You don't have to hate Michelle Pfeiffer anymore because she's so beautiful. You can hate her because she appears to have it all -- family and career, fame and fortune.
The acclaimed actress married handsome, successful TV producer David E. Kelley, creator of television's "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope," and has two kids, Claudia Rose (2 1/2 ) and John Henry (just one year), three Oscar nominations -- "Dangerous Liaisons," "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "Love Field" -- and a steady perch on Hollywood's A-list of female talent.
"I have no complaints," Ms. Pfeiffer said recently in an interview to promote her new movie, the teacher-student drama "Dangerous Minds," which opens today. "I think my balance between career and family is a good one."
Shot last year while Ms. Pfeiffer was pregnant with John Henry, "Dangerous Minds" tells the true story of ex-Marine-turned-teacher LouAnne Johnson, whose book "My Posse Don't Do Homework" (the film's original title) chronicles Ms. Johnson's efforts to educate troubled, "at risk" high school kids in Belmont, Calif.
"Education has always been an important issue with me, and I was so impressed with this woman and her spirit," Ms. Pfeiffer said of Ms. Johnson, whose techniques ran the gamut from free meals as rewards to repeatedly telling and showing these kids her respect for them. "They need to be seen as individuals and reached as individuals; they can't be all homogenized into one person, and I think it takes people like LouAnne to recognize that.
"It's confusing to leave behind childhood and move into adulthood. There's absolutely no preparation for moving into the world. One of [Ms. Johnson's] biggest strengths as a teacher is she understands that you can't get anywhere until you get their attention -- and once you get their attention, to keep their attention."
Attention is something Ms. Pfeiffer certainly hasn't had trouble commanding from movie audiences, but she admits she was intimidated by the kids in this film, many of them culled from real life. "They were already a team by the time I showed up for rehearsals," she explained. "I walked into the real thing, and here I was, I had to be a teacher, and I didn't know how to teach. It was very much like this character feels. You can see my progression in the movie -- I get more comfortable. I wasn't acting that!"
Ms. Johnson's day-to-day battles in the classroom carefully weaved a quilt of mutual esteem. And it made a genuine difference in her students' lives. Ms. Pfeiffer, who grew up in Orange County, Calif., said she "really could have used a teacher like LouAnne," but she does credit her Fountain Valley High School drama teacher, Mrs. Cooney, for inspiration. The teacher told her: "I think you have some talent."
"She doesn't remember saying this, because somebody interviewed her a couple years ago. But I never forgot it," Ms. Pfeiffer said. "She had planted a seed, and I had confidence in one area. I honestly don't know, if she hadn't said that to me, if I would have become an actress."
Ms. Pfeiffer, now 37, is approaching the age range in which actresses find it difficult to find and to snag good parts. "I know that this is my window of opportunity, but thank God for people like Meryl Streep and Jessica [Lange] and Susan [Sarandon]. They still get to be sexy, yeah! There's hope for all of us. But things start to slow down."
For most leading ladies, part of maintaining that success is knowing how to smell a hit, but Ms. Pfeiffer's cachet has always been diversity -- from the self-actualized Mafia moll of "Married to the Mob" to the slinky Suzy Diamond in "The Fabulous Baker Boys" to the chirpy Texas housewife of "Love Field."
But be it Catwoman in "Batman Returns" or Countess Olenska in "The Age of Innocence," her involvement is based on the reward of the part, not the potential box office returns.
"I just really respond to characters, interesting characters," she said. "It doesn't even really matter to me much if I'm starring in it or not starring in it." She paused, smiled, then added, "Perhaps it should matter more."
It may still be debated in Hollywood whether Ms. Pfeiffer can "open" a film, i.e. guarantee opening weekend dollars. But after 15 years in the biz, one thing is certain, and "Dangerous Minds" director John N. Smith knows it: "There are very, very, very few people the camera loves the way the camera loves Michelle," he said. "It's incredible. You want to look at her, and she's fascinating."
Ms. Pfeiffer and Mr. Smith worked in tandem at every turn, honing the script, keeping the film focused and fighting to ensure that the story be told with grit, not glitz. For a Hollywood newcomer such as Mr. Smith, fresh from a career of low-budget Canadian films ("The Boys of St. Vincent"), it was the difference between having a creative partner and a mere spokeswoman.
"She's interested in what's going to make the best movie, so that was a real pleasure," Mr. Smith said. "From what I've heard, I was very lucky, because my star was totally dedicated, not someone who throws tantrums or needs to be treated specially."
If anybody could use special treatment in this world, though, it's a new mother. On one level, you know her children are Ms. Pfeiffer's favorite subject, if only because, when she's asked about her kids, her answers erupt without hesitation. So what did parenting teach her last week?
"Children will not be controlled," she offered, chuckling, making an unwitting parallel to the problems presented in "Dangerous Minds." "The worse mistake you can make with a 2-year-old is to get into a power struggle, because you will lose! Hands down! Don't even bother going there." She paused, then said, laughing: "So basically, you have to manipulate them!"