Tatler | September 1994
Pfeiffer and the Wolf
Michelle Pfeiffer found a family and lightened up. Jesse Kornbluth profiles the working mother and director’s dream, now co-starring with her ex-lover Jack Nicholson in Wolf. Photographed by Peggy Sirota.
Jack Nicholson sits across the kitchen table from Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s their first date of sorts and as Nicholson (as the book editor who has been bitten by a wolf and is now on his way to becoming lupine himself) contemplates his hostess, he leans back and delivers one of those withering commentaries which audiences have learned to expect from him.
‘You’re beautiful and rich, but you think that’s not enough,’ he tells Pfeiffer. ‘You want men to be interested in you for your intelligence. The problem is, you’re not very intelligent.’
Veteran gossips will take a special interest in this interchange, suspecting that Wolf is a coded account of the actors’ personal histories as well as a post-modern take of animal possession. Wolf-man Jack… well, that’s no stretch for the screen’s most sardonic seducer. And Michelle Pfeiffer, we recall, is a former grocery-store check-out girl who grew up to be named repeatedly by People magazine as one of the ’50 most beautiful people in the world’ and, oh, by the way, enjoyed a season or so in the mid-Eighties as Nicholson’s real –life lover. So, if anyone would know how much Hollywood’s favourite adult pin-up craves respect for her brains, it would be Jack.
But you don’t have to be a Pfeiffer intimate to see that she has done yeoman’s work to prove she’s more than a pretty face. She turned down the role in The Silence of the Lambs that won Jodie Foster an Oscar, in order to play a lonely waitress in Frankie and Johnny, a quirky film that garnered more praise than viewers. She passed on Thelma and Louise to film Love Field, a low-budget inter-racial love story that was hardly seen. Although she lacks theatre training, she threw herself into a New York Shakespeare Festival production. And she not only buys any book mentioned by her better-educated friends, she signed up for a course in medieval literature at the University of California.
On the set, Pfeiffer is nothing less than the ideal student. Crews love her: she comes ready to work, and her first takes are always suitable for printing. Directors are just as fond of her. ‘She thinks of the story, not for herself,’ enthuses Wolf director Mike Nichols. ‘If there’s anything you might want her to do, she’s interested. And if she has something to say, she makes a contribution – it’s never about her.’
For all that, it wasn’t easy for Nichols to snare Pfeiffer for his literary, hyper-sophisticated, hardly generic werewolf film; she repeatedly rejected the Wolf script because her character wasn’t sufficiently literary, hyper-sophisticated or original. ‘The part was “the girl”, she explains. ‘I hadn’t done that for a long time.’
To appease her, the two Nichols’s commissioned several rewrites; one from Elaine May, Nichols’s former comedy partner and a crack-hand at whipping up character. As a result, Pfeiffer’s wastrel now has some dimension. Not too much dimension, though. Now she’s not a spoiled rich girl on the order of, say, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep—the script doctors have, in their generosity, given this spoiled rich girl a brother who committed suicide despite her efforts to help. That lost soul (along with a salary said to be just south of $6 million) enabled Pfeiffer to commit. ‘I finally said, “It’s Jack’s movie,’’’ she notes. ‘It’s better just to make her somebody who cannot find a purpose. She’s the black sheep of the family, a kind of wanderer. At least that’s something playable.’
But not, despite her name on the marquee, promotable. Pfeiffer is 36 and a veteran. She knows the score: she was still ‘the girl’. Even before reviewers dismissed her role as ‘wolf bait’ and commented on her ‘repeated entrances and exits, none of which seem worth her time’, Pfeiffer snapped. Pressed by her long-time publicist to talk to a New York Times reporter who was writing a piece on Nicholson, she not only declined, she fired the publicist. Such things are Not Done. In the wale of that flap, studio executives are muttering that actors’ contracts may be tightened to please the ink-stained wretches whose bite hurts so much less than Nicholson’s.
More immediately, wags are wondering if Michelle Pfeiffer, long regarded as the model good-hearted, hard-working trooper, has finally gone Hollywood. Or did her fear and dislike of the press get out of hand? Or was there a simpler, more human reason; that Michelle Pfeiffer, having adopted a baby and become engaged and pregnant, had finally succeeded in getting herself a life?
