Vogue | October 1997

a perfect match

Vogue | October 1997

Arguably the two great blondes of our era, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange appear together on-screen for the first time in A Thousand Acres.

John Powers pays a visit. Photographed by Michel Comte.

No screen actress has ever orchestrated a career more skillfully than Michelle Pfeiffer, who started out as Miss Orange County (a title comical in its blandness) but transformed herself into a major actress and an old-fashioned movie star. Nor has any potential superstar rebuffed Hollywood more strangely than Jessica Lange, who, after two Oscars, is still fleeing the long shadow of King Kong. Pfeiffer and Lange, Lange and Pfeiffer – these are the two great movie blondes of the last quarter-century, women known for their willingness to take chances.

But for all their dangerous roles, one thing they’ve never done is act in the same movie. That changes with the release of A Thousand Acres, a wrenching new film based on Jane Smiley’s feminist retelling of King Lear set in the Iowa farmland. Unlike Pacino and DeNiro, whose much-ballyhooed encounter in Heat lasts maybe a minute one screen, Pfeiffer and Lange share a series of stunningly good scenes in which sisters confront the legacy of their tyrannical father.

“I didn’t actually see Jessica until we were going to the set,” Pfeiffer says as we wait for Lange to finish her close-ups. “At first, I didn’t know what to expect, because I figured she was pretty intense. But though she’s serious about work, she likes to have fun. I never had a big sister, so it was nice for me to have one for a few months.”

In A Thousand Acres, the two sisters seem almost like opposites – Pfieffer’s Rose is angry and focused, Lange’s Ginny conciliatory and befuddled. This is only fitting, for the actresses who play them are radically different in style.

Slim and ethereal, Pfeiffer has a body made for couture and cheekbones the camera adores, yet she always seems slightly burdened by her own good looks, by the pressure of having to look like Michelle Pfeiffer. You sense that she’d like to be able to hide, or at least hood herself as she did in Ladyhawke. Lange, in contrast, is voluptuous and earthy, inhabiting her skin with the muscular confidence of a prizefighter. She exudes the physical oomph of an actress who Oscar-winning performance in Blue Sky had her bounding naked on the beach and waving at passing aircraft.

At 39, Pfeiffer is almost certainly the world’s biggest woman star. She’s the only actress anywhere who can both make a box-office hit of glossy hokum like Dangerous Minds and also win critical raves for a small, personal film like Love Field, which may contain her finest role, a heartbreakingly sweet Dallas housewife who idolizes Jackie Kennedy. Although hers is the kind of graceful talent that has always been undervalued (Cary Grant, you’ll remember, never won an Oscar), she’s actually a far better actress than, say, the much-honored Meryl Streep, who’s forever showing you how hard she’s working. Like all the greatest stars, she’s at once natural and aristocratic, with the Old Hollywood gift of making everything look easy – Angela’s screwy humor in Married to the Mob, the slinky eroticism of Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys, the impacted rage of Rose in A Thousand Acres, who keeps pounding away at her sister until she agrees that her father was a monster.

Pfeiffer draws her power from withholding herself–it’s no accident that in her most sexually charged role she was covered in Catwoman latex

As an actress, Pfeiffer is as sleekly sophisticated as Ella Fitzgerald, but off screen she seems downright suburban. Her husbands have been TV people (actor Peter Horton, producer David E. Kelly), and you can feel the Orange County uptightness in her manner, which is polite but wary. She treats the simplest question suspiciously. When she’s asked why, in her personal projects, she nearly always plays women who’ve been badly treated by men, her face briefly freezes – this is the sort of psychological question she obviously hates – and she says only, “Well, there are lots of women in life who’ve been treated badly.” She puts her deep feelings into her work and keeps the rest locked away. Pfeiffer is like a mountain made of crystal: gorgeous, seemingly transparent, and impossible to get a grip on.

While Pfeiffer draws her power from withholding herself – it’s no accident that, in her most sexually charged role, she was covered in Catwoman latex – Lange’s strength comes from her willingness to cut loose. She’s famous for her volatility, so much so that when I asked her young daughter Hannah which of her mother’s characters is most like her in real life, she instantly replied, “Blanche DuBois.” Few who’ve met Lange would deny it. She specializes in passionate women with an unhappy knack for disaster – marital troubles in Sweet Dreams, an ex-war criminal father in Music Box, a harrowing rape in Rob Roy. Martyrdom attracts her. Her Ginny in A Thousand Acres is a classic Lange role, a self-deluded farm wife whose whole world shatters when her head starts remembering what her heart wants to deny.

