Allure | March 2007

Allure | March 2007

Up Close & Personal

Michelle Pfeiffer talks openly about the positives and negatives of being beautiful. By Judy Bachrach | Photographed by Michael Thompson

My life could have been a disaster,” Michelle Pfeiffer concedes, her hesitant avowal pushed to the fore by a crowd of memories, some quite unpleasant. “Except that I always had this attitude—it’s a combination of courage, willfulness, and extreme naïveté—and I think my naïveté tricked me into thinking I could do anything, and I just had to figure out how,” she continues. “And then when I get in too deep and I say, Oh, shit!, I simply adopt a sink-or-swim attitude. And I will find any way to survive.” Her blue eyes, which so often sparkle with amusement, grow solemn. “And I always swim.”

This last remark seems, at the moment, entirely appropriate. In a starry, floor-length, indigo grown that clings to her fragile waist and negligible hips, Pfeiffer looks like a mermaid, enchanting but unapproachable, her lids heavy with coal shadow, her molded jawline softened by piles of gold hair hanging in lazy tendrils to her shoulder blades. Even when she changes into a pair of Wranglers, her hair topped by a pair of reading glasses, it’s clear she clings to the shelter of that remoteness. “Trust doesn’t come easy to me,” she says, and one can believe it. In scores of past interviews, Pfeiffer comes across as famously aloof and private. That is her trademark, onscreen and off.

It is, for instance, precisely the image she projects on film: in Scarface, in which, in 1983, she appeared in her first important role, as Al Pacino’s ice goddess; in Dangerous Liaisons, five years later, opposite her old boyfriend John Malkovich, in which she appeared robed in French silks and frigid piety; in The Fabulous Baker Boys, in which she starred as an unconquerable voluptuary with an astonishingly fine set of pipes; in I Am Sam, as a tough lawyer who learns compassion from a mentally challenged client (played by Sean Penn).

But somehow, early in our interview—and for no apparent reason—the curtain of cold inaccessibility dissolves, giving way to a surprising new frankness and volubility. Love, beauty, aging—almost nothing in Pfeiffer’s life is off-limits.

Perhaps because these days, after a considerable period offscreen, she has returned to the swim—an activity that still comes effortless to her at 48. Two of her new movies will soon appear: Stardust, a fantasy film in which she plays opposite Claire Danes and Robert DeNiro; and Hairspray, in which Pfeiffer plays the famous harpy Velma Von Tussle—“a brassy kind of stage mom, who once won the Miss Baltimore Crabs crown,” as the actress outs it.

Speaking of which, I say, didn’t you once snag the Miss Orange County crown back in 1978?

A swift nod. “Yes, it brings me back to the old days,” she agrees with an ironic grin. “But Velma peaked when she won the Miss Baltimore Crabs crown…”

And we can’t say that about you…

“No, we cannot.” Then she adds pointedly, in a tone devoid of mirth, “I started at the bottom. In my first job, I started at the bottom of the supermarket as a bagger and worked my way up to cashier. And I was the best damn bagger you ever have been. And then I started at the bottom of the entertainment business too-started with commercials and bad TV shows and bad movies—and worked my way up.” What she wants everyone to know, in other words, is that it was hard work-not overwhelming beauty—that made her a star. In fact, Pfeiffer explains in considerable detail, beauty was, at times, the very elements that thwarted both her career and her personal life.

“When I was coming up in the business, beautiful actresses weren’t really “in,’” Pfeiffer recalls. By which she means that faces etched by character and angularity—the androgynous appeal of Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, for example—were the hot screen images of the mid-‘80s. “So I felt then like a lot of women these days feel in a man’s business world: I felt I had to be better than the competition,” Pfeiffer explains. “Because it was harder for me to get cast in a good part. So when I went into an audition, I felt I had to be better I was beautiful.”

There were other factors, however, behind her feelings of deep inadequacy. As her first husband, the actor Peter Horton (whom she married at 22), once put it, “Michelle was a much bigger person that she was raised to believe.”

“My father was a guy who was king of the roost—yeah, he set a really high bar, which I think has really been a blessing for me,” Pfeiffer says. “I mean, it’s always been a blessing and a curse,” she quickly amends, “because you do tend to set impossible standards for yourself and be self-critical. I am very self-critical.”

