“Seriously?” asked the celebrated, thrice-Oscar-nominated actress of an overstepping journalist.
It was April 2018 and Michelle Pfeiffer was sitting on the stage of the Beacon Theatre beside director Brian De Palma and actor Al Pacino, her collaborators on the controversial gangster classic Scarface. And to the apt mystification of actress and onlookers alike, the moderator of the event, Jesse Kornbluth, wanted to know what Pfeiffer weighed in 1983.
Pfeiffer had reunited with De Palma and Pacino at that year’s Tribeca Film Festival for the 35th anniversary of the movie that propelled her to multi-million-dollar-paycheck, magazine-covering movie stardom. Pfeiffer was so intent on scoring the supporting role of Elvira Hancock—the abrasive, indolent, fashion-forward wife of Pacino’s vicious drug kingpin Tony Montana—that the then-little-known actress paid her own airfare from New York to Los Angeles to audition. The actress, who the year prior had tackled her first lead role in the initially laughed-off but since-reevaluated Grease 2, beat out peers like Sharon Stone, Sigourney Weaver, and Glenn Close (Pacino’s preferred choice) for the part that would make her an era-defining icon, emulated by the likes of Rihanna (who allegedly wanted to play Elvira in an aborted reboot) for decades to come.
Between Elvira’s backless dresses, bobbed hair, and languid strut, it’s no wonder that Pfeiffer’s performance is mostly recalled for its surface appearances. But what lingers beyond the clothes and cosmetics is Elvira’s face, emaciated from years of drug abuse and self-starvation, flushing with hurt as she stands alone after being publicly assaulted and humiliated by Tony in a crowded restaurant, realizing her loveless marriage to him is finally over and she is the only one adult enough to accept it. As Elvira unleashes a flood of clipped and cutting insults at her husband, Pfeiffer’s tightly controlled fury, barely able to mask her character’s despair, packs a greater punch than Pacino’s swaggering, blustering brownface routine. The raw emotional honesty of Pfeiffer’s acting is what gives the character depth and dynamism, what makes her far more than a walking mannequin.
Pfeiffer’s performances have always contained this duality between stunning surfaces and the dense interiority that only the greatest screen actors can map out across spliced frames. What exactly is it about Pfeiffer, an untrained and elusive actor who’s long shunned the glare of publicity all movie stars must endure and whose incurable perfectionism has often made her one of her fiercest critics, that inspires such fascination and devotion in film lovers? In French Exit, Pfeiffer returns with her most conspicuous role in years as Frances Price, an acerbic Manhattan socialite who flees one metropolis for another with her devoted son (Lucas Hedges). But the key to Pfeiffer’s singular skill lies elsewhere, beyond the forced quirk of this gabby Parisian comedy full of bon mots that would sound stale in a late Woody Allen movie.
After years of child-rearing and supporting parts that have displaced her from the Hollywood limelight she dominated not so long ago, Pfeiffer remains nothing less than an actress for the ages, one whose peak performances reveal a captivating, camera-ready quality that is easy to dismiss under the banner of beauty. Though Pfeiffer is hardly the first female film star to receive condescension for her pageant-ready good looks—she placed sixth in the 1978 Miss California competition—it’s consistently made her unfair game for cynical criticisms and patronizing misconceptions.
When Pfeiffer was notoriously cast as a battered, plain Jane diner waitress in Garry Marshall’s 1991 romantic comedy Frankie and Johnny, many cried foul—including Kathy Bates, who originated the role of Frankie off-Broadway in Terrence McNally’s play, a romance about two everyday people overcoming their dark histories to connect and commit to their love. Yet Pfeiffer delivered what is arguably her greatest performance in Marshall’s underrated gem, ineffably and gently affecting in every moment. As her believably nerve-bruised Frankie slowly opens up a heart she thought was nailed shut, Pfeiffer singlehandedly renders moot the mentality that physical beauty somehow precludes its possessors from domestic abuse and dead-end jobs.
Pfeiffer’s best performances encourage viewers to look harder and think deeper, and she has routinely elevated underwritten parts and studio-made productions that are beneath her talents. She dignified the terrorized and unraveling housewife at the center of Robert Zemeckis’ delightfully absurd horror blockbuster What Lies Beneath (2000) and the guileless, well-intentioned Texan hairdresser who falls for a Black man at the height of the civil rights movement in 1992’s Love Field. Pfeiffer received the last of her three Oscar nominations for the latter performance, eloquently and empathically underplaying a broadly written ditz another star might have simply caricatured. The actress scorches through A Thousand Acres (1997) as a cancer-stricken farmwife rebelling against the evils of patriarchy with a fiery-eyed ferocity that later flourished in 2002’s White Oleander. Playing an incarcerated artist bent on maintaining control of her teenage daughter, Pfeiffer intimidated scene partners into near-total submission, just as she did to Jennifer Lawrence with her few indelible scenes as a libidinous, uninvited houseguest in mother! (2017).
