Pfeiffer, Michelle (1957—)

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Pfeiffer, Michelle (1957—)

By 1999, Michelle Pfeiffer had been cited in People magazine as one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" six times. Three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Pfeiffer has proved herself as more than just a pretty face; her physical beauty is accompanied by her dramatic versatility as an actress. Though she began her career playing "dumb blondes," she soon won the chance to captivate audiences with her ability to portray both serious and comedic characters. She has received critical acclaim for such films as Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and box office success playing a former Marine turned high school teacher in Dangerous Minds (1995), yet rarely have her critical successes also been box office ones.

Born in Santa Ana, California, in 1957 (some sources also list 1958 and 1959), Michelle Pfeiffer was the second of four children by a heating and air conditioning contractor. Never considering herself pretty, Michelle says she was often bigger than all of the other girls. Nevertheless, encouraged by a high school teacher who told her that she had some talent, Michelle studied acting. Upon graduating from high school, she also studied court reporting at a junior college and simultaneously worked as a supermarket checker. Learning that talent scouts were often judges at beauty pageants, Michelle entered and won the "Miss Orange County" beauty pageant of 1978, and with it, an agent, who got her an episode of Fantasy Island and some television work. The next year she landed her first role in a TV series as a character simply known as "the Bombshell" in ABC's short-lived Delta House (1979), an Animal House derivation.

Pfeiffer won her first starring role in the feature film Grease II —the highly-anticipated 1982 sequel to the former box office hit. Though this film failed at the box office, Pfeiffer's performance lead to her first memorable role. As Al Pacino's drug-addicted and doomed wife, Pfeiffer generated considerable critical attention in the box office hit Scarface (1983). Though she later played a comedic variation on this role in Married to the Mob (1988), critics agree her breakthrough was in playing one of the women romanced by devilish Jack Nicholson in the 1987 hit, The Witches of Eastwick. Her dramatic portrayal of Madame De Tourvel, the tortured object of John Malkovich's sexual treachery in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), won her her first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Her subsequent role as world-weary but sexy lounge singer Suzie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys resulted in a second Oscar nomination in 1989, and she was acclaimed for her turn as the tormented Selena Kyle/Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992), for which she did her own stunts (except for the back-flips), going through some 60 copies of the Catwoman suit in the process. Pfeiffer won her third Oscar nomination—her second for Best Actress—for the little seen 1992 film, Love Field, a character study of a 1960s Dallas housewife who travels by bus to JFK's funeral. Pfeiffer played the part of the mysterious Countess Olenska, the woman who abandoned her philandering husband and fell in love with Daniel Day Lewis' Newland Archer, though they were forced to live a platonic relationship due to the repressive society of the times in Martin Scorsese's prestigious period piece Age of Innocence in 1993.

Pfeiffer produced Dangerous Minds through her company Via Rosa. A critical disaster, but box office hit, this film was the first on which Pfeiffer had acted as executive producer. Based on the true story of Lou Ann Johnson, an ex-Marine turned inner-city English teacher, the film cost approximately $24 million and grossed over $85 million. This was followed by her Up Close and Personal (1996) pairing with Robert Redford in the story of a journalist inspired by Jessica Savitch. Then she tried her hand at romantic comedy opposite George Clooney in One Fine Day (1996), and played the ghost of the title character in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996) written by her husband. A Thousand Acres —from Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize winning novel—followed in 1997, with Pfeiffer playing Rose, the angry sister struggling to expose the debilitating family secrets despite resistance from older sister Jessica Lange, and younger, Jennifer Jason Leigh. While Pfeiffer continued to act in other movies, she had further plans to produce and star in Faithfull, Privacy, The Ice Queen, Venus to the Hoop, and Waltz into Darkness.

Once married to thirtysomething's Peter Horton, Pfeiffer later married writer-producer David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope, Picket Fences, Ally McBeal). The couple has one adopted daughter and one birth son. Since starting her family in the early 1990s, Pfeiffer has limited her roles based on time spent away from her children. She has always considered the level of nudity involved in a role, considering herself "the biggest prude in the industry," and her interest level in a role. Pfeiffer has found that "unless I really had some kind of very strong connection with the character, it wasn't worth it. If you are playing a character that really energizes you, every day it gives you something. At the end of three or four months, when you might be fighting with the director, they may have completely rewritten the script underneath you, so many things can go wrong.… But if you have your character every day, it will get you through the movie.…" Pfeiffer also contends that despite reviews to the contrary, she has not improved as an actress since Grease II, but rather the quality of material she's being offered has gotten higher. "And I think I've worked with more and more interesting people and talented people, and I sometimes think that actors are as good as the material that they get to play. I mean, you can see somebody be really shitty in something and then they can turn around and work with a really good director and have a great part and good material and they can just soar."

—Rick Moody

Further Reading:

Corliss, Richard. "California Dream—Michelle Pfeiffer," Film Comment. Vol. 21, No. 2, 1985.

Crowther, Bruce. Michelle Pfeiffer: A Biography. London, R. Hale, 1994.