April 29, 1958 – Michelle Pfeiffer:
“I act for free, but I demand a huge salary as compensation for all the annoyance of being a public personality. In that sense, I earn every dime I make.”
Portland’s own Patrick deWitt wrote my favorite novel of 2018, French Exit and while reading this funny fable, The Husband and I were busy casting a film version. When it was announced that Michelle Pfeiffer would play Frances Price, the Manhattan heiress who moves to Paris with her son (Lucas Hedges) with the little money they have left, we pronounced the choice as inspired. The film, with a screenplay by deWitt, opened in February. It received mixed reviews, but Pfeiffer’s performance was praised by critics and she was nominated for the Golden Globe Award.
Pfeiffer is especially noted for her pursuit of eclectic roles in a wide range of film genres. One of the most prolific female actors of the 1980s and 1990s, she has a Golden Globe Award and a BAFTA, plus three Academy Award nominations and one Emmy Award. Her films are have made more than $2 billion at the box-office.
She possesses the beauty and sexual charisma of a leading lady, yet she has the soul of a character actor. Pfeiffer insists that she has never had any formal acting training, but she has proved to be a performer of such depth and tenacity that she totally blows up any argument that an untrained actor is less capable than their trained counterparts. Pfeiffer:
“I was just getting by and learning in front of the world. So I’ve always had this feeling that one day they’re going to find out that I’m really a fraud, that I really don’t know what I’m doing.”
Pfeiffer has had a 40-year career and has somehow managed to overcome being known just for her enchanting beauty and she plunged herself into deeper and more complex roles with each year. Pfeiffer’s first professional acting job was on a television series version of the film National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) titled Delta House (1979). Her character on the show was listed to simply as “The Bombshell”.
Her first major film role was as the lead in Grease 2 (1982), the sequel to the smash-hit film Grease (1978). With just a few small television roles on her resume, 23-year-old Pfeiffer went to an open casting call audition for the role. According to the director Patricia Birch, she was cast because she “had a quirky quality you don’t expect”. The film was a big dud, and her association with the film meant that she couldn’t get any jobs. Nobody wanted to hire her. Pfeiffer:
“I needed to learn how to act … in the meantime, I was playing bimbos and cashing in on my looks.”
Filmmaker Brian De Palma, having experienced Grease 2, refused to audition Pfeiffer for Scarface (1983), but Martin Bregman, the film’s producer, insisted that she be cast as the cocaine-addicted trophy wife. Scarface was a commercial hit and gained a large cult following. Pfeiffer received rave reviews for her supporting role, and her career took off. She lit up the screen playing gangsters molls and slinky lounge acts, then she returned from a five-year career break to take on a variety of wicked witches, keen comic turns and eccentric grand dames.
I am a great big fan of her work. Here are my favorite Pfeiffer performances:
William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999), her only Shakespeare credit; I wish she would have done more. She plays a serenely enchanting Titania in Michael Hoffman‘s lush, film version, which updates the comedy to 19th-century Tuscany. She is queenly and self-possessed, and Pfeiffer plays perfectly off the pouting petulance of Rupert Everett as Oberon. She brings something sweetly romantic in her magical infatuation with Bottom, played rather self-effacingly by Kevin Kline.
Hairspray (2007) was Pfeiffer’s return to work after that five-year break with this film, and it was the seed of a new career playing character roles. Based on the 2002 Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was based on John Waters‘ 1988 film of the same name, she plays ruthless former beauty queen Velma Von Tussle, a gimlet-eyed local television exec in charge of a 1960s pop music program that has a Jim Crow approach to Black music, allowing a once-a-month event called “Negro Day”. Pfeiffer gets a big sexy musical moment, Big, Blonde And Beautiful, trying to seduce Christopher Walken.
The Witches Of Eastwick (1987), one of her many “witchy” roles, this is a peculiar, unpredictable comedy based on a John Updike novel. Pfeiffer plays one of three single and discontented women (Cher and Susan Sarandon) in Eastwick, Rhode Island, who have their own little coven and who supernaturally summon a certain diabolic guy played with first-class eyebrow work by Jack Nicholson. The three women and Nicholson nearly cancel each other out, but it has a very strong performance from Pfeiffer.
