The dazzling versatility of Michelle Pfeiffer

With roles as diverse as Catwoman and Madame de Tourvel, she has racked up one critically acclaimed performance after another.

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Just before the release of “Dangerous Liaisons” in 1988, a story made the rounds that the film’s director, Stephen Frears, had been reluctant to cast Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of Madame de Tourvel, the good woman whose life is destroyed when she loses her heart to the rake Valmont. Jonathan Demme, who had just finished filming “Married to the Mob” with Pfeiffer,
offered to screen a rough cut of that film for Frears, who was impressed with
Pfeiffer but still hesitant. “I just don’t know,” he reportedly said to Demme. “She’s going to be acting with John Malkovich and Glenn Close.” Demme
stifled the words that popped into his mind: “They’d better watch out then.”

No other actor of the past 10 to 12 years has come close to Michelle
Pfeiffer for sheer versatility. No two of the performances she has turned out — in
pictures as varied as “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys,”
“The Russia House,” “Batman Returns,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Love
Field,” “Tequila Sunrise” and the PBS adaptation of John O’Hara’s short
story “Natica Jackson” — are remotely alike. You can see Pfeiffer’s range in the innocuous Alan Alda comedy “Sweet Liberty” (1986), in which she plays a movie star acting in a revolutionary war epic. The first
time we see Pfeiffer she’s preparing to go before the cameras in period
character, all crinolines and hoop skirts and 18th century grace.
Seeing her out of costume two scenes later is an almost Brechtian shock.
Dressed in a baggy work shirt, her hair a cascading tangle, Pfeiffer puffs on a
cigarette while berating her agent over the phone. Everything about her
manner is sharp, abrupt, neurotically modern. Alda exclaims, “It’s like you’re two entirely different people.” Pfeiffer answers, “If all I could be was
two different people, I’d be out of business.”

And yet during the first years she was in movies, it was a crapshoot whether Pfeiffer would get to prove herself at all. She had to overcome the obstacle that all enormously attractive people face: the assumption that somebody that pretty just can’t act. She didn’t get much help from the
window-dressing roles that came her way (after she dropped out of college to
pursue an acting career) in movies like “Grease 2″ and “Into the Night,” or in the short-lived TV shows “Delta House” and “B.A.D. Cats.” It was easy to make the mistake of thinking this was just another pretty SoCal girl.
But there’s a weird reticence to those performances, a way in which Pfeiffer,
sensing the worthlessness of the material, is deliberately holding part of herself back. What’s lacking in her is exactly the thing most starlets are desperate to get across: a willingness to please.

She was window dressing again in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.” Playing a gangster’s moll, she makes a memorable entrance — dressed in a form-fitting
sequined gown, Pfeiffer slowly descends in a glass elevator. But this time the movie makes a place for her character’s trashy hauteur in the drop-dead
moment that follows: Pfeiffer sits bored in a Miami nightclub, not even bothering to hide her disdain, while her Mr. Big boyfriend (Robert Loggia)
gets indiscriminately drunk with a couple of associates. Having had enough of this boys’ show, Pfeiffer turns to Loggia and, in a voice that could freeze vodka, asks, “So, Frank, ya wanna dance, ya wanna sit there and have a heart
attack?” It’s a great tough-broad delivery, the kind that gets an actress noticed. But nobody could have guessed the range and the delicacy that were
still to come.

They didn’t quite come in the medieval fantasy “Ladyhawke” (1985) or the suburban fantasy “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987). But with 1987′s “Natica Jackson” and the 1-2-3 punch of the following year’s “Married to the Mob,” “Tequila
Sunrise” and “Dangerous Liaisons,” Pfeiffer established the distinctive mix
that has continued to define her performances.