These are highly dissimilar characters united by Pfeiffer’s startling and malleable intensity. It’s what Pauline Kael detected when she watched Pfeiffer as a home-wrecking starlet in PBS’s Tales from the Hollywood Hills: Natica Jackson (1987) and subsequently urged director Stephen Frears to replace Kelly McGillis with Pfeiffer as the seduced and abandoned Madame de Tourvel in his 1988 Dangerous Liaisons; Pfeiffer’s tragic, lachrymose turn in Frears’ searing 18th-century drama ultimately netted the actress her first Oscar nomination. It’s what Jonathan Demme, who directed Pfeiffer to screwball perfection as a liberated mafia widow in that same year’s Married to the Mob, admired when he asked her to play FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, only to be turned down by Pfeiffer because the grisly material made her squeamish.
Like many a star, Pfeiffer is almost as famous for the roles she nearly played at the height of her stardom as the ones she did. Instead of starring in Pretty Woman, Basic Instinct, and Thelma & Louise––the lattermost of which she cannot bring herself to watch out of disappointment––Pfeiffer was nonetheless giving some of her most acclaimed and essential performances. Her leather-bound Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) is perhaps even more idolized than Scarface’s Elvira, a performance remembered for its sinuous physicality and kinky impudence. But when Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle takes a spin on the dance floor with Michael Keaton’s de-caped crusader, each deceiving the other, the actress raises the stakes of this comic book lark, drawing palpable romance into the picture through the melodramatic conviction of her performance.
Even more devastating is her Ellen Olenska, the disgraced countess besotted with a man she cannot have, in Martin Scorsese’s 1993 period drama The Age of Innocence. Pfeiffer’s pained face, blue eyes bearing the bright clarity of stained glass, and self-conscious delicacy of gesture convey the emotional toll of abiding by the decorum and mores of a constrictive society at the expense of one’s own happiness. Pfeiffer egregiously lost an easy Oscar years earlier to Driving Miss Daisy’s sentimental favorite Jessica Tandy, despite claiming every major critics’ prize for playing escort-turned-lounge-singer Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). Slinking on the piano in a backless red dress while purring “Makin’ Whoopee” remains one of the more memorable scenes of Pfeiffer’s career, but the heart of the performance is the character’s wounded pride as she defends her years of sex work against the heartless derision of Jeff Bridges’ piano man, for whom she croons and cares deeply. Traversing the realist, fantastical, and historical in three films, Pfeiffer is just as plausible trilling into Suzie’s mic as she is cracking Catwoman’s whip as she is waving the Countess’ fan across her tell-tale face because she has connected with these characters at their soulful cores.
There is too little opportunity for Pfeiffer to dig deep in French Exit, adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his 2018 novel. Whatever comedic spark DeWitt’s story possessed on the page is lost in Jacobs’ woefully lethargic film, which restricts Pfeiffer from expressing the reservoir of complex feeling that seems to excite her most as a performer. Instead she is pushed into reiterating the same notes of imperiousness, mordancy, and acrimony from opening scene to last, preempted from deepening the character beyond the unfeeling hauteur of her first impression. Pfeiffer can still slice glass with one withering look and cut a magnetic figure that briefly vitalizes a flatlining scene. But comic badinage is not her forte. And that’s okay. Perhaps we overrate versatility at the expense of the emotional profundity Pfeiffer seems to innately access and which allows her to get inside the conflicted hearts of her hurting characters. Frances is defined by her acerbic nonchalance, but the most affecting Pfeiffer characters cannot help but care—sometimes hotly, sometimes silently, always deeply—in spite of their best efforts to submerge their concerns beneath cool facades. Her best scene in French Exit is thus her most nakedly emotional, a pledge of eternal devotion delivered directly to her adolescent son as she drives him away from boarding school, turning him into a lifelong conspirator through the powerful current of her intense sincerity.
It is a sad truth that Hollywood, for which Pfeiffer has done the lion’s share of her work, simply doesn’t know what to do with women over 50 who aren’t named Meryl Streep. But there is promise in independent cinema, should Pfeiffer choose to work there more steadily. Pfeiffer hit a new career high in Andrew Dosunmu’s Where Is Kyra?, a searing character study that the actress—who has recently embraced the spotlight if only to publicize her successful perfume line Henry Rose—seemingly refused to promote upon its micro-release in 2018. After years of diverting, albeit unchallenging turns in studio amusements like Hairspray, Stardust, and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Pfeiffer lent her talents to an interesting, up-and-coming filmmaker, whose every formal choice is centered around his leading lady, and impressed mightily as a Brooklyn woman pushed to criminal ends by economic desperation. Shot in close-up with rapt, lingering attentiveness by Bradford Young, Pfeiffer found the ungovernable maelstrom of thought and feeling in her highly disciplined stillness, as she has done time and again, charisma undimmed.
In her finest performances, Pfeiffer has proven herself an actor uniquely gifted at expressing all that language cannot capture, excavating the ambivalent hearts of so many women. She makes you wonder what secrets her characters are bent on keeping, what past pains they are struggling and failing to forget and move past. Her mode of acting is rooted in the body, though not in the lurid way suggested by that sexist Scarface incident. In front of the camera, Pfeiffer shows us all the body can conceal and reveal about a human life. With any luck (and the right collaborators) Pfeiffer may still have a great deal left to show us—not only about who we are, but what she alone is capable of expressing.