New Woman | February 1992

New Woman | February 1992

The fabulous Pfeiffer

From supermarket to stardom, but not overnight. Over the past decade a string of carefully chosen roles has made her one of Hollywood’s top earners and one of the box office’s top attractions. But she’s not so sure … By KAREN MOLINE

Michelle Pfeiffer is sitting at a press conference to promote her latest film, Frankie & Johnny. Clad in beige Armani and the barest of make-up, fiddling with the metal top of an Evian bottle, she is the epitome of drop-dead chic.

Notoriously private, however, she alternates between looking uncomfortable, bored and resigned – and still you can’t take your eyes off her (even if costar Al Pacino is seated at her side) as she nervously smooths back her hair, the only trait she seems to share with the emotionally scarred Frankie. Except, of course, Frankie’s locks are lanky and lacklustre as her love life and her face is begging for a makeover.

When it was announced that Michelle, who currently commands upwards of $US3 million per picture, would be tackling the part, Hollywood tongues started a’wagging. The movie is an adaptation of a play which was originally written by Terrence McNally for Misery star, Kathy Bates, who skilfully and poignantly inhabited Frankie’s determinedly un-glam appearance.

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“Well,” Michelle says slowly in her own defence, “first of all, the movie is totally different from the play. Also, I don’t particularly think of Kathy Bates as frumpy; she’s actually quite beautiful. Frankie is described as somebody who’s attractive if only she put a little effort into how she looked. I was happy to work with that, to make the character my own, and not be an imitation of something someone else has already done.”

Not surprisingly, Michelle has managed to confound the critics again with a performance of raw pain and intensity, infusing Frankie with the kind of touching yet gritty vulnerability she effortlessly (and unaffectedly) lends to each of the wildly disparate characters she’s played over the last 1 0 years – and even if she doesn’t resemble any of the New York waitresses that I’ve ever met.

Although it may be a bit difficult to believe that a woman who can clearly be called a Grace Kelly for the Nineties should have any sort of inferiority complex, Michelle remains an atypically reluctant superstar.

“When I walk in a room I kind of find the nearest corner where no one’s going to notice me,” she confesses.

“And going home is like going for major surgery. You go home and wake up the next morning like you just came out of heavy anesthesia. It takes me days to recover because there’s just so much baggage. I can drive down the old street, and gloom will just descend. Even if you’ve had a somewhat normal upbringing… It’s all that old baggage you’ve spent your entire adult life running from, or in therapy talking about.”

This reticence stems from a natural shyness combined with a childhood in California’s Midway City – geographically close to Hollywood, certainly, but miles away from its glitzy mentality.

Born 33 years ago, the second of four children (her father was a heating and air-conditioner contractor), Michelle was a tomboy who grew up hanging out with the surfers. She started working part-time at 14 – in a clothing store, for an optometrist, a jewellery manufacturer, a printer, a preschool, and – most unbelievably for those who’ve only seen her as a screen siren – as a check-out girl in a supermarket. After those experiences, she tried a few college courses; dabbled in sculpture and modern dance and went off to stenography school.

“When I was checking groceries I was just frustrated. I wanted to do something,” she says. “So I finally asked myself what it was I wanted to do.” She realised she wanted to act.

So in 1977 Michelle swallowed her shyness and had a folio of professional photographs taken. The next thing she knew she had won the Miss Orange County contest, a commercial agent signed her on, she studied acting and she-made her television debut with one immortal line on Fantasy Island: “Who is he, Naomi?” By 1979 she was co-starring in a sitcom called Delta House, but as her character was called ‘Bombshell’ and made to submit to the indignity of a padded wardrobe, it was hardly an experience worth remembering.

“I used to call my agent, crying on the phone: ‘They’re putting me in hot pants again’,” Michelle says. “I had two set of falsies.”

Still, she persevered, taking small parts in forgettable films like The Hollywood Knights and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen and she continued to study her craft. It was in one of her acting classes that she met a sexy young actor, Peter Horton (of thirtysomething fame) .

Their marriage when she was 22 (which lasted seven years) wasn’t the only notable event of that year – Michelle finally became a leading lady. So what if Grease 2 wasn’t Shakespeare? It was a terrific break and Michelle, a complete unknown, won the critics’ hearts.

