Jeremy Irons recently observed that people are more interested in actors than they should, perhaps, be. Nonetheless, we are compelled to learn about the gifted people who move us to tears, who make us laugh, who take up residency in our heads. I’ve written many celebrity profiles, but I was grateful to the excellent and sadly defunct magazine Movieline when they allowed me to write about Michelle Pfeiffer which is a different undertaking than interviewing her would be. An interview tells us how a particular actor views him or her self. This piece, with quotes from Pfeiffer, but written from my own point of view is about things that even the most self-enamored actors would be reluctant to discuss: it’s about what makes this surpassingly beautiful woman one of the great Hollywood stars. It’s about that the fact her work matters and it attempts to explain why it does.—Elizabeth Kaye
I used to go to the movies to find out who to be. This was 30 years ago, when I had not the dimmest notion of who I was, and so assumed the persona of whatever fantastically appealing movie star struck my fancy. There was always someone. Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn—actresses whose feminine personae were as distinct and inviolable as fingerprints.
These were women who possessed larger-than-life personalities that not only made them ideal role models for adolescents in identity crises, but also made them every bit as spectacular as movie stars are supposed to be. It is one of the few regrettable legacies of the egalitarian-minded ‘60s that stars of today insist on trying to prove that, despite their retinues and salaries, they are, when all is said and done, precisely like us.
Only in such a world could the hours actresses invest in exercise and collagen injections be rivalled by the hours they squander on trying to make themselves less glamorous.
Once upon a time, Irene Dunne wore feathers and Lombard wore satin. These days, a scraggly Sigourney Weaver comports with gorillas, while Jessica Lange dyes her hair brown, and Meryl Streep hollers in the outback with yet another accent. Presumably, if Bette Davis were making Now, Voyager today, she would start out glamorous and turn into a frump, and the picture could be called Moral Victory. Contemporary movie stars demand to be paid like movie stars, loved like movie stars, and treated like movie stars, but simultaneously insist on being viewed as serious human beings. This is understandable. What’s unfortunate is that Hollywood’s beautiful women seem unable to believe that it is possible to be gorgeous and serious at the same time. That is, except for Michelle Pfeiffer.
Somehow Pfeiffer manages to be radiantly beautiful and to project gravity as well. And in the moment that confirmed her as a major star—that slow, show-stopping spin atop Jeff Bridges’s piano when she sang “Makin’ Whoopee” in The Fabulous Baker Boys—it was apparent that she does so by magically grafting the sensibility of a modern woman onto the glamour of a ’30s icon. The Fabulous Baker Boys wasn’t a big hit. But then, none of Pfeiffer’s films has been huge at the box office, with the exception of The Witches of Eastwick, an especially fine picture for those who enjoy seeing glamorous women look unattractive, and one in which Pfeiffer was upstaged by a cold sore. Still, Witches was an ensemble piece. Pfeiffer has never “carried” a blockbuster. But this has not kept her from becoming a major star. Nor has the fact that she doesn’t appear in gossip columns with regularity, or that the handful of interviews she has granted confirm the worst fear of assigning editors: that the best talent makes for the worst copy.
Thus far, though Pfeiffer’s been known to carry a portable, computerized dictionary, she hasn’t yet restrained herself from delivering real-life lines that should not be assayed even by a gorgeous blonde. “I mean, you know,” she told the interviewer from Vanity Fair, “…it’s like this is not a dress rehearsal. It’s life.”
Of course, the salient points of Pfeiffer’s life have repeatedly been made available. Thus, it is known that she was married for seven years to Peter Horton. “I had a great marriage with a great man,” is her word on that subject. Equally, it is assumed that she had a doomed and difficult affair with her Dangerous Liaisons co-star John Malkovich, which nearly ended his marriage to actress Glenne Headly. More recently, the public has been apprised of her relationship with Fisher Stevens, an actor several years her junior, who appeared in Short Circuit and Reversal of Fortune, and joined her in Moscow while she was shooting The Russia House with Sean Connery.
Somehow Pfeiffer manages to be radiantly beautiful and to project gravity as well.
