EMPIRE | February 1996
Hot for teacher
In this month’s Dangerous Minds, the delectable and exceedingly talented Michelle Pfeiffer plays the kind of inner city school teacher who most guys wouldn’t mind staying behind after class with. Jeff Dawson eagerly gets kept in detention…
Michelle Pfeiffer wafts into the hotel suite like a goddess. Not one who thinks she’s a goddess, you understand, but like some blithe spirit who happens, obliviously, to have been manifest in human form. She is cool, she is chic, she is utterly charming, and she is one of the most beautiful women ever to have graced the silver screen. Not that she thinks so herself. Pfeiffer thinks she looks like a duck. But then, in the bathtub most men think they sound like Bing Crosby.
Maybe it’s the upturn of her smile, maybe it’s the wiggling walk, but whatever the case, you wouldn’t assume that Michelle Pfeiffer—forgive me if I’m ladling it on a bit thick here—would ever have had a problem attracting blokes. You’d think she’d be fighting the off with a stick. Not that she needs to these days. She got married a couple of years ago. But what comes as a shocking piece of news is that she met her hubby—gulp!—one a blind date.
Hang on a minute. Michelle Pfeiffer on a blind date? Michelle Pfeiffer?
“Because, think about it…How do I meet people?” she offers with a shy giggle. “I meet people on movie set. That’s not real life. I think that a lot of really nice men were afraid to approach me, so the ones that would ask me out were usually the sort of questionable ones. I like actors—they’re funny, they’re smart, they’re charming—but they’re not always marriage material. I had a desire to expand my, er, portfolio, but I wasn’t exactly good at going about it on my own, so I had some help, hahaha.”
The lucky sod who marched her down the aisle is TV producer David Kelley but that’s not important right now. What is becoming increasingly apparent during our chat is that Pfeiffer severely undervalues her own worth.
She has played a cat and dated a bat (Batman Returns), wooed a wolf (Wolf) and, if you will, been a bird (Ladyhawke). Dressed in a smart black suit, with pale, delicate skin and a pair of glassy blue eyes (fans, worried that she often looks bloodshot, routinely send her eyedrops), the blonde actress could, without question, also essay a fox. But Michelle Pfeiffer is not like that, and thought she has become one of the most sought after leading actresses of the last ten years, it is her acting, not her image, that comes first and foremost.
Sharon has her steamy scenes, Demi has her Vanity Fair covers. Michelle merely has her resume. And a pretty impressive one it is too: Oscar-nominated three times (for Love Field, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Dangerous Liaisons), with a cache of good performance in other movies (The Age Of Innocence, Batman Returns, Married To The Mob, Tequila Sunrise, The Witches Of Eastwick). She is a character actress par excellence, much more in company with Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange than those other hot mamas.
This month she appears as a schoolteacher in Dangerous Minds, a surprisingly big hit in the US and a version of LouAnne Johnson’s autobiographical account of an ex-Marine who takes up teaching and does her best to dispense “heducayshun” to some inner city no-hopers.
She turned down the leads in Basic Instinct, The Silence Of The Lambs, Sleepless In Seattle and Disclosure, but then, as she admits, she’s not a very good judge of scripts…
“When the producer said Michelle Pfeiffer will never do it, she’s too beautiful, I was realty taken aback,” squealed Johnson when the film was first cast. “I said, ‘Do you think that all teachers are dogs?’”
This is a question that can be debated at length. But one thing’s for sure, if any of this writer’s teachers looked like Michelle Pfeiffer, detention would have been packed. No ma’am, teacher do not look like Michelle Pfeiffer…or Sidney Poitier, come to that, who played pretty much the same role in 1967’s To Sir With Love. But when a honky mistress come into a ‘hood to hone her homeboys in the works of Dylan (Bob and Thomas), it begs a question. Mightn’t it all be seen as, well, just a little bit patronizing?
“We were really aware of that and, you know, it’s very hard to do,” she explains, gazing out of the window of The Regent Beverly Wilshire across Rodeo Drive—about a million metaphoric miles from the ‘hood where this film is set. “It seemed no matter what we did, we were offending someone. In the end we just stayed true to LouAnne and her approach to teaching.
“We got a lot of concern from a lot of people about bribing the kids with candy bars. In the end I called LouAnne and she said, ‘Oh please, they said the same thing to me. You know what, I don’t care what it takes to get these kids to learn, and what’s the difference between bribing them with a candy bar and bribing them with an ‘A’ or threatening them with detention?’”
Good point, though she sight of some hardcore gangstas scrapping over a Hershey Bar is not a little amusing, especially as the posse don’t do homework. In fact, My Posse Don’t Do Homework—the name of the book—was, until the 11th hour, the title of the movie. But uberproducers Simpson and Bruckheimer demanded something a little bit more, you know, menacing.