That self-critical role came easy to her. The late Richard Pfeiffer, a heating-and-air conditioning contractor in Midway, California, found his eldest daughter, Michelle, highly flawed and famously intractable, a poor role model for a brood that also included Dedee, who ended up playing Cybill Shepherd’s eldest daughter on her eponymous sitcom, and Lori, who became a model and actress as well. As a teenager, Michelle harbored a deep fondness for short tops, hip-hugging jeans, red Mustanges, surfer guys, skipping school, and a steady diet of Marlboros. “Three packs a day,” she tells me; she stopped just 15 years ago. “Sometimes I look back and think, You know, it’s a miracle I’m still here!” She had no idea what to do with her life.

These feelings of aimlessness, self-doubt, and inconsequentiality persisted. Not long after winning the beauty contest and an appearance in the eminently forgettable TV series B.A.D Cats (“honestly—Sex Bomb is not a persona I’m comfortable with”), Pfeiffer joined a California group that lured new recruits with the classic combination of sleep deprivation and near-starvation. Salvation came in the form of Peter Horton, known for starring in the 1980s TV series thirtysomething, who rescued her with hot meals—and marriage. But even this was no solution to her underlying problems. Seven years and one bad movie (Grease 2) later, the union dissolved. “I was so young when I met him and unformed,” Pfeiffer says with a sigh. “And then when I got formed, the rules kind of changed, and we grew apart.” With that divorce, all her old fears were reignited. She had never before lived alone in Los Angeles.

“It was harder for me to get a good part. When I went into an audition, I had to be better because I was beautiful.”

She was sure her life would fall apart, that her wrecked marriage would disappoint her demanding father: “I had sought his approval for so long,” she tells me.

It was the Vrian De Palma film Scarface, with a script by Oliver Stone, that saved her. As Elvira, an icy blonde addicted to both drugs and drug lords, whom she simultaneously slept with and loathed, Pfeiffer was the perfect foil for the Latino gangster played by Pacino. “You didn’t smile, did you?” De Palma would warn her after every take—needlessly, as it turned out, since she was, at 25, too nervous and frightened for levity. Indeed, so breathtaking was her impassive hauteur, in permanent conflict with the quiet beckoning of her slim backless gowns, that both Gwen Stefani and Naomi Watts have lately appropriated that early Pfeiffer image. Rappers love the film. “Yeah, it’s kind of turned into a cult movie,” Pfeiffer says with understatement and a decided lack of fervor. It was not, she recalls, and easy time for her.

“I was underweight,” she recalls—those packs of Marlboros kept her that way. “And so it was kind of stressful—it wasn’t supposed to be that long. The movie shoot went over and over and over. And you know, I was young and intimidated and playing against a lot of seasoned actors. I was so new, and they were established. I mean,” she sums up dryly, “my biggest credit before that was Grease 2, so I kind of had a lot to prove.”

But proving herself was a nonstop task, even after she completed a succession of hits: among them, The Witches of Eastwick, Married to the Mob (where her trademark blonde hair was dyed black), and Batman Returns, one of her favorites because, as she explains, “I like playing trashy girls.” That kind of role, her public accepted.

However, her 1001 nonhit Frankie and Johnny, in which she played a frowsy and downtrodden waitress opposite (once again) Al Pacino, only served to revive Pfeiffer’s oldest nightmare. Just another gorgeous Hollywood face, sniped the critics, trying to pretend she was Everywoman.

When I was doing Frankie and Johnny, that was one of the biggest criticisms: that you couldn’t believe me in the part,” she says resignedly. “And my argument is always, ‘You know everyone can be damaged. And pretty people can be just as damaged as ugly people or fat people.’”

“And in some ways, more,” she adds, her face earnest. “Because beautiful women tend to get used. And sometimes, their self-esteem is so wrapped up in the way they look that they allow themselves to be victimized much more than somebody whose self-worth isn’t all wrapped up in their face or their body.”

She speaks from the heart. “You know, that certainly has been a part of my life,” she continues. “In fact, for the longest time I wouldn’t even talk about how being beautiful got in my way, because I felt by admitting, it was like giving it power.”

Acknowledged or not, her beauty worked its magic: So much to that within one year, Pfeiffer felt empowered enough to turn down three major movies: Silence of the Lambs, which made Jodie Foster an even bigger name; Thelma and Louise, which did wonders for both Susan Sarandon and Greena Davis; and Basic Instinct, which unveiled Sharon Stone’s star power (among many other things).

“I’m kind of prudish. And honestly? I am not that uninhibited about my body. I’m modest. I’m just modest .”

“How did you know about Basic Instinct?” Pfeiffer moans. “I just couldn’t do that one, because of the sexual parts, the nudity.” She pauses significantly. “My father was still alive.” Also, she says with resignation, “I’m kind of prudish. And honestly? I am not that uninhibited about my body. I’m modest. I’m just modest.”