Among serious young actresses, Lange is viewed as a hero – someone you simply must work with. (In her two upcoming films, Cousin Bette and Bloodline, she costars with Elisabeth Shue and Gwyneth Paltrow.) They revere her dangerous brilliance as a performer, the way she’ll throw herself into even a crummy role like a mother charging into a burning house to save her child. She’s admired for charting her own path, be it her flamboyant romantic relationships with larger-than-life artists like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sam Shepard or her refusal to embrace the Hollywood superstardom that was there for the taking. Now 48, Lange herself doesn’t view her career so sanguinely. “I made some terrible choices,” she says, and alas, she’s right – we should mourn the dazzling performances lost to her bad judgment. Then, too, she had hard luck with some of her greatest roles. The elegant Men Don’t Leave was left to die by the studio, while her Oscar-winning turn in Blue Sky languished on the shelf for years.

If Lange’s star never rose nearly as high as it should have – she is, after all, the era’s most electrifying screen actress – this can be traced back to the derision that greeted the remake of King Kong, her first starring role and a movie she’s still never seen. Traumatized by the mockery, she spent the next 20 years trying to prove that she wasn’t a bimbo. The result has been one of the most perverse careers in Hollywood history. Lange won an Oscar for Tootsie and then never made another comedy. She turned down juicy Hollywood movies for “serious” stage work, then wound up accepting female-flunky roles like the wives in Cape Fear and Everybody’s All-American. The sexiest actress of her generation, she deliberately deglamorized herself.

“I did bail on the glamour thing very early,” she says. “And now I look back and think, Oh, hell, I should have done it for another five or ten years when I was still able to pull it off. I’m tired of thinking I have to rip my heart out for every character.”

These days she’s looking for the lightness and glamour she denied herself for all those years. Her next project is an adaptation of Colette’s Cheri set in the romantic swirl of the Belle Epoque. “It’s a love story,” she says delightedly, “with wonderful hair and corsets.” You wouldn’t be foolish to think it sounds like a Michelle Pfeiffer film.

Meanwhile, Pfeiffer keeps dipping into Jessica Lange territory. She, too, is no stranger to the desire to be less glamorous, once remarking, “Just standing around looking beautiful is so boring, really boring.” She likes to play at being plain (think of Frankie & Johnny) and has increasingly taken to undercutting her beauty – doing pratfalls in Up Close and Personal, having food spilled all over her in One Fine Day, baring her chest in A Thousand Acres to reveal Rose’s mastectomy scar. She’s never before played such an obvious martyr, and revealingly, it’s the role she lived the most intensely. “Rose,” she says, “is the first character I’ve played who I couldn’t separate from or get out of my head when I left the set.” Behind her cool beauty, you can sense some wounded darkness inside her that’s struggling to express itself. Her next movie is an adaptation of Jacquelyn Mitchard’s brooding best-seller The Deep End of the Ocean, about a couple coming to terms with the kidnapping of their child. She seems eager to rip her heart out.

Of the many things that make Pfeiffer and Lange special, the most telling may be their shared attitude toward their blondeness. There’s always been something occult about movie blondes, because they’ve launched ten billion erotic fantasies yet come wreathed in victimization. Hollywood never tires of devouring them – Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe dead before 40, Tuesday Weld and Kim Novak bruised and misused, Jayne Mansfield and Melanie Griffith turned into self-parodic sex toys, not to mention the hundreds of others discarded when a younger blonde who came along to fit the latest faddish desire for a gamine, an ice queen, or a babe who could really fill a sweater.

Lange’s entire career can be seen as a response to Blonde History – rejecting the fluffy persona so popular in Tootsie, depicting Hollywood’s cruel treatment of thirties actress Frances Farmer in Frances, exploring the delusions of the Marilyn-obsessed heroine of Blue Sky. As for Pfeiffer, she’s also made a point of playing characters with sharp edges, never letting herself ever be thought of as shallow or dumb, and producing serious movies like A Thousand Acres, in which her character strikes back at the father who made her a victim. Gentlemen may not prefer it, but neither actress has ever been a “sweet angel of sex,” as Norman Mailer so famously dubbed Monroe.

Movie-star reputations are as unstable as the peso (who today remembers Norma Shearer or Jean Arthur?), and no one can say whether in 50 years Lange and Pfeiffer will be remembered as fondly as some of the legends of Hollywood’s Golden Age. But if they are, one thing is certain: They’ll be remembered not only as great actresses but as women who kept control of their fate. Or to put it another way: They won’t be remembered for being blondes.

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