role. There’s always been something different about Michelle.”
Although Pfeiffer was a fledgling movie actress, in many ways she had come very far very fast. She went to work at 14, lying about her age to land a job selling jeans at a clothing store. After she graduated from high school, her future looked anything but bright. She tried a community college and didn’t like it. She thought about a career as a court reporter, but dropped out of stenography school. She worked as a checkout girl at a local supermarket and hated it. It’s easy to picture her there, sullen and resentful, snapping her gum and seething. In fact, it marked a fateful turning point. One day when some lady was “bitching about her cantaloupes,” as Pfeiffer recalls it, she had an epiphany . Standing there in her nursing shoes and her little red smock, she asked herself what, if she could do anything in the world, she would actually want to do. The answer came up acting.
Her talent wasn’t immediately obvious. “When I first did a scene with her, I thought, This poor girl-she’s not very good!” says Horton, who met Pfeiffer in an acting class. “Then, when I first directed her, I realized there was something growing in her, some sort of focus I hadn’t seen up until that point. She knew something was there, but she didn’t know what it was. You could just feel her groping for it. There was nothing in her world that would have exposed her to this. She may as well have been from Illinois. There was no exposure to the world of theater, to the world of film. It was purely a gut instinct she followed.” He laughs. “It was that or court reporting.”
‘I’ve always been an observer. I’ve been working to try to become less so, because I think it’s terribly lonely.”
At first Pfeiffer literally shook when she got in front of a camera. But her talent proved as deceptive as her appearance. Although she is taller than one expects, she is extremely thin, and she seems delicate to the point of frailty; she looks as if a strong wind could blow her right over. Then you begin to notice the tensile strength in her arms; underneath that fine pale skin, they look as if they’re made of steel, and you suddenly realize this woman could arm-wrestle a truckdriver twice her weight into submission. Her abilities are similarly misleading. When she started out, although she was quite compelling on-screen, it wasn’t clear how much of that was a genuine talent of any breadth and how much was merely the combination of charisma and the right role. Gradually, however, as the roles accumulated, they began to outline an impressive range , from her comic turn as the widow of a Mafia hit man in Married to the Mob to the personification of tortured 18th-century virtue in Dangerous Liaisons, from the world-weary but electrifying chanteuse of The Fabulous Baker Boys to the radiant Soviet editor turned spy in The Russia House.
It was this ability to transform herself that persuaded Martin Scorsese to cast Pfeiffer along with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence. In Pfeiffer’s early films, Scorsese reports, he kept noticing an actress he thought was particularly good, but he didn’t recognize her from one film to the next. “I wasn’t really looking at Michelle Pfeiffer; I was looking at the character in the movie,” he says. “The thing that really clinched it was Married to the Mob. She had a kind of honesty in the character, and she had just the right amount of humor. She wasn’t putting down the character; she wasn’t making a value judgment on the character. She really was like the people I grew up with. The characters were Italians from Long Island, and here was an actress of a different type, different background, coming in and making me believe totally. That really made me sit up and take note. And then, when Dangerous Liaisons came out, I thought, She’s the best we have.”
The Age of Innocence, which is set in New York in the 1870s, marks a distinct departure for Scorsese , who is known more for explosive characters than for repressed ones. “Normally, in the films I make, people do express their feelings,” he says, “but these people held everything back. The character of the Countess lived almost like a bohemian compared to the other people in the story, and Michelle can portray that sense of conflict on her face, in her eyes, but in a very subtle way. You can really imagine her sense of anguish. With a character like that, you have to be analytical, and Michelle is always questioning: ‘What about this? How’s that?’ She’s literally analyzing the scene.”
Despite the accolades, Pfeiffer continues to struggle with her insecurities, and with “this need to prove yourself over and over again, because nothing is ever enough,” as she puts it. “I always have this nagging fear of failure-that I am going to be found out, that I am an impostor, that this is the movie they will discover it on.”
So far it seems that Pfeiffer can do no wrong on-screen, but the reception was crushingly different with her first (and to date only) foray onto the stage. At least you can’t accuse her of cowardice; she took on the big one. Shakespeare survived; Pfeiffer wasn’t too sure for a while. The occasion was a star-studded production of Twelfth Night at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, with a cast that included Jeff Goldblum, Gregory Hines, Stephen Collins, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Instead of giving Pfeiffer credit for being there at all, the critics were withering. “Ms. Pfeiffer offers an object lesson in how gifted stars with young careers can be misused by those more interested in exploiting their celebrity status than in furthering their artistic development,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times.
