With a primal new role, Michelle Pfeiffer is a mother of invention. By Michael Fitzgerald
Photographs by Peggy Sirota/Outline/Austral
Michelle Pfeiffer, five months pregnant, is sitting with a group of troubled teens in a Belmont, California, classroom, going through the finer points of remedial English literature. Known for her painstaking approach to acting, the 36-year-old Hollywood divinity has journeyed to Carlmont High School for underachievers to observe teacher and self-esteem guru LouAnne Johnson, whom Pfeiffer portrays in the forthcoming film My Posse Don’t Do Homework. “Well, you don’t think [the role’s] going to be easy, do you?” challenges a brazen student later over lunch, unfazed by the Hollywood visitation that has seen the school cordoned off from curious on-lookers. “I certainly don’t,” replies Pfeiffer.
As usual, it was perfect delivery from Pfeiffer who, four months later, on Aug. 5, gave birth to her first child, John Henry, with her husband of 10 months, TV producer David Kelley, 39. Last March, Pfeiffer adopted daughter Claudia Rose—“I always wanted to adopt, always,” she told Vanity Fair last year. “I want my own children too; I want to do both”—and she is now playing Hollywood mum with the same aplomb that saw her garner three Academy Award nominations for her roles in Dangerous Liaisons, love field and The Fabulous Baker Boys.
Posse is based on the stirring 1992 autobiography of Johnson, a former marine who kept her violent students in line by saying she was trained to kill with her bare hands. Pfeiffer finished filming each day at 5pm on the dot so she could rush home to her 18-month-old daughter. Posse director John N. Smith (The Boys of St Vincent), for one, was impressed. “It certainly was quite something to see her go through an important stage of her pregnancy while at the same time… really carrying the film,” he says.
Pfeiffer had already mastered the motherhood- movie star juggling act with Wolf, the just-released movie in which she plays lamb-to-the-slaughter Laura, a publisher’s daughter who tangles with Jack Nicholson’s lupine Lothario. It was her first role since adopting Claudia Rose, and Pfeiffer was “very nervous about working and being a mom”, she told Interview magazine in May, “because I have always completely submerged myself in my work: Letters go unopened, phone calls go unanswered. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn how to get my feet wet as a working mom.”
But she’s still treading with typically Greta Garbo-like caution. “I am very stingy about [publicity] and I am really a pain in the ass about it,” she said recently. “But to me there’s just no other way to have any kind of normal life.” These days, that includes buying bathers for Claudia Rose at the clothing chain Baby Gap, overseeing the renovations to her and Kelley’s home in Brentwood, LA (O.J. Simpson’s neighbourhood), and being spotted in cafes wearing her trademark tortoiseshell sunglasses.
And while Pfeiffer command a haughty $8.25 million a picture and is reportedly director Oliver Stone’s top choice for the title role in the on again-off again screen version of the stage musical Evita there are whispers that she’ll be making more babies than movies in the years to come. “There is something about being pregnant that is so empowering and so centring,” she confided in May while suffering from pregnancy-induced heartburn. “I can see how women become so addicted to it that they just keep having babies.”
LouAnne Johnson, who was befriended by Pfeiffer during the filming of Posse, confirms Pfeiffer’s clucky ways. “She’s absolutely determined she’s going to have a family and that that family is going to spend time together,” she says. “Being a good mother is very important to her.” That’s what drew Pfeiffer to Posse in the first place. Having recently agonised over where she will send Claudia Rose and John Henry to school (she favours private schooling), Pfeiffer is an advocate of the film’s “stay-in-class” message to kids. “For my money, education is the most pressuring issue today in this country,” she said recently.
Pfeiffer’s own schooldays (or lack of them) are well documented. Raised in Midway City (near Disneyland) in California, the second of heating contractor Dick and homemaker Donna’s four children, Pfeiffer often skipped class to hang out with surfers. “She could be a little hot-headed,” Dick has said of his daughter, who later dropped out of stenography school. It was while working as a check-out girl at a supermarket that Pfeiffer first dreamed of becoming an actress.
