What Lies Beneath

At 49, the actress' beauty is awe-inspiring, but it's her talent that's a force to be reckoned with

Observations On Michelle Pfeiffer

August 05, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

I'M VERY SHALLOW AND EMPTY, AND HAVE no ideas and nothing interesting to say," a pale blonde (Shelley Hack) who is the image of WASP pulchritude informs Woody Allen in Annie Hall.

Michelle Pfeiffer is the prototype of the pale blonde, but she cuts against this insult to her type with every acting move she makes. The 49-year-old actress accepts her cover-girl looks while bringing her characters' hidden yearnings and confusions to the fore, and even their twisted villainy.

In 2001's White Oleander she tore into the role of an impossibly beautiful and talented artist-mother -- a mother as bad news and muse -- who sees her daughter only as an extension of herself and involves the girl in preparations for a murder. Pfeiffer was mesmerizing as a woman who hones herself into a stiletto.

Now she's on screen in Hairspray, as Velma, another rapacious mom -- a hilarious narcissist who never got over being named Miss Baltimore Crabs. And come Friday she's a grasping old hag in Stardust, willing to level all rivals to procure a fallen star that should restore her youthful luster.

"When she commits to playing a villain, there's some kind of fantastic relish and deliciousness," says Hairspray director Adam Shankman, who wanted her as Velma because of her portrayal of Catwoman in Batman Returns. "Both roles exist in a slightly altered universe, and she seems to work well in altered reality."

Tomorrow night, Pfeiffer is the focus of Inside the Actors Studio, the interview show in its 13th season on Bravo, and her delicate, sculpted features and strong, blue eyes add a spooky intensity to her role as interviewee.

During the audience question-and-answer session, one male acting student can't look at her without getting thrown by her beauty, and a female student responds with awe to the seemingly unknowable depths in her direct yet distant gaze. Seated on stage at the Schimmel Theatre at New York's Pace University, Pfeiffer is both magnetic and mysterious. She's simultaneously an object of desire and contemplation. She's erotic yet out of reach.

The show's host, James Lipton, rightly questions the conventional reluctance to think that an American screen siren could also be "a sensational actress."

Pfeiffer says she refused to play any role in which "the main purpose of the character was to be beautiful." In both Hairspray and Stardust she portrays beauties as comic tyrants -- and beauty itself as a kind of tyranny.

"People always underestimated Michelle in terms of her range early on," says Steve Kloves, the writer-director of The Fabulous Baker Boys, who called on her as she was coming off her harrowing tragic turn as the victimized beauty in 1988's Dangerous Liaisons. "There were people who were astounded when I cast her because they didn't think she was able to do humor. But she was always funny and adept at doing character humor."

After Baker Boys, she played a Soviet book editor in The Russia House, a woebegone waitress in Frankie and Johnny and an ex-Marine in the inner-city teacher film, Dangerous Minds. Who except the obtuse or willfully blind could deny her talent and seriousness?

In regular interviews, Pfeiffer can be flustered or elusive; a transcript of one for Married to the Mob is full of swallowed words and silences.

But Pfeiffer emerges from Lipton's actor-protective, informed kind of fawning as an engaging, touching figure. She's forthright about her youth in Orange County, Calif. She says she was "a questioning child" who challenged her strict father into disciplining her; a clever student who got good grades so she could hang out as a "surf bum"; a drifting teenager who landed on stage because drama counted as an English class, and she hated English.

Years of watching Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies on TV convinced her she could be an actress. She studied with renowned teachers Milton Katselas and Peggy Feury, and got the chance to shine in Grease 2 (1982). Co-starring this summer in Hairspray with John Travolta -- star of the first Grease movie -- brought her back into the public eye after several years out of it.

Pfeiffer describes a script as a "treasure map." She scours it for clues about her characters while seeking parallels to her own emotional life. Her ability to combine imagination and empathy marks her as a phenomenal performer. As the former call girl and aspiring singer Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys, she's rueful and sometimes even wistful about her previous profession. She's out-of-this-world about her new one. When Susie sings her audition piece, "More Than You Know," she taps the psychic pipeline of her judges. She's telling them that they need her more than they know.

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