I had a big mouth, and I used to mouth off to my mother all the time. But I'd make sure my father wasn't in earshot, because he'd let me have it. I was very strong-willed, very stubborn, and fairly dramatic, I guess. I remember my mother calling me a drama queen when I would be carrying on: 'Here's my little actress.' And I was a real tomboy. I wasn't a terribly feminine little girl. I never thought I was attractive to boys; I remember when the first boy liked me, I couldn't believe it. All the little girls with ringlets and crinoline dresses were the ones the boys liked. I was always beating them up — why should they like me? I was always the biggest girl in the class, and if somebody wanted someone beaten up, they'd come and get me. I was the school bully. No wonder I played Catwoman. It all comes full circle.
The description of the character is that Frankie is an attractive woman if she'd just put a little effort into how she looks. So that's basically the way I played her. I consider myself an attractive woman, and I can be not-so-great-looking if I don't put effort into how I look. But more importantly, the core of the character was someone who had given up on love, and that could be any age, any size, any form of beauty. That could be anybody.
In response to criticism that she was too beautiful to play a lonely waitress in Frankie and Johnny, quoted in Pfeiffer: Beyond the Age of Innocence by Thompson, p. 223
I used to stay up very late at night, much later than I probably should have for such a youngster, and I used to watch very old black-and-white movies with, you know, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but I remember watching them thinking 'I could do that'... Even though I wasn't inclined at all to actually become an actress. I mean, that wasn't something that was... in the stars for me, no pun intended.
So I do the test, and we do this scene, and it's the scene at the end where I throw dishes, and so I threw some dishes... and 'Cut!'... And I look around, and there's blood everywhere, because I broke a plate or something, and they're all checking me — 'Oh my God, she cut herself' — and couldn't find any cut, and then I look, and I realise. I see Al's hand is bleeding. And I cut Al Pacino, in my screen test. I think then he liked me. I think that was actually the turning point.
It's usually just awkward. It's not terribly romantic or steamy. Sometimes people's wives show up — "Hey, how you doing?"… I had a wedding scene with someone once, and the girlfriend showed up in a white dress...
That would have to be the F-word. Do you want me to say it? It's so descriptive, it can be used in so many ways — it can be used lovingly, it can be used in the most hateful — it's just very versatile... and you know, it's just, sometimes no other word will do.
I always look at it as — it's like a treasure map, and each little detail in it, you sort of look at it for information and it points you in the right direction, to tell you where you need to go. You start out with a few choices, obviously — I need to learn the clarinet or I need to learn the cello, or I need to learn how to stay underwater without panicking — but it is like painting in a way, that at a certain point, the painting begins to tell you what to do. And with acting, it's the same — with acting in film, anyway — at a certain point then, what you've already put on screen begins to dictate to you where you need to go, and then it just starts to create itself in a way. And what I try to do is find a strand of myself, as different as I might feel the character is from me, and as removed as it is, I always try to find that one part of me. And then you kind of build on to that, because it's a way to keep you connected. And you never want to lose that connection. There's always some sort of parallel that's going on in my own life, and so you can use it to, you know, bring closure, perhaps, to certain things that you haven't. A healing, a reconnection. And I believe in that. I believe in that.
'She's the blonde in Scarface,' they say to me about Michelle Pfeiffer. Now her I know. She made this year's great movie entrance, descending, back to camera, in the glass elevator of a drug czar's Florida mansion, wearing a green satin evening dress that seemed about to fall off her. Rarely in a movie have I seen an actress so perfectly groomed, so coolly elegant. There hasn't been a platinum-blonde star for a long time, and I waited, fascinated, to meet her. She is on the verge of stardom. In the parlance of the industry, she is hot. She is appearing in one hot movie, has another coming out, and others await only her availability to begin shooting. 'Hello,' she said, when she arrived. 'Hello,' I replied, trying to zero in on the unfamiliar face... and then it registered: Michelle Pfeiffer is, alas, no longer blonde. She became blonde for the role. Nor is she a fashion plate. In fact, she has absolutely no interest in fashion or chic. Like Garbo, who cared nothing for such trappings either, she took on the accoutrements that went along with the part, so convincingly that I had assumed the end product was the starting point — the reason she had been cast in the first place.
I think that, more than any other "beautiful actress," Michelle has been handicapped by her appearance. She has such an overwhelming face that people have tended to cast her because of the way she looks... I have a feeling she's been in touch with her gift all along, and that she's exhibited enormous patience with those of us who tend to focus first on how gorgeous she is.
Basically, she's a character actress... I think that's a strength. She's someone who will endure because she'll find characters to play. And she happens also to be a leading-lady type, which is, I guess, glamorous. She has both... I mean, is someone doing what they should be doing? That's the question.
I didn't recognize her from one film to the next. I wasn't really looking at Michelle Pfeiffer; I was looking at the character in the movie. The thing that really clinched it was Married to the Mob. She had a kind of honesty in the character, and she had just the right amount of humor. She wasn't putting down the character; she wasn't making a value judgment on the character. She really was like the people I grew up with. The characters were Italians from Long Island, and here was an actress of a different type, different background, coming in and making me believe totally. That really made me sit up and take note. And then, when Dangerous Liaisons came out, I thought, 'She's the best we have.'
