Taking a break from the role she’s favored lately—that of a wife and mother—Michelle Pfeiffer returns to the screen, delving into The Deep End of the Ocean. By Merle Ginsberg | Portrait by Michael Thompson
Poor Michelle Pfeiffer.
For years, the actress has been trying, in vain, to make people forget she’s gorgeous. She’s played mousy waitress, beleaguered farm wives and embattled inner-city teacher. Offscreen, she schleps around town in sneakers and jeans. But it’s been an uphill battle: Her face is always flawless—perfect, really—and there’s not much she can do to hide it.
And now she’s 41, married, a middle-aged mother of two. You might think that after all these years, she would start to exhibit some signs of wear and tear—that she could finally relax and begin looking like an ordinary mortal.
Well, no such luck. On this November afternoon in Los Angeles, Pfeiffer is dressed down, eating a very mundane Cobb salad in a very mundane Westwood hotel. But even in scruffy jeans, an old leather jacket, a ponytail and thick black glasses, she’s still breathtaking: a princess trying to come off as a commoner.
Pfeiffer confirms it’s her standard look. “The picture of me that run in magazines are taken at big events—the only times I ever get dressed up,” she says. When she’s reminded of a recent magazine cover that showed her glammed and gowned, reclining on a moon crescent, Pfeiffer laughs. “Actually, that’s the real me!” she says. “I hang out at my house floating on a sliver of the moon.”
These days, in fact, Pfeiffer spends less time in the limelight—and on the screen—as she concentrates on her family: husband David E. Kelley, the Princeton-trained lawyer-turned-TV-whiz-kid; five-year-old Claudia Rose, the daughter she initially adopted herself, and four-year-old John Henry, her son with Kelley. “I’ve been turning stuff down.” She admits, “and I’d probably have worked more if I didn’t have kids. But that’s been kind of nice, actually.”
It’s not like she needs to hustle. She has produced some of her own movies, and her salary on big-budget films ranges from $7 million to $10 million. And Kelley, who created “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” “Chicago Hope” and “L.A. Law,” recently signed a $30 million writing and producing package with Fox Television.
Nor can anyone claim that Pfeiffer hasn’t paid her dues. Her first part, after she stopped ringing up groceries at a supermarket in Orange Country California, was in Grease II. It was only after getting cast as Al Pacino’s moll in Scarface that she climbed on the fast track. After three false starts (in Ladyhawke, Into the Night and Sweet Liberty), she landed The Witches of Eastwick and became a star.
From there, she proved herself an Oscar contender with nominations for Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Love Field, while expanding her repertoire with unglamorous roles in Frankie & Johnny, Dangerous Minds (her biggest box-office hit) and Up Close & Personal.
Now, she and her production company, Via Rosa, have just completed The Deep End of the Ocean, due out this month. Based on Jacquelyn Mitchard’s 1996 bestseller, the film revolves around an adolescent who’s reunited with the family he’d been abducted from as a three-year-old. “It really deals with issues that are important to me—about how family goes beyond biology and genetics,” says Pfeiffer. “I have a very low tolerance for movies that victimize children, but our movie doesn’t focus on the kidnapping. It’s about what constitutes a family.”
Even so, her character spends a lot of time crying and feeling miserable, which could scare away moviegoers hoping to see her in full movie-star mode. “I don’t think it’s depressing,” Pfeiffer says firmly. “It’s such a hopeful movie. I like how flawed the parents are, and how human. But of course, I like movies that make me cry. I just want to be moved in an honest way.”
Pfeiffer recently bawled her way through Life Is Beautiful, and she says that was nothing unusual: I’m a total wimp—particularly when it comes to [film about] children. And I cried in City Slickers when the cow was born—I cried! How ridiculous is that?” But if she’s a softie at the movies, Pfeiffer say that she’s a control freak in many other areas of her life. “It’s when I hired a decorator that I realized how controlling I am,” she says with a laugh, referring to Hollywood interior designer Michael Smith. “It’s hard to give up that control in your own house. And believe me, I am very controlling.”
Robert Towne, who directed her on Tequila Sunrise, would surely agree. He once called her the most difficult actor he’d ever worked with. (Pfeiffer acknowledges she has butted heads with a director, but she refuses to name him.) “I’ve learned that I can intimidate directors,” is all she’ll say, “so now I try to work with the ones I know are strong, and also open.”
