After trading Hollywood for a slower pace in Northern California, Michelle Pfeiffer makes a dazzling big-screen comeback
December of 1988 was my Tequila Sunrise moment. Inspired by Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in the crime thriller, Jo Ann Vallenari, the sleek and gorgeous manager of an Italian restaurant, I bought taupe stilettos (which sat in my closet). I wrestled with a round brush and a hair dryer. I daydreamed about driving down Pacific Coast Highway to Manhattan Beach in an Alfa Romeo convertible, listening to Crowded House, to meet a mysterious former drug dealer who looked like vintage Mel Gibson. Classic cinema it was not, but it was peak Pfeiffer: Sharp, strong, sexy, vulnerable and impossible not to look at. Thirty years later, in two high-profile movies—Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Mother! and Kenneth Branagh’s take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express—you still can’t tear your eyes off of her, but not for the reasons you might expect.
As Caroline Hubbard, the famous “husband hunter” Christie created in her most beloved mystery, Pfeiffer looks incredible: In a series of bias-cut ’30s-style noir dresses, it’s inconceivable that she’s 59 years old. And, as “woman” in Mother!, you stare for entirely different reasons.
“Well, I think Mother! is the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen,” Pfeiffer says, laughing, over the phone from her home in Northern California. “It hit me on such a visceral level, in ways that I don’t even really understand.”
It’s hard to meet a man or woman whose most formative movie-watching years were the ’80s and early ’90s who didn’t have a crush on at least one of Pfeiffer’s memorable on-screen personalities. Maybe it was the ice-cold Elvira from Scarface? Or the lounge-singing Susie from The Fabulous Baker Boys? Or the disheveled Sukie in The Witches of Eastwick? Or her Oscar-nominated turn as a seducer’s unwitting prey in Dangerous Liaisons? Or Catwoman (Catwoman!), Batman’s flawless foil? Funny and serious, fragile and fierce, she was in everything and good in everything. And everybody was a little bit in love with her.
“Wow, thank you! Wow,” Pfeiffer says. Either she is flustered by the compliment, or acting like she’s flustered. I can’t tell. She’s that good.
Over the last few years, Pfeiffer has emerged from what seems like a happy, self-imposed Hollywood exile. A lifelong Californian, born in Santa Ana, crowned Miss Orange County in 1978, she spent decades in Los Angeles before she and her husband, prolific television writer and producer David E. Kelley, moved with their two children to the Bay Area 15 years ago.
“I didn’t really hit pause with work until my kids were school-age,” she says. “There were five years when I didn’t work at all. I sort of don’t pay attention to time. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t worked in years. When the kids were really small, I could take them with me—it was complicated, but David and I managed it with a lot of juggling. Once they started school, it didn’t feel right to leave them for extended periods or take them out of school and upset their routine. Then we moved and that became consuming. We started over completely.”
The initial reason for their exodus was to find a slower-paced life within commuting distance to Los Angeles for occasional projects. But in retrospect, she realizes that a shift was happening in the way celebrities were treated, both in public and by the media, that would make living her famously private life in L.A. more challenging.
“It was very different back then. There wasn’t all this social media. It used to be that if you had a film coming out or there was a scandal of some kind, if there was some heat on you, the paparazzi would pick up your trail and hound you, but for the most part they would leave you alone. Then it got to the point where they would follow you for no reason. I remember distinctly when it shifted, and it was right at the time we were moving. And I think that it’s been really good for me. They’re not interested in me anymore.
“I’m an empty nester now,” she continues, explaining her return to a heavier Hollywood workload. “I’m freed up to work a lot. It’s really great to see them become adults, but you never stop being their mother. When I would go down and see my mother when I was in my 20s, I never understood why she would cry when I left. ‘Mom, why are you crying when I leave? I’ve been out of the house for 10 years!’ Now, I get it. When am I going to stop calling them kids? ‘You kids!’ My mom’s never stopped.”
Easing back into a more public life, Pfeiffer took a few smaller, independent film roles, and played a couple of memorable villains in the film adaptations of Hairspray and the Neil Gaiman fantasy Stardust. But the rumblings of a full Michelle Pfeiffer comeback started in 2014, when she was name-checked by Bruno Mars and Vance Joy in two Top 40 hits. Then, earlier this year, she played Ruth Madoff, opposite Robert De Niro, in the Bernie Madoff biopic The Wizard of Lies for HBO. It was a role that required her to play older, which is a big ask from a woman widely touted for her beauty, in an industry that prizes youth above almost all else.
“I’m an actress, but I’m also a woman who struggles with aging just like the next person,” she says. To play an older woman “takes an adjustment,” she admits. “But then you get over it. Initially it’s a bit of a shock. Everything you would avoid, you do: certain ways that you avoid putting on your makeup, things like that, you just lean into it. But that’s my job. In real life, Ruth Madoff looks younger than I look in the film. I may have leaned into it too much!”
In Murder on the Orient Express, she also plays older, as a wealthy widow who is, like the other passengers, a murder suspect. It’s a character that complements Pfeiffer’s varied strengths, including her femme fatale looks and her comic timing. “What you look for in a role is range; where there’s humor and levity and then, where does it turn? You want to build to those moments,” she says. “That was one of the driving forces for me coming aboard.
And the period…the costuming was magical, and so elegant. There is such an appreciation for style and glamour and you really walk away with a sense of that after seeing this film.”
When it comes to fashion offscreen, Pfeiffer maintains that comfort and good tailoring go a long way for a woman in her 50s. “I like simple. I like to be comfortable. When I go to fittings now and they put these dresses on me from the runway, I can’t fit into them—and I’m not big—so it makes me feel bad,” she says. “I’m still a sexual being. I want to stay current but, again, not try to appear younger. Because that looks silly. Sometimes, I’ll put on a dress and I think, I look OK. But then I realize: Oh, this was meant for a younger person. I keep seeing Emma Stone’s face on top of this dress! I find that balance gets increasingly tough.”
The balancing act of preserving your appearance without betraying your dignity is not lost on Pfeiffer, who implies that she has experimented, with some trial and error, to find it. “I wish high definition had never been invented,” she says. “I see some things on television, and I think, ‘Why would I want to see that? I don’t see that in real life.’ There’s so much pressure on women not to look their age, and that adds to it. Yeah, you want to be the best version of yourself, but there is a line you can cross, and you look in the mirror and think: that’s actually someone else.”
On-screen, Pfeiffer uses her sometimes icy beauty to great effect, especially when it’s played against dewy co-stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Daisy Ridley. And her voice, which is always a slow, velvety monotone, can still send chills down your spine. She appears to be embracing the experience and wisdom that comes from being famous for 30 years, and playing characters like Hubbard, who are described as an “aging actress,” with a knowing wink. “Everyone knows how old you are,” she says, matter-of-factly, but with a touch of defiance. ”Who are you fooling, really?”
Photography by KURT ISWARIENKO .
Styling by ALISON EDMOND.
Written by CHRISTINE LENNON.
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of C Magazine.