ELLE | November 2011
MICHELLE PFEIFFER | ICON
Doomed countess, gangster’s moll, Russian Traitor, inner-city teacher, murderous mother, haunted housewife, mousy waitress, kitten with a whip…and that’s just for starters: “I’m never going to retire”
Photographed by Dusan Reljin | Styled by Sarah Schussheim
If you want to see the moment a star is born, fast-forward the film Scarface to the 32:24 mark and watch the tall blond in the emerald silk, bias-cut, spaghetti-strap gown descend from the sky in a glass elevator, step off, and give the cold shoulder to an enthralled Al Pacino. “I was terrified the whole time,” recalls Pfeiffer, who, after a drug-fueled duet, ends up Pacino’s trophy wife in the cult classic. “I was so out of my league with all of these seasoned actors. Here I was, this little waify thing in these little flimsy clothes, and who was I? I was the girl from Grease 2!”
Nearly 30 years later, she’s the actress from The witches of Eastwick, Married to the Mob, Tequila sunrise, Dangerous Liaisons, Love Field, The Age of Innocence, Wolf, Dangerous Minds, What Lies Beneath, Hairspray, next month’s New Year’s Eve…. She’s the actress with three Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe award for her role as Susie Diamond, an escort turned lounge singer, in The Fabulous Baker Boys. “I bet her a thousand dollars after that movie came out that she’d be offered a recording deal, and she still owes me,” says Jeff Bridges, her costar. Which is to say she’s the actress who can carry a tune as well as a film.
“I remember watching old movies on television when I was a kid and thinking, I can do that,” says Pfeiffer, who grew up in Santa Ana, California. “A little bit, my whole life, I felt like an outsider. I was always observing people and trying to understand the dynamics taking place. At one point I was interested in psychiatry, or becoming a psychologist. That’s what fascinates me about acting—understanding what is really underneath people’s behavior. You know, we’re pretty much never really speaking to what we’re really thinking or feeling.”
“what impressed me about Michelle is that she’s a California beach chick—no elevated education—but when you’re smart you just get smarter,” says her Batman Returns costar Michael Keaton. Whereas many stars can’t help but leak their personal traits into their performances, Pfeiffer’s greatest asset, Bridges observes, “is that she’s so wonderful at not playing herself.”
In close to 40 films, she’s managed to become not just a leading actress, but a leading character actress, overcoming her distracting ethereal beauty. “How can you not be struck by it?” says her Up Close & Personal costar Robert Redford. “I also know what it’s like to be judged by that. You have to work doubly hard to prove that’s not all you are.”
Count on Pfeiffer to have the last, self-deprecating laugh. “She has a great sense of humor,” Redford says. “There’s a scene after the first time we have a tryst; she says goodbye to me and hands me a gift. I was just supposed to look at it and smile. I unwrapped it and inside was a picture frame, and Michelle had slipped in a photo of herself in a bathing suit winning the Miss Orange County beauty contest.” He laughs at the memory, adding, “I still have the photo.”—HOLLY MILLEA
A: When Jeff [Goldblum] and I were shooting Into the Night, John Landis would say, “One of you guys was brilliant and one of you sucked. Go again.” I love that.
Q: Have you ever stood up to a male director?
A: Well, I’ve stood up to directors, and I don’t like it. I don’t think it serves the performance when I have that kind of dynamic with a director.
Q: You thoughts on plastic surgery?
A: I’m all for a little something here and there—fine. It doesn’t matter to me if people have plastic surgery or they don’t, or if they do Botox. But when people don’t look like themselves anymore, that’s when you kind of go, “Oooh,” and it’s kind of sad. It’s uncomfortable for us, but if they’re happy with what they see in the mirror, does it matter?
Q: You always seemed shy about your looks.
A: it took me a long time to be willing to do sexy photo shoots for magazines. I would only wear my own clothes! The most beautiful clothes in the world and I insisted on wearing my own crappy clothes—what was I thinking?
Q: Given our tabloid culture, would you still have gone into acting?
A: No, no. I have a lot of interests. These people just starting out—boy, anybody who can endure that and come out the other end, they have to have an amazing constitution, that’s all I have to say.