‘I’ve got that little red wagon, the fear of being found out, we all drag behind us,’ Pfeiffer says, with the ironic grin of a woman who’s spent enough time in her therapist’s office to qualify for a discount. ‘I think people will find out I’m not really very talented. That it’s a big sham.’ Dismissing flawless beauty and natural acting talent comes naturally to Pfeiffer. As she knows better than anyone, she’s still the girl from the famously right-wing Southern California country where Ronald Reagan will always be a god and Hollywood will never be anything but Satan’s playpen.
As the second child – the eldest of three daughters – of a mother who didn’t work and a father who ran a heating and air-conditioning company, Michelle was quickly enlisted as a junior caretaker. If her family had ambitions for her that would propel her far from diapers and dishes, she wasn’t listening. In lower school, she was big, tough, and every-willing to fight. With puberty, she went ‘completely out of control.’ Her friends were surfers, she cut school, she totaled her vintage Mustang. ‘I was a party girl,’ she says ruefully. ‘I never read all the things people were reading in high school; I was going to the beach and getting stoned,’
The watershed came in 1975. Pfeiffer was 18, bored by community college, unable to stick it out in a course that would have led to an anonymous career as a court reporter. By process of elimination, therefore, she was bagging groceries. ‘I can see me standing in the check-stand in my little red smock and mu polyester pants and my white nurse shoes,’ she recalls. ‘My black pants had faded to grey and my boss was taking up a collection to get me a new pair. And I guess I just asked myself, “If you could have anything, what would you want to do?” And it was acting.’
For a young woman remembered by her high school drama teacher as a ‘surfer chick’, acting meant signing up for the Miss Orange Country beauty pageant. When she won that title, a Hollywood agent noticed. She found herself in a padded bra, playing a bimbette on a television series and commercials. She loathed that level of acting: ‘If you walk out of an audition feeling like you made a complete ass of yourself, chances are you got the job.’
Actually, she made a bigger ass of herself in her private life: she joined a cult that blended metaphysics and vegetarianism. ‘I couldn’t even tell you the philosophy now,’ she says. ‘I obviously needed someone controlling me, real bad. Probably better it was the cult rather than drugs or some lecherous man. But it did a lot of damage.’
Her rescuer was Peter Horton, a young actor who had been amazed by her learning curve in acting classes. She won the lead in Grease 2, they married, and suddenly Michelle Pfeiffer was a certified actress making the rounds. She was a knockout as Al Pacino’s society girlfriend in the drug-drenched Scarface and credible as an intellectual in The Witches of Eastwick. Then came the first great explosion. In three years, she knocked off Dangerous Liaisons, Married to the Mob and The Fabulous Baker Boys, garnered two Academy Award nominations, proved she could sing, and just generally took Hollywood by storm. All she lacked was a stable romance and a durable sense of self.
The statistics on young marriages are grim, but nothing compared to those on young marriages in Hollywood. The only surprise in the Michelle Pfeiffer-Peter Horton marriage was that it lasted seven years. When the marriage dissolved, Pfeiffer did not throw off homebody shackles and party on down. She had never been a public figure or a member of any scene; at parties, you could usually find her with a child or pet. So when she met Michael Keaton, it was at a supermarket. When she teamed up with Nicholson, it was because they were appearing in a film together. And when she fell for John Malkovich, it was mirror of the plot of Dangerous Liaisons. Small wonder that when Malkovich returned to his wife, she took comfort from Fisher Stevens, a younger actor who specialized in playing wimps. A few years into this relationship, it has been reported, she found Stevens romancing a teenage stand-in and promptly canned him.
These romantic defeats, combined with the stirrings of world-class stardom, made her ever more uncomfortable with outsiders, particularly the press. ‘I’m overly serious, and I have no small talk,’ she says. ‘I didn’t become an actress so my life could be exposed. That part of the job is the only thing that could make me quit acting. This beauty thing… I’ve always felt I was conventionally pretty. But in this business, you feel as if a million eyes are upon you every minute of the day.’
Her role as Catwoman in Batman Returns – the first movie that took her sexuality beyond the borders of Orange Country – intensified the scrutiny. In a part that came Pfeiffer’s way only because Annette Bening got pregnant, she began as a mouseburger of a secretary and ended up as a latex-suited, unequivocally dominant kinkster. ‘I know only one or two women who have Michelle’s vocabulary with a whip,’ her instructor purred. ‘It’s sensual, sensuous, sexual and dangerous.’