It is safe to say that Pfeiffer won’t be rushing to place herself in Rich’s sight lines again anytime soon. Fortunately, back home in Hollywood, her artistic development seems to be coming along just fine. Pfeiffer has already received three Academy A ward nominations: one for best supporting actress for Dangerous Liaisons, and best-actress nominations for Baker Boys and for her portrayal of Lurene Hallett, the Dallas housewife in the interracial love story Love Field. Even her resolute refusal to factor commercial considerations into her career decisions hasn’t held her back . “She’s offered every script in town, but there’s a lot of big commercial movies she’s turned down,” says Limato. “The Silence of the Lambs, Thelma and Louise, Sleepless in Seattle-you name it.” When asked how much of a role box-office clout plays in the parts Pfeiffer picks, Limato says with a sigh, “Absolutely none.” And while some of her movies achieved respectable grosses, it wasn’t until Batman Returns that she surfaced in a real box-office juggernaut. Even that was chosen not because it was going to be a blockbuster but because it fulfilled a childhood dream. “She’d always wanted to be Catwoman, ever since she was a kid,” Limato reports.
Long before her irresistibly feline Selina Kyle, however, Pfeiffer was on the A-list. “Michelle has always been a star on her merit rather than on her box office,” Limato observes.
Well, her looks might have had something to do with it, although Pfeiffer has always tried to de-emphasize her appearance. It has taken her years to admit that this was a conscious decision. She hates talking about her beauty, but she finally agrees under pressure—“ at the risk of sounding like a jerk,” she says grudgingly. “Part of me doesn’t feel like I am really beautiful, and part of me is afraid to be beautiful, because there are repercussions. When I first started acting , I got a lot of roles because of the way I looked; I’m the first to admit that. But when you want to move into larger roles, it can be a barrier. I remember downplaying it very much, going in for interviews.” Indeed, there were times when she was rejected for a part because she was “too pretty.”
The stereotypes resurfaced with a vengeance when Pfeiffer was cast in what had previously been known as the Kathy Bates role in Frankie and Johnny, as a mousy waitress who doesn’t believe she will ever find real love . “There’s this thing of
‘She’s beautiful, therefore she couldn’t have had this kind of experience,’” Pfeiffer explains, “this idea that you couldn’t have had any depth in your life, any rejection. That was the danger. But I refused to admit it for years. I really hated reading it when other actresses would say, ‘Oh, they don’t let me have good roles, because I’m beautiful.’ By denying that it existed to the world, I denied it existed to myself, and I think I overcame it because of that denial. I just refused to accept it.”
Glamour has never been her style, anyway. Right now, taking a break in her trailer, she is wearing a raggedy denim shirt with the sleeves ripped off. It is frayed and worn; there are holes in it. In anyone else’s closet it would long since have become a candidate for dustrag, but it is one of Pfeiffer’s favorite articles of clothing. “The irony of her being this glamorous character is that she really isn’t that way,” says Horton. “She’s much more comfortable being frumpy. To see her around her baby is very touching. She truly is in love with this baby, and it’s brought out the coziness in her a little more-the flannel-pajamas side of her, which she definitely has.”
Although Pfeiffer-Guinzburg Productions is developing a wide range of film projects, glamour isn’t the point of any of them. Pfeiffer may be beautiful, but at heart she’s a character actress, and she resorted to forming her own company out of necessity . “The reason was so Michelle could have more control over the kinds of roles that were offered her,” Guinzburg explains. “The kinds of things we’ve been developing are an actress’s films, as opposed to ‘the girlfriend.’ Most of the material you see out there is either thrillers in which the female lead is a victim or thrillers in which the female lead is the murderer. That doesn’t interest Michelle. You see so many one-and two-dimensional characters. It’s very frustrating to read script after script, mostly written by men, with their point of view about women. In order to have a choice, you have to find your own stuff.’”
Pfeiffer-Guinzburg, which has a development deal with Columbia, is working on a movie version of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Pfeiffer has optioned with Jessica Lange’s production company. Pfeiffer may have been a slow starter, but her literary interests are expanding exponentially; she is also developing an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country by Christopher Hampton, who adapted Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Then there’s a contemporary The Turn of the Screw and Waltz into Darkness, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel about a turn-of-the-century con woman in New Orleans who poses as a mail-order bride. Another screenplay is being developed on the relationship between
Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Also on the list is an original story about the
Puritan witch trials. “It’s a story about what happened to women when they got too much power,” reports Guinzburg.