The most characteristic quality of American acting has always been its
straightforwardness, a no-nonsense approach that reflects the slangy, casual,
wisecracking tone of American life. Pfeiffer has embraced that style while adding something it usually doesn’t admit: poeticism. As much as any
actress since Julie Christie or Judy Davis, Pfeiffer is attuned to evanescent shifts of mood. Her emotions seem visible, moving just below the surface of her luminous skin. To say she’s an actress made for movies isn’t merely to
say that her beauty invites the camera but that the camera magnifies the subtle interplay of emotions that, at almost any given moment, are
flickering over her face. That’s why she was so perfectly cast in “Dangerous Liaisons” as a woman whose place in society depends on her ability to
maintain a social mask, yet who is so guileless she can’t hide what she’s feeling. You could say the same thing of her role in Fred Schepisi’s 1990
“The Russia House” (which is looking more and more like one of the decade’s best films) as a Russian publishing assistant who gets involved in
smuggling a document detailing the Soviet Union’s nuclear capability to the West.
Even with Glasnost, Pfeiffer’s Katya is living in a society where she has to
constantly watch herself, maintaining a poker face during surreptitious coded phone conversations with her physicist lover (the
superb Klaus Maria Brandauer), and arresting the dreamy smile that comes over her when she hears a snatch of folk music in a restaurant and realizes
she’s giving something of herself away.

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And it’s tenderness that’s present beneath the surface of Pfeiffer’s more
hard-boiled roles. Like nobody else, Pfeiffer can play tough and utterly
vulnerable, as in the role of Susie Diamond, the professional escort
turned lounge singer in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989). In that film,
Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges act out the most unyielding love duet imaginable.
They’re two people who are attracted to each other yet refuse to budge
an inch. Each time they settle into the warm bath of seduction, one or both
of them douse the mood in cold water. There’s a sentimental side to “The
Fabulous Baker Boys” that’s in tune with the romantic self-pity of the
standards that underscore the action. But Pfeiffer has a way of cutting
through that, of making the daggers she aims hit their targets. The morning
after she and Bridges first sleep together, she deadpans, “Don’t worry … your high-school graduation ring is safe.” The performance might seem all edges if it weren’t for the way Pfeiffer floods the aftermath of those
moments with regret. The irony of Susie Diamond is that the protective
armor she erects only makes it easier for her to beat herself up.

Perhaps the most impressive duet of Pfeiffer’s career is the one she plays
with Michael Keaton in “Batman Returns” (1992). When director Tim
Burton eschews the folderol that clutters the film and focuses in on these
two, he approaches the level of “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Superman II,” films that offer the peculiarly moving spectacle of seeing comic-book
characters inhabited by human-scale emotions. Certainly, Selina Kyle, the
shy-mouse secretary who finds the second of her nine lives as Catwoman, is
the wildest bit of acting Pfeiffer’s ever done. Using a timid little voice in her
first scenes, and with her hair as scattered as her stray thoughts, Pfeiffer
heads right for caricature while maintaining a keening edge of emotional
desperation beneath. One look at Selina’s pink apartment, cluttered up with
a child’s stuffed animals and doll houses, tells you all you need to know
about the character. When she’s outfitted as the latex avenger Catwoman,
everything in Pfeiffer’s portrayal changes, from the
insinuating, slow-as-molasses stride she employs to the deep
slow-as-molasses voice that might be coming out of Tallulah Bankhead. As
Selina falls in love with Bruce Wayne and their secret identities get in the
way, Pfeiffer’s performance grows even more neurotically lyrical, until she
seems to be skipping along the knife’s edge that separates fantasy from total
emotional disintegration.

As Pfeiffer kept racking up one critically acclaimed performance after
another, mostly in films that weren’t hits, she seemed to be in the same
position as the ’30s Hollywood starlet she played in “Natica Jackson.” In one
scene, the studio head complains that Natica “can’t carry a picture by
herself,” while her agent counters, “She walks off with every picture she’s
in and you know it.” The debate about Pfeiffer was whether she had
the star power to “open” a movie without the benefit of a famous male
co-star. (Articles that attempted to address just how big a star Pfeiffer was felt
duty bound to mention that she’d turned down both “The Silence of the
Lambs” and “Thelma and Louise,” as if saying no to those stinkers were
proof of her bad judgment.) The argument wasn’t settled until the
urban-school melodrama “Dangerous Minds” turned out to be a surprise hit
in the summer of 1995. But Pfeiffer continued to turn out astonishing
performances, as she had in 1992′s “Love Field,” a slickly crafted melodrama
about a Dallas housewife who runs away from her husband to take a
Greyhound north for JFK’s funeral. Pfeiffer pulls off an amazing
transformation in the film, showing us how a woman who at first seems as
silly as her peroxided puff of hair emerges from her fantasies to construct a
real life for herself. And as a waitress who surrenders to the persistent
courtship of a short-order cook (a rather creepy Al Pacino) in “Frankie and
Johnny” (1991), Pfeiffer gave what may be her best performance to date.

