SAGA Magazine | July 2006
MICHELLE PFEIFFER the come back
After an incedible run of successes, Michelle Pfeiffer took a three-year break from her career. Now she’s back on screen – falling for a younger man. Garth Pearce tracks her remarkable career.
MICHELLE PFEIFFER WAS THE BIGGEST female star in the world, but had no life. She was the toast of the paparazzi, looked stunning on a red carpet outside premieres, and won more votes the polls for the world’s most beautiful actress than any other during the early Nineties. But, away from the cameras and the accolades, she was suffering private anguish. She did not know how to balance friendships and her family with her public image. So, three years ago, she stopped working altogether.
Pfeiffer, 48, simply walked away from the limelight. Some only talk about it. Others may do it for a time, only to return far too quickly after the fear of being forgotten sets in. But she turned her back at the very point when Hollywood starts to regard any forty-something woman with suspicion. “I decided that I did not want to play the game any more,” she says. “I was getting tired and wanted more from a family life, rather than the life of a well-known actress. I was working less and less, by choic, and found that being with my husband and children offered me more enjoyment than being in front of a camera.”
Pfeiffer, who has been nominated three times for Academy Awards, remains youthful and beautiful as she contemplated a future working life – very much on her own terms – through her fifties and sisties. She has eyes of summer-blue and retains the girlish look of the beach babe she once was, with blonde hair falling to her shoulders. She looks both chi and cool, despite motherhood and shcool runs dominating her days more than international travel and hours spent with hair and make-up experts. She is now rejoining the Hollywood merry-go-round with a new romantic comedy, I Could Never Be Your Woman.
The film is an interesting choice. She plays a mother who falls for a younger man (played by Paul Rudd), while her daughter (Saoirse Ronan) is falling in love for the first time. There are issues about her character still acting like a teenager in love, while her daughter is living through those desperate, dry-mouthes, day-dreaming days. The message is that you are never too old to fall in love. And why can’t an older woman be loved by a younger man?
It is written and directed by Amy Heckerling, who, at 52, is regarded by youth-obsessed Hollywood as a veteran. She directed the highly successfully Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982, but had to wait until 1989 for her next big hit, Look Who’s Talking, with John Travolta. And her only real success of the nineties remains Clueless (1995), the script based on Jane Austen’s Emma, which starred Alicia Silverstone as a well-intertioned American teenager.
To tempt her back after so many years, the film had to measure up as being both a great script and an enjoyable story. For her, this one ticked both boxes. One of the main attractions was the storyline of an older woman wanted by a younger man. She remembers shooting her hit film Up Close & Personal, with Robert Redford, 10 years ago. “I was playing a woman in her late thirties who was going to bed with a man in his late fifties. I thought: ‘Am I ever going to see a film which shows the age difference the other way around?'”
It is a different Pfeiffer who returns to the showbusiness fray. She has had the perverse pleasure of seeing other actress, in their thirties, such as Nicole Kidman or Renee Zellweger, caught up in the maelstrom of adverse publicity. She has also seen new kids on the block, like Scarlett Johansson emerge, as she once did, blonde, beautiful and expectant.
“For some, the recognition is a godsend,” says Pfeiffer. “You can never tell how it is going to affect your life or how you are going to deal with it. I was always thinking: ‘How long can I put up with all this?'”
When she decided she’d had enough, it was a slap in the face for the army of film studio executives and managers who regarded Pfeiffer as one of their own, a woman who wanted the kind of success they were chasing. She’s a former California beach girl who worked at the checkouts of a supermakert, and had become one of the world’s most admired and recognisable stars.
But the signs of personal doubt were apparent early in her career. She had a failed marriage to actor Peter Horton, whose fame flickered briefly in the Eighties with the television series thirtysomething, and the romances with actors like John Malkovich, Michael Keaton and Fisher Stevens.