In the meantime, Pfeiffer is emerging not only as a power but also as an outspoken voice who is willing to call a spade a spade, even more of a rarity in Hollywood than elsewhere. Last June, the 17th Annual Women in Film luncheon in Beverly Hills seemed an unmemorable awards ceremony until Pfeiffer took the podium and set her sights on some of the very people who had turned out to honor her. “So… this is the year of the woman,” she said, her sarcasm scarcely veiled. “Well, yes, it’s actually been a very good year for women. Demi Moore was sold to Robert Redford for $1 million, Uma Thurman went for $40,000 to Mr. De Niro, and just three years ago Richard Gere bought Julia Roberts for…what was it? …$3,000? I’d say that was real progress.” Although Pfeiffer’s remarks elicited enthusiastic applause, they were particularly pointed, given the company she was in. Seated to the left of Pfeiffer was Sherry Lansing, the chairman of Paramount Pictures and the producer of Indecent Proposal as well as the luncheon’s mistress of ceremonies—and a couple of tables away was the movie’s star, Demi Moore.
Pfeiffer has indisputably become a formidable woman, and it’s quite a stretch to reconcile this image with the surfer chick who couldn’t even manage the checkout line at the supermarket. Pfeiffer’s friends are awed by her evolution. “She’s changed remarkably,” Horton observes. “Her career has helped define her and given her a sense of self she wouldn’t have had otherwise. She found it in her soul, in her gut. Her sense of self-worth and self-confidence has blossomed. She’s gone off and pulled the whole package together, and she’s found out she’s as smart as or smarter than most of the pseudo-intellectuals out there, especially the Hollywood ones. She knows what she can do-and she knows what the world’s going to try to do to her.’” He pauses to reflect. “She’s a remarkable woman.”
But characteristically, Pfeiffer is looking ahead to rocky shoals instead of relaxing in calm waters. Mindful of the passage of time, she knows exactly what that means for an actress. “By the time Claudia is school-age, I’ll be very near 40, and they won’t be hiring me much anymore,” she says matter-of-factly. “Let’s be realistic; things will have slowed down. I mean, look around. Our whole society is so geared toward youth. If you’re not young and hot, it’s very difficult. There are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking that’s the attitude, and you can’t be blind and stupid. I have to think about my future, about retirement, about putting my child through school-and if I think my career is always going to be at this pinnacle, I’m crazy. I am very lucky to have had the wide range of opportunity I have in regard to the roles I play. At what point that starts to peter out, I don’t know. I don’t have anything to complain about, given the state of my career right now. I feel very fortunate.”
In earlier years, Pfeiffer vowed never to resort to the surgical intervention so many women are frightened into, but these days she is more forgiving. “So far I haven’t succumbed, but I’m very conflicted about face-lifts and all that,” she admits. “I understand the pressure to do it. You look in the mirror and think, She’s 40, and she looks so much better than I do!—and then you remember all the work she’s had done on her face. It’s like the athletes who take steroids; you sort of have to take steroids to compete. I used to say, ‘Absolutely not’ Never, never, never! ‘But people say, ‘Never say never.’ I don’t judge women harshly anymore who have done it, and yet it perpetuates the pressure. If you can get another five years from a good face-lift…” she trails off.
Her ex-husband foresees a long future for her, and he offers a role model who is the epitome of grace: “I see her as Jessica Tandy,” he says.
But in the meantime, there are other battles to be won. Like so many women, Pfeiffer is galled by the casting double standard. No one even raised an eyebrow at the pairing of Pfeiffer with Sean Connery in The Russia House, nor were Connery’s gray hair and wrinkles deemed to tarnish his value as a sex symbol. “People accept it when it’s a man,” Pfeiffer says with a shrug. “It never was mentioned in one review.” So far, at least, an onscreen romance between a thirtysomething man and a sixtysomething woman is impossible to imagine. Pfeiffer is cynical but realistic on the subject of salaries; Hollywood’s male heavy hitters still command millions more than even the most successful female stars. “There is a discrepancy, no question,” says Pfeiffer, who currently commands $5.5 million per picture, “but at the same time I find it very hard to complain about the salary I make. I just can’t do that.”
She still remembers what her life was like when work meant gathering up the shopping carts in the parking lot and bagging the groceries at the Vons supermarket in El Toro. “When I was a boxgirl, all I wanted was to be a checker,” she says dreamily. “When I became a checker, the only other move was to be a store manager.”
She smiles. Does it seem like a long time ago? I ask.
“A million lifetimes ago,” she says softly.
For more images from this photoshoot by Herb Ritts, please visit our GALLERY section.