Her casting in that film set off a brouhaha, however. The material, adapted by Terrence
McNally from his play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” is
squarely in the pathos-of-the-little-people mode (like Paddy Chayefsky’s
“Marty”). Kathy Bates had played the part onstage, and Pfeiffer’s casting
unleashed the usual blather about the unfair advantage beauty has in the
movies. But if you listened to the complaints, which ran along the lines of
“Michelle Pfeiffer is too beautiful to be a waitress,” you had to question the
assumptions beneath them. Were those people saying that working-class
women are ugly, or were they just falling back on the old canard that actors
can’t believably play ordinary people? As Frankie, Pfeiffer wears little
make-up, has circles under her eyes and lets her hair go slack and dull. But
she isn’t playing the actress’s game of courting praise by drabbing herself
down. Frankie’s weariness comes from the inside, from too many identical
days of slinging hash and too many nights with louses. In a sense, Pfeiffer’s
beauty works so well because, for Frankie, it’s beside the point; she’s too
slugged out by life to take notice of herself. The resistance she puts up to
Pacino’s Johnny may be the spikiest acting Pfeiffer’s done, and it undercuts
the play’s simple-minded premise that heartbreak has caused Frankie
to hide from the adventure of life. Pfeiffer plays Frankie as a woman
stubborn enough to insist on making her own decisions, sick of having to
live up to other people’s expectations. Pfeiffer reverses the power structure
of the play so that by the time she yields to Pacino, it’s entirely on Her terms.
She puts real grit in McNally’s phony symphony of the big city, an edge that
the writer’s well-made play design can’t smooth down.

It’s hard not to feel that, in the last few years, Pfeiffer has been in something
of a holding pattern. Her movie choices seem less fortuitous (“Wolf,” “To Gillian on her 37th Birthday,” “Up Close and Personal,”), and though she’s often been fine in them, they don’t seem to inspire her. It may be that her attention is elsewhere — perhaps in raising her
two children, an adopted daughter and a younger son from her marriage to
producer David E. Kelley (“The Practice,” “Ally McBeal”). Pfeiffer has voiced her reluctance to do
any movies whose production would take her away from her children. And
it may be that she is trying to reflect her experience as a mother with parts
like “One Fine Day,” “A Thousand Acres” and this year’s “The Deep End of the Ocean.” The trouble is that mom roles, by definition, tend toward the
soft and sexless (some of the exceptions being Diane Keaton in “Shoot the
Moon,” Andie McDowell in “Unstrung Heroes” and Allison Steadman in
“Life Is Sweet”), and the roles Pfeiffer is choosing leave no place for either
her toughness or her lyricism.

Critics and feminists have been quick to
complain that in the movies, women past 40 are no longer viewed
sexually. Part of that problem is the virtuous roles that are touted
for actresses past 40, washed-out domestic bits that are supposed to “address
the concerns of real women” or some such thing (and are often from
bestsellers written by women, as in the case of “A Thousand Acres” and
“The Deep End of the Ocean”); overtly sexual roles are considered
demeaning or inappropriate. The luxuriance Pfeiffer brings to the fairy
queen Titania in Michael Hoffman’s mucked-up new film of “A
Midsummer Night’s Dream”
is a step in the right direction. But why does
playing your age too often mean drabbing yourself down? And where does
that leave those actresses, like Michelle Pfeiffer, whose sexuality is inseparable from their
intelligence and their excitement?

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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