She finally took action to find stability in her private life in March, 1993, when she adopted a baby girl, Claudia Rose. That same year, she met and fell in love with produce David E Kelley, whom she married on November 13 of that year. It was a curious situation. She was already fully involved in the adoption process when they met. They have since had a son of their own, John Henry, on on August 5, 1994. The pace of her working life, though, didn’t slow. By 2000 – and her copstarring role with Harrison Ford in the haunting thriller, What Lies Beneath – she had delivered 36 major performances in just 20 years.
In the meantime, Kelley had developed the show Ally McBeal, set in a lawyer’s office. He cast Calista Flockhart (now 41 and living with 64-year-old Harrison Ford) in the lead role as a feisty, clumsy daydreamer. It was said to be based on Pfeiffer’s personality. She had rejected the role, so the story went, because she did not want to work with her husband.
“It was that kind of conjecture that was driving me to distraction,” she recalls. “It was a mixture of half-turth and inaccuracy. I did not want to work with David – I wanted to keep our working lives apart, because I needed a seperate home life. But one morning my husband driving our kids to school and this reporter came on the radio, saying ‘David Kelley has left his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, for Calista Flockhart.’
“I saw red on this occasion. Lies had been printed about me before and I accepted it. But this time the community where we live had heard it – the children, their teachers, their friends and parents of friends. I did get a complete retraction, but thought: ‘Do I really need this?'”
The answer, obviously, was not as much as Hollywood thought she might.
After her big-film debut in Gease 2 in 1982, she delived some of the biggest hits of the Eighties, like Scarface (1983), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Tequila Sunrise, Married to the Mob and Dangerous Liaisons (all 1988) and The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). The Nineties led to a whirlwind of work, with male stars practically queuing to co-star with her. There was Frankie & Johnny (Al Pacino), Wolf (Jack Nicholson), Up Close & Personal (Robert Redford), One Fine Day (George Clooney) and The Story of Us (Bruce Willis).
In her twenties, Pfeiffer knew that men expected too much. They believed the fantasy: the honey-blonde hair, red lips, tight skirt and eyes that were lasers of seduction. Away from the cameras, though, it was very different. She dressed in grunge before the style was invented, with her face scrubbed clean of make-up. When she was filming in Lisbon with Sean Connery in The Russia House in 1990, I noted her discernible relief when she was ignored completely and her glamorous make-up girl was mistakenly asked for an autograph.
She has never, she says, come to terms with stardom. “I have treat the whole thing as an adventure, so far removed from my own reality. I did not know anyone in showbusiness. This was some other universe for me. I was drawn to the arts, but I was completely unfocused, with no sense of direction.
“I was working in a supermarket, checking groceries, and having a bad day. I thought: ‘This is my life – and I hate it. What am I going to do?’ I then said to myself: ‘What would you want to do, if someone just handed it to you?’ It was acting. I thought I would try it and it just went from there. Incredible, really.”
It certainly is. She was able to exploit her good looks by winning a beauty pageant, as Miss Orange Country and, again, to make her film debut in 1980, playing the tiny role of Suzie Q in The Hollywood Knights. But, as her career took off, she must have had something else, surely, other than striking looks?
“I always wanted to learn and was not frightened to ask for advice,” she says. “I was also willing to allow acting to be all-consuming in my life. To say I was dedicated is an understatement.”
She even turned down major roles in films like Sleepless in Seattle (which went to Meg Ryan), Silence of the Lambs (Jodie Foster) and Basic Instinct (Sharon Stone). “My instinct in choosing films has not always been good,” she says. “I respond emotionally to things and it is not until I am committed that I see flaws in the story. I am no good at knowing what people want to see.”
But despite her self-criticism, Pfeiffer has hit the spot with audiences. “I never anticipated all the things which came with success,” she reflects. “I was shy and still am. I prefer to get to know people slowly and not say much. But exactly the oppsite was expected of me. It did not sit easily with my personality.
“I had to learn about men and relationships in the most public of ways. Can you imagine trying to conduct any sort of relationship in public, particularly when you have just met someone and are genuinely unsure of how you feel? So a successful personal life became more of a priority for me with each passing year. I have taken a long time catching up.”
I Could Never Be Your Woman will be screened in the UK later this year.