Crowned Miss Orange County in 1978, Pfeiffer moved to Hollywood and paid her dues with a series of bimbo bit-parts on TV before hitting the big screen with Grease 2 in 1982 and then Scarface, in which she played a catty coke moll. Her Hollywood ascendancy coincided with a seven-year marriage to actor-director Peter Horton (thirtysomething). After the marriage foundered in 1988, the melancholy-eyed Pfeiffer graduated to the A-list with leading roles in Tequila Sunrise, Married to the Mob and The Fabulous Baker Boys. Then with the 1992 hit Batman Returns, in which she played a whip-cracking Catwoman to purrfection, Pfeiffer was crowned box-office queen.
Two years on and the actress is head honcho of Pfeiffer-Guinzberg Productions (best friend Kate Guinzberg and she are developing, among other scripts, a film version of the life of American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, a Pfeiffer idol). Pfeiffer “could get away with being a screaming bitch but she isn’t”, insists screenwriter Janet Kovalcik, who wrote the yet-unproduced Dear Digby for her. “She’s nice, down-to-earth, smart. She’s very charming. She doesn’t have a lot of that movie star damage.”
Therapy has undoubtedly helped Pfeiffer—a long-time devotee of psychoanalysis, she has quipped that it is her “part-time job”. And her recent marriage to David Kelley has certainly provided a happy anchor. The suave and savvy former Bo ton lawyer moved to LA in 1986 after a producer, impressed with his first screenwriting effort, hired him for the launch of the series LA Law. By 1989 he was executive producer of the hit show. Meanwhile, Pfeiffer, who had trysted briefly with Dangerous Liaisons’ John Malkovich and Batman’s Michael Keaton, met an unlikely match in gawky comic actor Fisher Stevens, 30, her co-star in a 1989 New York production of Twelfth Night. After the relationship ended in 1992 because of Stevens’s affairs, Pfeiffer met Kelley through a friend at her LA agency, International Creative Management. “I had a feeling [about him] right away and it became very apparent over time,” she said of Kelley, who created the Emmy Award-winning series Picket Fences and just launched a new one, Chicago Hope.
But not even Pfeiffer’ friends, used to her penchant for dropping bombshells (Cher has joked he wouldn’t be surprised if Pfeiffer had a 10-year-old child stashed away somewhere), were prepared for the unannounced nuptial that accompanied Claudia Rose christening last November. Given maps of the secret location on the morning of the ceremony, some 70 friend and relatives gathered at a villa to find Pfeiffer in a full-length antique ivory lace gown and veil. “She was so beautiful, I think the minister directed the entire ceremony to Michelle,” one guest recalled. Seen together in public only rarely since then, most recently at the Emmy awards on Sept.l 11, the couple would seem to favour the cocooning style. And, as proof of Pfeiffer’s new-found domesticity, after John Henry’s birth last month he was presented as the son of “Mr and Mrs David Kelley”.
“I am very grateful to have found my niche,” confessed Pfeiffer recently, “because otherwise I’d be like Laura in Wolf, wandering around in life.” And with the added responsibilities of motherhood, gone are the extreme mood wing of her teenage years. “I guess the edge are kind of rounding off,” she told Interview. “The pendulum doesn’t swing quite so far.”
Like Countess Olenska, the scarlet woman he played in last year’s The Age of Innocence, Pfeiffer refuse to be banished to the backblock. Or silenced—as LouAnne Johnson found out when Pfeiffer asked her opinion of Posse. “My mouth dropped and I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to be tactful,’ and it wasn’t that I didn’t like it but…” Johnson recalls. “She read my expression immediately and said, ‘You can tell me the truth.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I usually do and it gets me in trouble.’ And she said, ‘So do I. I’m always the heavy. Don’t worry about it. We’ll get along fine.’”
CAROLY RAMSAY in Los Angeles