Boyfriends—the actors Michael Keaton and Fisher Stevens among them—came and went, and some of her choices were, to say the least, dubious. Malkovich, for instance, as Pfeiffer blithely admits. “He was nuts,” she tells me, with considerable amusement. “He’d be the first one to admit. I like people a little nutty; it keeps you interested, I guess. But I don’t like too nutty. The pendulum may have swung a little too far in that direction.”

No one seemed quite right for her. “Sean Connery, who costarred with me in The Russia House, has this line where he says to me, ‘All my past failures are in preparation for meeting you,’” Pfeiffer continues. “I remember when he said that to me in the film, I said to myself, I hope I feel that way about someone one day.”

At 35, perfectly resigned to the possibility she might never find that ideal partner, Pfeiffer quietly adopted a two=year-old, Claudia Rose. The was almost a decade before Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and Calista Flockhart decided, with a lot more fanfare, to follow a similar path.

“Actually, during the adoption proceedings, the thought occurred to me that it might make it harder for a man to love me if I had a baby,” she concedes.

“But then I thought, Well, it certainly will separate the men from the boys. And ultimately, make my life much richer. It will cut through the crap a lot quicker.”

You mean, ifd the guy was turned off by an adopted kid, tough shit?

“Yeah, right. That’s not the man for me,” she says faltly. “And then to my surpise, in the middle of the adoption process, I met David.” By which she means David Kelley, now he husband and father of her son—and also the creator and executive producer of Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, and, of late, Boston Legal. The question was, Pfeiffer worried in the early days, how to broach the subject of the impending adoption?

“I was with David—it was like our third date—and I said, ‘Can you keep a secret?” she recalls with a chuckle.

“He said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Oh, never mind, I’m not ready to tell you.’”

“what do you mean, you’re not ready?” Kelley said. Somehow, he knew: “You’re adopting a baby!”

“Yes, I am,” his new girlfriend replied.

“Great!” Kelley said.

“He didn’t run away, not for a second—in fact, I think he found me more interesting because of it,” the actress explains, marveling over this stroke of good fortune 13 years later. “I don’t know, maybe in a way, it showed I had character.” They married right after.

Emboldened by that auspicious start, Pfeiffer attempted a number of new journeys: coproducing a series of films (among them A Thousand Acres, based on Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, in which she costarred with Jessica Lange, and The Deep End of the Ocean with Whoopi Goldberg). These went essentially nowhere, and as Pfeiffer now acknowledges, she really wasn’t cut out for producing, since the business end of filmdom drives her nuts. One reason for these ventures: Roles for even the loveliest women over 40 are not exactly plentiful. “The society is real hard on aging and very unaccepting,” she says with a shrug. “I struggle with it like the best of them.”

Even in those films that are offered, the parts assigned to middle-aged actresses can be, to say the least, novel. In this summer’s forthcoming Stardust, for instance, Pfeiffer plays a villainess who is, as she puts it, her voice rich with irony, “5,000 years old, give or take; she needs to eat the heart of a star to retain her youthful beauty.”

We both ponder this. Speaking of youthful beauty, I venture—ever thought of cosmetic surgery?

“Well, you know, I haven’t done it yet.” There’s another brief pause as she reconsiders—and a slow smile. “I also wouldn’t tell you if I had.”

Breast enhancement, however, she insists, is definitely out. “Well, I’ve waited this so long, why do it now? I mean, what’s the point?” she says gamely.

Besides, she adds, “One of my proudest moments in my life came when I was out shopping one day, and this woman came up to me, and I was looking as falt-chested as can be in all my glory. And she said, ‘I saw you in an Armani outfit, and I said to myself, She has little titties. She looks good. You made me proud of my little titties.’”

Pfeiffer throws back her head and guffaws. “I thought this was the greatest thing anyone had ever said to me. I am the poster child for falt-chested women!”

And the rest of her? Does she ever examine her exquisite face in the mirror and pray that it never leaves, that it stays unaltered forever?

“Look, all women don’t want it to leave.”

But it’s different for her, isn’t it?

“Yes, I’ve got to look at this face all the time,” she says. “And see myself year after year after year. And it’s not natural. It’s not natural for a person to scrutinize themselves in that way.”

Pfeiffer examines her tortoiseshell reading glasses as one might the features of an old, dear friend. “But you know, there’s a reason why our eyes go bad—because it makes the aging process go lot easier. You can’t see what you really look like. I mean, I can’t see anything.”

She flashes her lovely smile. “So I think i—and everyone else—look pretty darn good these days.


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