As such track records go, Pfeiffer’s history with men is not uninteresting, for it suggests a personality in transit and a woman not entirely certain of who she is or wants to be. And indeed, once the Valley Girl language is set aside, there is something genuinely mysterious about Pfeiffer—a quality that feeds the aura necessary to a real star, whose sparkle should, after all, be transmitted from a vast distance.
Mysteriousness can be artifice, but Pfeiffer’s appears not to be. She tends to baffle even those closest to her. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” her friend Cher once told her, “if one day you said you have a 10-year-old child growing up someplace.” And part of Pfeiffer’s “mystery” takes place inside the movie camera: rarely do her co-workers see a hint of the power that shows up later in the dailies—as if her onscreen work were an exercise less in acting than in alchemy.
Judging from her pronouncements, perhaps no one is more baffled by Pfeiffer than Pfeiffer herself. “I don’t know if I’ll ever really have that sense of arrival,” she has said. She appears to view her current life with the bemused air of one who has spent hours standing in line to purchase lottery tickets, and now cannot figure out where all the money came from.
Though Pfeiffer has stated (invoking yet another cliché), “I think I knew where I wanted to go from the beginning,” it certainly seemed at first that she would simply settle for the comfortable faux Midwest life that can accrue naturally to a beautiful young woman raised in Southern California. A small house, all the major appliances bought on time—the usual bounty for the daughter of a heating and air conditioning contractor, a girl who hung out at Life Guard Station 17 in Huntington Beach, did a brief stint at junior college, spent a year studying to be a courtroom stenographer, and ended up as a checkout girl at the Vons Supermarket in El Toro. But naturally—as it must ever be in Hollywood tales that begin with a middle-class existence—there was another part of her, and it was steeped in determination. So she entered the Miss Orange County beauty pageant because one of the judges was an agent, and the rest, as Pfeiffer herself might say, is history. There were roles in “B.A.D. Cats” and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen and a few other ventures she could happily forget, but nonetheless, so few years later, she gets a million plus per picture and her agent receives a dozen scripts for her each week.
Pfeiffer is now reputed to be wary of celebrity’s pitfalls, fearful that she is changing into the character she played in Sweet Liberty—an actress with an angel’s face and a tough-talking mouth. “You know,” she says, “it’s, like, no more Mrs. Nice Guy.”
Why Pfeiffer? Though the male audience may covet her, I suspect that Michelle Pfeiffer’s success has occurred in direct ratio to the degree to which she exhibits a persona that holds special appeal for women. It is a persona first glimpsed, curiously enough, more than five years before she became a star, at the close of her final scene in Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of Scarface.
The women Pfeiffer plays can, as in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Tequila Sunrise, and Married to the Mob, choose to be with a man, simply because they are sure enough of their strength that they no longer need to prove it.
The scene was set in an upscale restaurant, where Pfeiffer—as the gangster’s moll, Elvira—graced a table, her toothpick of a body barely clad in one of those skintight satin gowns that turn sitting into a major feat, a dress of the sort that required Jean Harlow to recline against upright wooden boards between takes. Glittery and gorgeous, Pfeiffer’s Elvira is equally stoned and remote, and therefore a seemingly ideal victim for Al Pacino’s hostile, drunken Tony Montana, the drug-dealing husband who berates her for failing to bear children or even to bear sex, or to do anything more sociable than shove coke up her nose. Stirred by his tirade against her, Elvira rallies, and as she does, her exquisite—albeit bloodshot—eyes narrow into menacing slits. “I’m leaving,” she tells him flatly. “I don’t need this shit.”
It’s a wonderful moment, played—as is Pfeiffer’s wont—at the lowest conceivable pitch. Its impact is lessened an instant later when art imitates life: For just like the critics and audiences who would soon note Pfeiffer’s extraordinary radiance in Ladyhawke and Into the Night and deem her much too pretty to be regarded seriously, Tony fails to read beyond what Elvira’s appearance suggests. “One Quaalude and she’ll love me again,” he mutters. But he’s wrong. Elvira, like a lot of other characters Pfeiffer has played, may not be a paragon of feminist idealism, but she is constructed around a modern core. “I like women who take control over their lives,” Pfeiffer once said of her roles. “I like women characters when there’s no bullshit about them.”