Dangerous Liaisons (1988): Pfeiffer has the most difficult role in Christopher Hampton‘s elegant adaptation of Choderlos de Lacloss‘s 1782 novel of sexual intrigue, directed by Stephen Frears. She is stunning as the sensitive and incorruptible Madame de Tourvel, who has caught the attention the poor, predatory Vicomte de Valmont, played by to perfection by John Malkovich, who starts making his sinuous advances. From the beginning, Malkovich’s Valmont is pretty well fixed, as is the heartless Marquise de Merteuil, played by Glenn Close. But, Pfeiffer’s Madame de Tourvel has to change, gradually: she has to be credibly chaste and scandalized by Valmont, but must also plausibly thaw and glow and be amused and finally overwhelmed by his candid overtures. She simply has to fall in love with the jaded Valmont, and he with her. Pfeiffer is impeccably cast and gives a very well-judged performance, bringing an aristocratic air to the film. Tidbit: Malkovich and Pfeiffer had a little affair during filming.
Married To The Mob (1988) proves that Pfeiffer can play comedy and that her beautiful movie star face responds well to the thrill of delivering funny dialogue. An offbeat caper, Jonathan Demme uses the “mob-wife” scenario popular in the era. Pfeiffer playes Angela, the wife of Frank “Cucumber” De Marco (Alec Baldwin), and a stressed mother to their little boy. She is sick of hanging out with all the other mafia wives. When “Cucumber” is brutally whacked, she wants to get out of the whole business, with their son. She is a widow, but she wants to divorce the mob. Not so easy, especially when she appears to have fallen for a goofy FBI agent played by Matthew Modine. It is a truly great performance, helped by a smart, seductive script and a crazy cool soundtrack.
The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) features Pfeiffer’s terrific singing voice. Jeff and Beau Bridges are the Baker Boys, a cheesy piano lounge duo who decide they need a girl singer to freshen up their tired act. After a montage of hilarious auditions, Pfeiffer shows up late, and removing her gum, blows them away with her version of More Than You Know. Her character is Susie Diamond, a high-price escort who wants redemption via showbiz. She turns the duo into an emotionally fraught trio. It is hard to not fall totally in love with Pfeiffer in her showstoppingly slinky performance of Makin’ Whoopee, slinking all over the piano in a sexy red dress. Pfeiffer is in Marilyn Monroe territory with her open and warm-hearted performance.
In The Age of Innocence (1993), she more than holds her own opposite the mysterious, exquisite Daniel Day-Lewis in Edith Wharton‘s story of upper-class New York City society manners of the late 19th century, a world where feelings are coded and concealed. Impressively, Pfeiffer plays Ellen, a beautiful and sensitive woman who has returned to the city in despair, having escaped a disastrous marriage to an unscrupulous Polish aristocrat. She is a controversial and divisive figure in high society, where some are reluctant to accept her, but the lawyer Newland Archer (Day-Lewis) agrees to act on her behalf. Ellen is some sort of relative of his fiancée, May (Winona Ryder). When Newland falls for Ellen, he is forced to favor his erotic obsession with something as fanatically fetishistic as peeling off her glove and kissing the inside of her wrist. Pfeiffer becomes his amused confidante, at first, listening to his tortured confidences about how he does not wish to rush into marriage, but she is someone who has more of a knowledge of the human heart than Newland, who is a bit callow. Pfeiffer is every bit as Day-Lewis-ishly good an actor as Daniel Day-Lewis. She gives a more excellent and thoroughly grownup performance than any of his other co-stars have ever done. It’s my favorite Pfeiffer, my favorite Day-Lewis performance, and my favorite Martin Scorsese flick. Tidbit: Pfeiffer, Day-Lewis and Ryder all share a birthday.
I am a little juiced up for her next project: The First Lady, a television anthology series for Showtime, where she will be playing Betty Ford. What a cast: Viola Davis as Michelle Obama; Regina Taylor as Marian Shields Robinson, Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford; plus Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt.