Los Angeles | September 1997
By Margot Dougherty | Photography by Neil Kirk
As her stature as a produce grows, the elusive Pfeiffer is shedding her movie-star mantle for more serious pursuits. Is the real Michelle emerging at last?
MICHELLE PFEIFFER, RENOWNED HOMEBOY, REALLY hates to go on location. But when it came time for her to decide where to shoot A Thousand Acres, the movie adaption of Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley’s grimly hopeful story of incest, sisters and a sprawling Iowa farmland, Pfeiffer, one of the movie’s producers, craved. “Even I had to admit that we couldn’t do it here,” she says.
So she packed up her kids, 4-year-old Claudia Rose and 2-year-old John, and gamely headed for Rochelle, Illinois, population 9,048. Well, maybe not so gamely. In fact, “I decided it,” Pfeiffer says with a laugh. “But we stayed on this little hog farm, and there was a big trampoline—and cornfields and the kids just loved it. They’re still asking when we can go back to the farm.”
Having a little trouble bringing the visuals into focus here? Can’t quite see Pfeiffer singing “Soooey!” to her new cloven-hoofed pals at sunrise and slinging slop through a slatted wooden fence before heading off to hair and makeup? Let it go. “They took the hogs away before we got there—apparently they’re very stinky,” says Pfeiffer, those big blue eyes even bigger, like a kid imparting on obscure Fun Fact.
PFEIFFER’S SANTA MONICA OFFICE, Via Rosa Productions, which she shares with partner Kate Guinzburg, is down-home casual. And not a pig in sight. Pfeiffer’s assistant Mary answers the door in bare feet, and Pfeiffer, sporting oversize tortoise-shell glasses, waves from the phone. It seems silly to describe Pfeiffer’s looks—who between here and Mir hasn’t seen her? But on this particular morning, for the record, she has on a short, faded jeans skirt, old-fashioned boys’ sneakers (no pump) with rubber-toe reinforcements and a short-sleeved white T-shirt that may have come from Gay Kids. Surprise, surprise—she’s beautiful. And she’s not wearing makeup. She’s also friendly, cordial, thoughtful and completely without affect. She comes across as a woman with a highly sensitive bullshit detector.
Pfeiffer and I head for the Red Room, an evolved form of conference room in the midst of charmingly simple railroad-style offices—bare wood floors and lots of natural light. Pfeiffer takes her place at the far end of the giant overstuffed couch that takes up one entire wall, and settles in as far away as she can get without breaking off its arm piece. She hangs onto a bottle of mineral water for support.
It took Pfeiffer and her coproducer-costar Jessica Lange five years to get A Thousand Acres to the screen. “Initially, it was hard to get the screenplay right,” Pfeiffer explains. “And then Orion [where both actress had deals] folded. Then it was kind of in a no-man’s-land for some time.” Finally, last year, when Lange had time in her schedule, “I was exhausted,” Pfeiffer says. After coming off back-to-back-to-back films—Dangerous Minds, To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, One Fine Day—“I really had no reserves,” she says, “but I said to myself, ‘If I don’t do it now, it will be made, but you won’t be in it. So either do it or let go of it.’”
When Pfeiffer gave her husband, TV producer David Kelley (Chicago Hope, The Practice, Picket Fences, the upcoming Ally McBeal), the script, he told her that it was profoundly moving but that “there was a malignancy on every page.” Pfeiffer remembers. “He couldn’t understand why I wanted to do it.” She runs tanned fingers through her subtly streaked teenage-blonde hair. “I didn’t know. I just fell in love with the character.”
The movie, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse (How to Make an American Quilt), costarring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jason Robards, Colin Firth and Keith Carradine, opens September 19. It’s a slow-torture family saga, inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, about a widowed father parceling out his land among his daughters. It’s also a story about incest and how it manipulates the sisters’ relationships, both with each other and with their father. Pfeiffer, one of three sisters in real life, plays Rose, the angry, middle daughter, the most confrontational, the one with the highly sensitive bullshit detector.