Like many contemporary women, Pfeiffer’s characters are less independent than they may have hoped to be. Though the professional life they coveted and feared has turned out to be easier than they expected, their personal lives are far more complicated than they counted on. In the face of this reversal, they may feel afraid, but they summon courage. The one thing that can be said emphatically about Pfeiffer’s screen characters is that they are women whose masochism has limits. When Pfeiffer veered from this profile by playing Madame de Tourvel, the virtuous beauty who expires from love in Dangerous Liaisons, she was taking the opportunity to prove her acting skills in the most time-honored way: by playing against type. (And the Oscar nomination she won validated the wisdom of her doing so.) Madame de Tourvel may not have been able to survive without love, but Pfeiffer’s modern women can. No matter how unhappy they might be, each has a streak of competence broad enough to keep them from being the self-styled tragediennes that Garbo, Joan Crawford, or Bette Davis often played.
That the persona Pfeiffer projects strikes a note with contemporary women is hardly surprising, since women are still attempting to reconcile their notions of what they should be with the reality of who they, in fact, are. Women these days do not live in the brave new world envisioned in the early feminist days. The kind of woman “liberated” female audiences will accept has changed in the last 15 years—so radically, in fact, that a filmmaker today could not raise a nickel for 1978’s An Unmarried Woman, in which Jill Clayburgh turned down a summer in Vermont with artist Alan Bates in favor of a solitary season of self-discovery in the torpor of New York City.
The women Pfeiffer plays can, as in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Tequila Sunrise, and Married to the Mob, choose to be with a man, simply because they are sure enough of their strength that they no longer need to prove it. This is an enlivening message at a time when those who once stood at the barricades are too tired or too chastened to put much energy into the notion that life without a man somehow “ennobles” a woman. Pfeiffer’s women are a triumph of being over seeming: they have character while lacking the rhetoric that too often substitutes for it. “You’re kind and honest and principled,” Pfeiffer’s character is told in Tequila Sunrise, and this is equally true of every contemporary woman she plays.
And yet, the world that hailed Pfeiffer as a star in the late 1980s is not all that different from the old days, especially in Hollywood. This is still a world in which a woman as beautiful as Pfeiffer is rarely viewed as serious, and is thereby subjected to the same shopworn, degrading assumptions about blonde beauties that sent Marilyn Monroe running to Arthur Miller and Lee Strasberg (for all the good that did her).
Monroe’s fortune and misery were culled from the fact that she was the personification of what men want women to be. Certain current female stars carry on the legacy, among them Kathleen Turner, Melanie Griffith and Kim Basinger. Others, like Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep, unwilling to play a vamp or bimbo, style themselves in terms of what women believe they ought to be—they could get by on their looks, but they resolutely set their beauty and sexuality on a back burner while they go about the business of being upstanding. Pfeiffer inhabits neither of these categories, and that’s what wins over men and women. She manages to be sexy and upstanding at once, and so she dents the Madonna/whore fixation that’s dominated Hollywood since the days of silent movie queens like Theda Bara.
Pfeiffer’s classic beauty naturally appeals to men, but she remains a woman’s woman simply because she consistently portrays a female who accomplishes with character what she could more easily achieve with charm. That quality can be seen in her independent pursuit of a new life in Married to the Mob, in her religiosity in Dangerous Liaisons, in the honorable way she conducts her life and business in Tequila Sunrise and in her early determination to fend off Jeff Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys because it would be “weird” to sleep with a man she works with. In portraying each of these characters Pfeiffer carries herself with an endearing bravery, a quality that brings her closer to personifying what women themselves want to be than any other actress in recent memory. Pfeiffer’s Susie Diamond became, in fact, a role model for Pfeiffer herself: “She’s very courageous,” Pfeiffer says of Susie, “and I think that there are a lot of things about her that I would like to be more like.”