“It wasn’t that I thought it was the greatest title for the movie but I thought it was better than Dangerous Minds,” opines Pfeiffer, breaking with traditional PR etiquette and, as they would say in LouAnne’s classroom, “dissing” her own movie. “I wish that we could have come up with something that was better than both of them. At the end of the day, I think the movie is really good, the audiences respond well to the film and that’s what’s going to bring them in. the only thing a good title has is that I am able to say it with some pride. But that doesn’t matter.”
Now 38, michelle Pfeiffer has been on the A-list for the past eight years, ever since The Witches Of Eastwick diverted her from a series of blonde arm ornaments into a broad range of characters. There could have been an even greater gallery had she not turned down the leads in Basic Instinct, The Silence Of The Lambs, Sleepless In Seattle and Disclosure, but then, as she admits, she’s not a very good judge of scripts. A native of Orange County—a sort of wealthy beach ‘burb wedged between LA and San Diego—Pfeiffer originally went to college to study court journalism, ringing up the tills in her local supermarket to pay her way, when a friend of hers entered her in the annual Miss Orange County contest. A tad miffed, Pfeiffer gave it a whirl on the off-chance of some exposure to pursue her secret desire, acting. She duly won and the rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, there was much crap to be wallowed in first. She got her first role as “The Bombshell” in a TV series called Delta House, a lamentable spin-off from the movie Animal House, and toted her beach-belle beauty on things such as Fantasy Island, and some big screen rubbish including Falling In Love Again, The Hollywood Knights and Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen (all 1980).
As a result of entering a nationwide talent contest, she ended up as the best thing in the awful Grease 2, which led to her big break in Scarface, as the waspy object of Al Pacino’s greaseball. Then cam Ladyhawke (1985), the underrated comedy Into The Night (1985) and the period romp, Sweet Liberty (1986), in which she played an American revolutionary patriot called Mary Slocumb. If The Witches Of Eastwick (in which she works her charms on devilish Jack Nicholson) put her in the big league, then her subsequent work cemented her position—Tequila Sunrise, Dangerous Liaisons (for which she got a Best Supporting Actress nomination) and Married To The Mob.
“I have characters that I enjoy doing more than others,” says Pfeiffer., who won’t budge on her favorite film question. “Angela Demarco in Married To The Mob and Susie Diamond.”
Okay, so Pfeiffer does have a defining role after all—Susie Diamond (who won her a Best Actress nomination in 1989), The Fabulous Baker Boys’s lunge singer who made a minor classic scene out of draping herself over the paino and crooning Making Whoopee. In fact, unlike most thesps who fancy a go behind the mike, her singing was really rather good. So much so that the offers to become a fully-fledged chanteuse came pouring in.
“It wasn’t the right time for me, though I’d love to again if the right project came along,” she coos. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities to sing in movies. But I didn’t want to be another one of those actresses whose record ends up in the bargain bin, if you know what I mean. It’s too sad.”
Recent work has been more hit and miss: espionage bash The Russia House (1990), Frankie And Johnny (1991), in which she valiantly overcame a spot of errant casting; and then the real flyer, 1992’s Batman Returns, no doubt thanking Julie Newmar for everything as she slinked her PVC-clad bod through the role of Catwoman. She and Tim Burton are currently in talks about doing a Catwoman film but are still waiting on a script. She’s looking forward to it, too, though her enthusiasm is tainted somewhat.
“I don’t want to put on that suit again,” she laughs. “Playing Catwoman was a little like giving birth; you forget how painful it was.”
Her last three roles have been a pretty mixed bag; the enigmatic Countess Olenska in Scorsese’s overblown The Age Of Innocence; last year’s Love Field, her second Best Actress nomination, in which she played a Monroe clone obsessed with the Kennedys; and, of course, Wolf, once again as the bedthing of wild Jack. Next comes Up Close And Personal, a film she has just finished with Robert Redford, in which she is a Miami TV reporter who falls in love with her producer. But after that, well, it’s anyone’s guess.
“But then I’ve never really been calculated,” she says. “I don’t even know what my next movie is and most people know what they’re doing maybe two or three years ahead of time.”
One thing is for sure—whatever she does, she won’t be watching it. For Pfeiffer never views her own films once they’re done. Not even, say, when Grease 2 catches her unawares during a bout of TV surfing?
“I turn the channel really quickly,” chuckles Pfeiffer. “Scarface was on the other night, too. But I can’t watch my movies. Even the ones I think are good. I am a little bit curious, but my fear outweights my curiosity.”
What on earth is there to be frightened of?
“That I’m going to be really awful,” she purrs. “Inevitably for me, the first time I see a movie, I am so sure I am going to be so stinky in it, I think it’s really best if I leave it on a good note and don’t go back and look at it. You know, my ego’s not that healthy, hahaha…”