Rose was an intense character, not the sort who was easy to shrug off at the end of a day’s shoot. “There are certain movies, certain characters, that consume you,” Pfeiffer says. “I haven’t done of those in a really long time.” Particularly on location, the demands of Rose sometimes ran counter to the demands of Pfeiffer’s children. “It can be difficult,” she says, “but I’m able to focus more when they’re with me. I think otherwise I’d feel distracted.” According to Robards, whatever the domestic arrangement, it worked. As soon as the camera started rolling, he reports, “She knocked the hell out of it every time. She was terrific.”
Pfeiffer and Guinzburg, who recently produced One Fine Day, set up their production company four years ago with the intent to develop character-driven projects. “No victims,” says Guinzburg, who also executive-produced Love Field, starring Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert. Ideally, says Pfeiffer, “If I had more time, I would really relish developing. I love the creative elements of making something out of nothing and, obviously, the filming. And I love post, too. I love editing—that’s really fun. I love all of it.”
Next on Via Rosa’s bill is Deep End of the Ocean, directed by Ulu Grosbard (Georgia, True Confessions), which will go into production in October. Based on the bestseller (thanks to Oprah) by Jacquelyn Mitchard, it is the story of a family that crumbles when its youngest child disappears from a hotel lobby. While rereading the script, Pfeiffer, who will play the strong, often unsympathetic mother, still gets stuck on the disappearing scene. “It’s like your heart is in a vice,” she says, wringing her hands. “Every time I read it, it affects me the same way. Every time.”
If fate should tempt her beyond the bounds of her doorstep: “As long as I sort of keep moving,” says Pfeiffer, “if I don’t stay in one place for too long, I’m okay.”
Ice Queen is another big project on Via Rosa’s production chart. Sydney Pollack has expressed interest in the true story of a California woman who went undercover for the DEA, insinuated herself in the upper ranks of a Colombian drug cartel and facilitated the bust of approximately 150 drug kingpins. And Via Rosa is developing the screen adaption of Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country, with Winona Ryder attached to star.
As far as directors she’d like to work with, the three-time Academy Award nominee (Love Field, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Dangerous Liaisons) cites Grosbard along with Mike Newell and the Coen brothers. “I have family from Fargo,” she says with a slow smile. “So we all—well, not my mother—but we kids loved that movie.”
After being on zillions of magazine covers and countless posters and billboards, Pfeiffer is about as famous as it’s possible to be. But in spite of her high profile and the news stories of star-obsessed wackos, she doesn’t worry much about going out in public. “Sometimes it creates difficult situation,” she says. “But nothing I can’t handle.” First of all, she points out, “I’m not of that superstar Madonna, Julia Roberts status; there’s not a frenzied excitement about me. But even if there were, she confides gleefully, “I never go out! I avoid the issue completely! David and I are the most boring couple in Hollywood. He never went out before he met me—we’re perfect for each other.” And if fate should tempt her beyond the bounds of the doorstep of her Santa Monica home, “As long as I sort of keep moving,” says Pfeiffer, “if I don’t stand in one place for too long, I’m okay.”
“I never go out!” says Pfeiffer gleefully. “David and I are the most boring couple in Hollywood.”
PFEIFFER, 39, IS DEEPLY ROOTED IN FAMILY. SHE GREW UP IN ORANGE County: “A pretty normal suburban upbringing, parents are still together, four siblings.” As the eldest, she was something of a second mother to her two younger sisters: Dedee, who plays /Rachel, the oldest daughter, on Cybill, and Lori, a model. Both live nearby, and the trio is “very close,” Pfeiffer says. As kids, it was slightly different. “I was 6 and 7 years older than they were,” Pfeiffer says and then, laughing at herself: “For me, most of the time, they were a burden and I punished them for it. It wasn’t until I moved out of the house that we established a real friendship.” She’s also close to her parents and brother down the road in Orange County.