She also continued to work steadily in progressively more challenging roles: Into the Night; her first appearance with Pacino as his ice maiden wife in Scarface; as a fantasy figure in Ladyhawke, a scene-stealing actor in Sweet Liberty, a bewitched housewife in The Witches of Eastwick, an upright Mafia wife in Married to the Mob and a restaurateur who takes a steamy romp in a hot tub with Mel Gibson in Tequila Sunrise. It was her daring meld of simplicity and sensuality as a seduced-and-abandoned wife in Dangerous Liaisons, though, with which Michelle finally silenced anyone who thought she was just another blonde starlet who needed padding in her bra. That role garnered her first Oscar nomination; as the tough chanteuse Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys she earned a second.

Michelle next took a rather daring risk when she decided to play Olivia in the New York Shakespeare Company’s open-air run of Twelfth Night in the summer of 1989. To put it bluntly, the critics were not kind.

“I’m doing it because I felt I needed to do something to shock myself into some sort of expansion and not get complacent,” she said at the time. “It wasn’t till I got into it that I started to panic. But what’s the worst that can happen? So I’m bad. So they don’t let me do Shakespeare again, or at least not in New York. Well, there are worse things in life than that.”

Not only did her stage confidence improve immeasurably as the run went on -though she proved no real competition for co-star Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio – but Michelle, much as she’d found the man she married in an acting class, met her current beau, actor Fisher Stevens, while rehearsing for that production.

After her divorce from Horton she was linked with Batman star Michael Keaton as well as her Dangerous Liaisons co-star John Malkovitch, but she was evidently ready for a new romance.

“You have to drop a house on me for me to know I’m being hit on,” she says. “It’s a defence I’ve developed. I don’t put myself in situations where I’m really going to be approached.” And while Stevens is no physical match for Mel Gibson – although he is far less nerdy-looking in person than many think he is, with a wry wit and a kind of all American goofiness that’s surprisingly sexy – he and Michelle have been an item ever since. He flew to Moscow to keep her company when she was shooting The Russia House with Sean Connery, a role Michelle claimed was the hardest yet. The two lead an unpretentious, extremely private life.

“She’s the most private woman I’ve ever met,” explains Cher, one of her best friends. “I said to her once, ‘Michelle, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if one day you said: Cher, this is my son, he’s eight years old, and I never wanted to tell you about him until now.’ She doesn’t trust very much at all.”

“There is a certain amount of isolation in celebrity,” Michelle says. “At the same time, though, the situation creates this process of elimination that’s really beyond your control. People that are real, relationships that are honest and pure become so rare. You’re forced to choose your friends very carefully, to spend your free time specifically, and in a way that’s a liberating relief. “Still,” she continues, “it’s tough on a daily basis.

“Once a friend of mine was dying of AIDS and he was rushed to a hospital because we thought this was it. Then when we got there they decided to send him home so he could die surrounded by his family and friends. We went to his house to wait for the ambulance; they wheeled him in and put him on his literal deathbed. And then the ambulance driver came up to me with his clipboard and said, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ I was so stunned. That’s the worst it ever got. But that’s what fame does to people.”

What it has done for Michelle in a much more positive sense is deliver, after much fierce competition, the coveted role of Catwoman in the upcoming Batman 2, a slot that suddenly opened when Annette Bening became absorbed with the impending Beatty baby. In it, the woman who really believes she looks like a duck can hide behind her cat whiskers and continue to display her versatility as she plays her first truly villainous role, slinking away to her heart’s content. Undoubtedly the costumers will not find it necessary to pad her feline form with falsies.

“All actors want to work but everybody is typecast and compartmentalised and fit into a certain ‘type’ ,” Michelle explains.

“I got a lot of, ‘You know, sorry, you’re too pretty No-one would believe you’re home sobbing, or couldn’t get a job’.

“When Jonathan Demme asked me to do Angela in Married to the Mob, I was so thrilled that here was a person who saw past that attitude and gave me an opportunity to go beyond the other values people had put up on me. Frankie was the same. I always wanted to play someone who was tragic, incredibly wounded and scarred, yet also had potential.”

Michelle will also be seen in Love Field, about a Dallas housewife who is obsessed with Jacqueline Kennedy and becomes involved in an interracial relationship. Whatever other starring roles fly her way, she has formed a production company (as have most top female stars) in order to guarantee there’ll be some worthwhile project to do. “Even at the beginning, when I was doing junk television, I still had this focus,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t going to be doing that forever. I wasn’t going to be like that.

“It’s a difficult profession, but it’s very seductive and you get it in your blood. I’m happy when I’m working, when I’m actually acting, but the percentage of that time is maybe 10 per cent of the year. The other 90 per cent I find a struggle; the acting is for free. I guess I must like it a lot to put up with the rest of it.”

And, of course, as a ‘job’ it sure beats packing groceries.

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Frankie and Johnnie opens in Australian cinemas this month through UIP.

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