On e who fits that description, she says, is Rob Reiner, who’s currently directing her in The Story of Us, a romantic comedy with Bruce Willis. She’s also looking forward to working with Robert Zemeckis in the fall, on a supernatural thriller with Harrison Ford.
According to Ulu Grosbard, who directed The Deep End of the Ocean, Pfeiffer didn’t throw her weight around during production. “I want to work with actors, not movie stars,” he says. “Michelle was everything I expected her to be and more.”
Michael Hoffman, who directed her in the upcoming A Midsummer Night’s Dream, says he was struck by Pfeiffer’s intelligence. “If she’s controlling, then so is everybody on a high level in this business,” he says. “Movie stars have a tendency to protect themselves, but she doesn’t. She never rests on her laurels, and tends to go for the challenge.”
In fact, doing Shakespeare is the one thing that Pfeiffer still finding daunting. In New York in 1989. She played Olivia in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night, and she wasn’t very proud of her work. “When you first starts out, you think, “I’ll go do Shakespeare in the Park! I’ll learn!’ The you get there, “What the hell is he talking about?’ It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my career. I was a terrible Olivia. I had no idea what I was talking about.”
She’s hoping she’ll be vindicated by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also stars Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett and Calista Flockhart, whom Pfeiffer’s husband made a star in “Ally McBeal.” “I worked with this great woman from Juilliard,” Pfeiffer says. “And Kevin Kline was incredibly helpful. I felt like I finally got it, but I struggled. I was cramming. But the truth is, my whole performance boiled down to keeping my butt covered in the flimsy fairy costume! I kept asking the cameraman, “Did you see my butt? Could you see my rear end?”
Hoffman says it wasn’t Pfeiffer’s backside that the camera was chasing.
“I cast her as Titania because she has a beauty that almost otherworldly,” he says. “There’s an architectural level to her beauty, a precision, a perfection to it. The closer the camera gets to her face, the more beautiful she becomes. She doesn’t have a bad side.”
That doesn’t make her any less self-conscious, she’s never done a full nude scene, and she regrets her one seminude appearance, in Tequila Sunrise. “I’ve avoided nudity like the plague,” she says. “And the fact is, I find nudity in film s distracting, and so do most directors. I probably shouldn’t even have done the shower scene in Tequila Sunrise, but—it was Mel Gibson, and he was such a sweetie during that. I was so nervous.”
In her offscreen life, meanwhile, Pfeiffer has had no shortage of high-profile men, after an early marriage to Peter Horton, there were relationship with Michael Keaton, John Malkovich and Fisher Stevens, and short turns with the likes of Eric Clapton and Val Kilmer. She even began to expect she’d never settle down for good.
“There are worse thing in life than being single,” she says. “When I met David, I was really getting to the place where I was okay with being alone. I thought, I do have a very weird life, a weird career. Maybe marriage is not in the cards for me. I thought I’d just have a series of interesting , serious relationships. And you know what? How bad is that? But then I met David.”
Both Pfeiffer and Kelley can be painfully shy, and she reports that their first few dates were downright awkward. Then came to the ordeal of going out in public. “Our first public appearance together was at a premiere of Love Field,” she remembers. “He was just this nice normal TV guym abd I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing to this guy?’ On our way to Maple Drive restaurant I was thinking, ‘Is he ready for this?’ And he was so gracious.”
Since then, of course, Kelley’s success has brought him in his own share of attention, and Pfeiffer isn’t complaining. “If I’ve gotten any better at being at events,” she says, “it’s because I go so many places with David. Being David’s sidekick is fun. It’s like getting dressed up and going on a fabulous date—and he’s the one who has to worry about the speech.”
When she signals for a final cup of coffee, the waiter snaps to attention; he has recognized the famous face, the perfect cheekbones, and he’s eager to please. Pfeiffer seems slightly embarrassed to realize that she’s getting special treatment. Suddenly self-aware, she lowers her voice and sinks slightly into her chair, as if trying to make herself invisible.
Of course, that only make her all the more noticeable. And, yes, more gorgeous.