The homebody thing gives Pfeiffer opportunity to monitor John and Claudia’s every development move. “Now,” she reports, “they’ve started to gang up on the rest of the world and conspire! Claudia is the ringleader, and John just worships the ground she walks on. He’s completely fearless, and she’s a little bit of a scaredy-cat, so if she’d afraid of doing something, she’ll get him to do it.”
Claudia is the daughter Pfeiffer adopted in 1993. When she initially made the decision to become a single mother, she remembers, an interlude of euphoria set in before, as the reality approached, panic took over. “I thought, ‘What have I done?’” Pfeiffer recalls. “But the day she arrived, I thought ‘What was I scared of?’ It was so right.” Pfeiffer had begun dating Kelley shortly before Claudia’s debut, so he played dad from day one. When friends arrived to attend Claudia’s christening in 1994, they were treated to a surprise double bill: Pfeiffer and Kelley exchanged vows before the ceremony was over. When John was born in 1994, the Pfeiffer-Kelley household was complete.
While John is still too young, Claudia is beginning to understand the family business: “She knows that Mommy’s job is playing dress up,” says Pfeiffer, mildly mocking herself. “That Daddy writes the words and Mommy speaks them.” On a recent plane trip, Claudia caught mom onscreen for the first time—in One Fine Day. “There was nothing I could do,” says Pfeiffer. “It was a small plane, and there was my big face. Claudia watched the whole movie—except for the ending, when George Clooney and I kiss. I diverted her attention because I think that’s going to be very confusing for them.”
Pfeiffer already sees signs of herself emerging in her oldest child. “She’s very hard on herself,” she says carefully. “For the longest time, I was saying, ‘Why is she so hard on herself?’ Because I’m so hard on myself, I know that I’ve made an effort not to be hard on her, to instill in her the need to be forgiving and to allow for people’s mistakes. I thought, ‘Where is she getting this?’ Then it dawned on me that children watch how we behave; that she was seeing me being hard on myself.” Pfeiffer rolls her eyes and flashes the self-effacing smile that has launched a thousand development deals. “She’s emulating me,” she says. “Duh!”
I’ve always had a crush on Michelle Pfeiffer, like most of the moviegoing public, I first noticed her in Brian de Palma’s Scarface, in which she played the cocaine-addicted wife of Al Pacino’s Cuban drug lord to chilling effect, and fell in love with her as the professional-escort-turned-singing-siren in The Fabulous Baker Boys, a role for which she was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award. As Susie Diamond, Pfeiffer, by all accounts one of Hollywood’s hardest-working actress, delivered in Baker Boys something few of her peers today can call upon: sheer charisma. This was not just a consummate technician but a bona fide movie star, and the American public—myself included—was mesmerized.
Pfeiffer was every bit the star the day we photographed her for our cover story (page 60) on a hot summer day at a secluded beach in Malibu. The normally blasé cast of photographer and stylist, technicians and hair and makeup people all remarked on her almost ethereal beauty. More impressive, however, was Pfeiffer’s wicked good sportsmanship throughout the grueling four-hour shoot. Interviews have remarked on her cool reserve, but on the beach in bare feet and Oscar de la Renta—how apropos for our annual fashion issue—the quintessential Southern California beauty seemed completely at ease. With a compelling new movie, A Thousand Acres, in which she plays opposite Jessica Lange, and a relatively new life as a wife and devoted mother, Pfeiffer is the perfect example of a homegrown success story.
Editor in Chief
The only people I haven’t worked for in America are Harper’s Bazaar and Allure, says British Vogue photographer Neil Kirk, best known for his clean, naturally lit fashion shots. Despite such an impressive resume, Kirk had never set his sights on Michelle Pfeiffer. In some ways, working with her beauty was a best. “How do you make someone beautiful more beautiful?” Kirk asks. For her part, Pfeiffer admits to feeling “silly” playing dress up without a script. “I’m not really a poser,” she says. Nonetheless, the story had a fairy-tale ending: “Michelle just got on with it and was absolutely perfect,” Kirk reports. So were the shots.
For more beautiful photographs of Michelle in this photo shoot, please visit GALLERY: COVER GIRL.