Pfeiffer is easily the most interesting female star to emerge from Hollywood in a while. And yet she doesn’t fit easily into even the more woman-oriented, “post-Ghost” era. Nineteen-ninety was supposed to be the Year of the Comic Book Character (again), but Ghost and Pretty Woman (on the heels of 1988’s hit Working Girl) turned it into the year of the 100-million-dollar-plus love story. Part of the reason cartoon action pictures dominated the box office up to this summer is that, after two decades of the feminist movement, there is still no consensus about what an “attractive” woman is. (Not that men are defined any more clearly, but male stars have finessed that liability by replaying the most familiar and long-accepted male characteristics—physical strength and deadpan humor—so shamelessly that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Harrison Ford have become virtually interchangeable.)
Pfeiffer’s special strength is that her persona is rooted in qualities that evoke the great movie heroines of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.
Given the audience’s predilection for cartoon characters, it really isn’t surprising that Madonna is the female who has dominated the entertainment scene in the ’80s. Her persona is an amalgam of every significant blonde vamp Hollywood ever produced, and her much-touted business acumen is really just an instinct for knowing the limit to which being a cartoon can be pushed. But Michelle Pfeiffer—and most other actresses—either cannot portray a cartoon or will not, which means that as long as hit pictures require characters who have the veracity of Jessica Rabbit, surviving as a female star will never be easy.
In fact, the new blockbuster “women’s pictures” don’t dare very far beyond the cartoon—and their notion of what constitutes an attractive woman is, at best, curious. In Working Girl, the positioning of Sigourney Weaver’s character opposite Melanie Griffith’s suggests that women who honor the Calvinist ethic of hard work are obsessive, disagreeable neurotics who deserve to be robbed of the man and the deal by women who run around in their garter belts. Pretty Woman attempts to graft the world’s oldest fairy tale onto a member of the world’s oldest profession and works a clever audience-pleasing hedge by implying that Cinderella Julia Roberts is worthy of affection not despite the fact that she is a hooker, but rather because she has been a hooker for such a short time. Then there is Ghost, a kind of The Way We Were meets The Terminator meets The Shining. Demi Moore, it is revealed in several pretty close-ups and various comments about her excellent “work,” is an artist, as if that should be sufficient to establish her credentials as a wonderful person.
Compare the women in these box office smashes with Pfeiffer’s fully-drawn Susie Diamond in the modest hit Baker Boys. Susie’s interesting precisely because she’s a Madonna and a whore rolled into one. But well-drawn characters are difficult to craft when MTV has so influenced the movie business that the average line of dialogue is pared down to less than a dozen words. In fact, never mind words. It takes only one of Julia Roberts’s blinding smiles, or one of Demi Moore’s radiant tears, to woo and win over an audience. Of course, it can be argued that this is precisely what a visual medium should be about: Star power is visceral. Still, Myrna Loy’s smile—which had abundant charm and radiance—did not exempt Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich from writing charming dialogue for her in The Thin Man. In the era of the much-reviled studio system, actresses like Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, and Barbara Stanwyck were loved and admired because their appeal was harnessed to material like that in The Awful Truth or Penny Serenade or My Man Godfrey or Ladies of Leisure. The characters those actresses played were witty and sensual and lovable and admirable.
In the face of scripts that reflect the absence of any fixed notion of what constitutes a charming woman these days, contemporary actresses of substance retreat in desperation to the merely admirable. Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, for example, are widely admired, but seem destined to be loved primarily by grateful directors. Of course, actresses themselves compound their problem by insisting on being smarter than they are beautiful. After an exquisitely confectionary performance in Tootsie, one for which she received an Oscar, Jessica Lange used the resultant clout to spearhead deadly projects in which she thoroughly deglamorized herself (Country, Far North, Music Box). In a truly admirable performance in A Cry in the Dark, Streep made herself much worse looking than the real-life woman the story was based on.