Sexuality that direct might work for Madonna, but not for Hollywood’s most dedicated champion of adult education. For Pfeiffer, Catwoman was ‘a woman discovering her own empowerment’. Catwoman’s transformation was nothing less than a lesson in personal growth, and if there’s ever a Batman sequel that’s built entirely around her character, she says, she would do it because ‘Catwoman breaks every taboo that is built around women.’
Married to the Mob had called for her to play a Mafia widow forced to choose between a crime boss and a government agent: strip her of her New York Accent and gestures and you can see the Southern California check-out girl. In The Fabulous Baker Boys she’s completely credible as a singer with a career going nowhere. But after those 1988 and 1989 films, unselfconscious high-jinks and happy accidents like Batman Returns became the enemy: her conscientious search for meaning led to some high-profile missteps.
Pfeiffer chose Frankie and Johnny ‘because there’s a fantasy that beautiful people cannot look unattractive or aren’t lonely or aren’t hurt. But everybody goes through shutting down and being hurt and frightened. Everybody.’ What followed was glum stuff indeed: a character fuelled by an idea. The Age of Innocence was equally unfortunate. ‘I saw Ellen Olenska as a life force that would rush into the room and blow away the cobwebs,’ Pfeiffer says. ‘There’s something really moving to me about a character who refuses to be broken.’ Yes, there is, and it’s very romantic, but that’s not the character Edith Wharton wrote or that the screenplay requires. Beautiful miscast, Pfeiffer is a false note in almost every scene.
Pfeiffer’s run of smart, grounded choices seemed to be over, a casualty not of bad parts but of her insistence that her roles provide a level of meaning that appeared to be distinctly lacking in her life. For a moment, it looked as if she was on the verge of losing everything she had worked so hard to acquire.
Even Pfeiffer’s friends say she’s slow to confide in them. ‘She could have a 10-year-old child stashed somewhere’, Cher says, ‘and you’d never know.’ Her method, as an actress and a woman, is to research, go inside and emerge with a fully-formed character or decision. There are few clues along the way.
In the fall of 1992, friends might have suspected that something was up when Pfeiffer went to Mexico to study painting. In fact, she was putting the finishing touches on a personal masterpiece: adopting an interracial baby named Claudia Rose in the spring of 1993. ‘The smartest and best thing I’ve ever done,’ she announced. And not something done in Hollywood manner; Pfeiffer hired no night nanny. ‘I’m completely sleep-deprived,’ she explained.’ But I wanted this baby to know who her mother is.’ This adoption also challenged her new beau to consider uncharted levels of flintiness in Pfeiffer. David Kelley, a former hockey player and lawyer who created the television series Picket Fences, rose to the occasion.
And engagement ring soon appeared, giving her the promises of a new stability.
As a result, it wasn’t such a big deal in the end for Pfeiffer to decide to cash in and play ‘the girl’ in Wolf and, around the same time, to rake Hollywood over the coals in a speech to the Women in Film group about the industry’s self-proclaimed Year of the Woman. ‘Demi Morre went to Robert Redford for $1 million,’ she said there. ‘Before that Uma Thurman was sold to Robert De Niro for $40,000. And a few years back, Richard Gere bought Julia Roberts for $3,000. Now that’s real progress.’
This new-found willingness to speak her mind in public was only the first expression of a growing self-confidence. Though kind and attentive on set, she has equally been known for her anxiety in her trailer. No more. ‘Michelle was in great form when we were working on Wolf,’ Mike Nichols reports. ‘Claudia Rose had come into her life just before we started, and Michelle brought her to the set. We were all able to spend some time with her. Michelle with the baby, the Wolf with his laundry, my wife [Diane Sawyer] on the steps of my trailer – it was little like a happy trailer court.’
Or, as Pfeiffer would put it, a nest. And not the last. She may play Evita if and when the cameras ever roll on that eternally-delayed project; it so, expect a veritable nursery school on the sound stage. But do not expect to read stories a decade hence about her brood growing up under the indulgent eyes of celebrity aunts and uncles: realism never escapes Pfeiffer. ‘By the time Claudia is school age, I’ll be very nearly 40,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘They won’t be hiring me much anymore.’
One hears a tidy mind clicking away, making neat lines through a checklist. Home, husband, children, financial security, a body of work: as Pfeiffer gathers strength, she is fulfilling ambitions, not creating new ones. It’s not hard to imagine her, at an age when another actress might start grousing about the lack of parts, simply stepping aside and letting all of this go. For that alone, it’s compelling even to watch her enter and exit, playing nothing more complicated than ‘the girl’.