Michelle Pfeiffer, now established as a ravishing onscreen presence, and as a comedienne who touches the heart, appears to be gearing up for a stroll down the path Lange took before her. She plays a Russian-accented book editor who falls for Sean Connery in the spy thriller The Russia House, but it’s unlikely she’s gotten too proletarian in that role. And, it’s difficult to tell what’s in store with Love Field, in which she plays a dissatisfied housewife in the early ‘60s who fantasizes about Jackie Kennedy. But one of Pfeiffer’s future projects may be based on Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris’s The Crown of Columbus, a book that Pfeiffer recently purchased, apparently attracted by the opportunity to play an anthropology professor. Even at this early date, it is a project brimming with the leadenness that accompanies Good Intentions.
Not that there is anything wrong with good intentions, or serious characters. The problem is that they tend to be played and written in the spirit of Woody Allen’s “serious” pictures, as an exercise in extreme and penitent earnestness that is devoid of even passing humor or charm.
At this point, it is clear that Pfeiffer’s special strength is that her persona is rooted in qualities that evoke the great movie heroines of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Her similarity to ’40s stars has often been noted, and stems, obviously enough, from a sleekness and glamour that evokes the young Lauren Bacall. More interesting is her psychological resemblance to ’20s stars like Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Colleen Moore, who portrayed lower-class women possessed of a moral refinement that made them worthy of the princes they would marry. These characters have a pride that transcends mere virtue, a more common and far less interesting commodity. And so, smoking incessantly in Baker Boys, Pfeiffer searches her purse for a Paris Opal, a brand of cigarettes costing $3.50 a pack. “I figure if you’re going to stick something in your mouth,” she tells Jeff Bridges, “it may as well be the best.”
But at its most powerful, Pfeiffer’s work evokes the great stars of the ’30s, particularly Barbara Stanwyck, whose Kay in Ladies of Leisure faced the same life lesson as most of Pfeiffer’s characters: that the only reasonable expectation is to not expect much. An audience finds it easy to root for a character whose expectations are so diminished, who has, in other words, allowed herself to be truly vulnerable.
The most touching element of vulnerability in Pfeiffer’s characters is that it’s not just the audience who recognizes it—they do too. And so the audience witnesses the familiar pain of a woman who must battle to keep her emotions from showing (the precise sort of battle Pfeiffer herself was engaged in when she began shooting Baker Boys, when she was, by her own account, emotionally shell-shocked, presumably at the end of her affair with Malkovich). After Susie auditions for the Baker brothers, she tries to hide her nervousness by sticking her gum back in her mouth. “So,” she says, dead-pan. It is this behavior that makes Susie’s audition song, “More Than You Know,” seem like an anthem for all of Pfeiffer’s characters.
And, perhaps, for Pfeiffer herself. For there is no question that this onscreen effort to mask vulnerability—the behavior of one who has been hurt too much—resonates with Pfeiffer even now. “I’ve always been the kind of person,” she recently said, “who would walk into a room, find the nearest corner, and hope that no one notices me, then just wait it out until it’s time to go home.” But in a sense, what matters most is her continued willingness to enter the room at all. It is that quality that she and her onscreen characters share, for though they cannot bear being hurt again, they also understand that human beings must eventually choose between being safe and being alive.
It was this person that Steve Kloves captured so elegantly in Baker Boys, a script he wrote specifically for Pfeiffer, one that capitalized on her many strengths and also defined them. Pfeiffer’s real hope is that other writers of Kloves’s distinction will have his savvy and provide for her the kind of material that can give her the dazzling career she would have had if her first picture had been released in 1937, when the studio system made stars miserable but gave them lasting careers. For actors are rarely the best custodians of their talent. They are too well-paid and treated too much like gods to curb what is viewed in Hollywood as ego, and elsewhere as narcissism. In the history of Hollywood, it is only the studio that managed to stand between actors and their narcissistic tendencies, and with that system gone, Pfeiffer may go the route of every other contemporary actress who tries to bury her beauty and charisma in order to prove she can act.
But perhaps Pfeiffer is canny enough to be the first contemporary actress to accept that it is the strength of persona that distinguishes stars from everyone else, and that a woman “cursed” with being a charming and enchanting blonde may as well roll with that rather than going to lengths to turn herself into an earnest brunette.
[Photo Credit:Towpilot c/o Wikimedia Commons]