She was kind of shy, and halfway through the year, in fact, it was the end of the second semester where the other kids had been doing the debating and making the fiery speeches and stuff, Michelle hadn't volunteered very much. But then we did the Harry Truman trial, where they bring in witnesses. The players had to get some other kids to participate, so a little peer pressure. Michelle ended up being one of the victims of the bomb. She gets on the stand, and she had dressed herself up as a victim and had gauze and everything. She starts to talk, and she starts crying. You ever been in a play or something where you feel kind of uncomfortable that all of a sudden someone's doing something so emotional you don't know what to do? She does that to the class. And they're looking, and they can't figure out. What the hell is she doing? She hasn't been like this all year. It was just a stunning performance. And we thought, God, she really is a victim of the bomb. To the end of the year, we had her take on some more responsibility. But that was the first little bit of acting.
She had to have been a couple of years out of high school when I met her in Vons (it's a clothing store now) and I was only in El Toro by chance. When I saw her at the supermarket, there was a difference. Something had happened in there. I don't know if it's because she tried some other things. She had this steely look of determination. She looked at me, and she says, 'I'm gonna be an actress.' And I remember telling her, 'Now, Michelle, a lot of people have agents and wanna be an actress and...' And, 'No, no.' She told me there was this movie with Tony Danza, The Hollywood Knights. She was just trying out for it, and she thought she might have a chance for it. I give her that look, 'Now, Michelle.' I don't know. You'll see a kid coming through that'll tell you, 'I'm going to be a doctor.' They're just hell bent, they're sure that's what they're going to do. Nothing stops them from doing it. And some kids do that. And then I get a call, 'Hey, you gonna be in your room today?' And they come back, and they've just gotten their law degree from Harvard or something. And it's usually one of those kids who has that look. And she had that look... I was a single parent, and I was ironing at two o'clock in the morning. That's when I do my ironing and catch my breath. This movie comes on, The Hollywood Knights, and I'm thinking, trying to figure out where I heard that name. And I'm watching, and then Tony Danza and his girlfriend come by. And you do a double take. I go, 'Michelle?' Well, she got the part. I couldn't believe it. I'm thinking I got a student who got a role in a movie. Good for you. I'm watching it. You know, you're kind of proud of her. And there she is. It was a little role but she was good in it.
I showed Stephen [Frears] a couple of reels of Married when he was considering Michelle for Liaisons. And he was clearly under her spell. But maybe he hesitated for an instant. He said, 'You know, she's going to be out there with John Malkovich and Glenn Close.' And I thought but didn't say, 'They'd better watch out then.'
She was very, very particular about the visual aspects of what we were doing. After seeing the first rushes of film, she requested that her costumes be made less splendid. In fact, we reduced things. But it also had to do with the fact that it's Michelle Pfeiffer's face. She was so beautiful that they had to tone down the glories of the gowns to make her less stunning.
There was a pronunciation and approach that seemed Dylan-influenced. Vowels were swallowed, word endings were given short or no shrift. When we worked, it almost became a joke with us that I was constantly reminding her to say the consonants as well as the vowels... And Michelle, must you continue to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day?... I can swear that every single note in that movie was hers. Seeing Michelle up there was like watching myself or my daughter. I was so nervous. I wanted her to be so good. I didn't want to feel as if I'd let her down.
She became a singer, and it was an extraordinary kind of example — graphic example — of what a good actor can really do, you know. She spent a lot of research time, she went around and heard singers and studied what they did. Everything from, of course, all the body language and all of that stuff — but vocally, we went in the studio and she sang a version of My Funny Valentine that, I mean... it killed me.
A lot of times I looked into the camera and said, 'Too pretty.' We changed the lighting and hair. You know, she was hired originally in the town as a beautiful girl, but she's learned how to act. She's an actress of unlimited range. She works incredibly hard — the body language, the hair, the voice. She's not bothered by movie star stuff — whether she has a rug in her trailer or not. She doesn't care.
Alda's best-written character in the movie probably is Faith Healy, the sexy actress played by Pfeiffer. Her performance uses some wonderfully subtle touches, as she moves back and forth between her historical character and her distinctly more cynical modern one.
Michelle Pfeiffer has the pivotal role of the movie and perhaps of her career as Angela de Marco, the unhappy missus of Frankie (The Cucumber). Shedding her WASP identity completely, Pfeiffer becomes the Italian princess, right down to the Long Island accent. Angela is an updated suburban moll, a gum-popper with press-on nails and lots of sweaters applique'd with feathers. She looks like a caricature, but there's anguish under all that mascara... This is her second movie marriage to the mob. As the wife in Scarface, she was the Latino mobster's WASP ornament, cold, trapped and tragic. As the Cucumber's widow, she's a deft comedian instead. It's her movie, and she graces it.
For Pfeiffer, in a year that has seen her in varied assignments such as Married to the Mob and Tequila Sunrise, the movie is more evidence of her versatility. She is good when she is innocent and superb when she is guilty.
This is one of the movies they will use as a document, years from now, when they begin to trace the steps by which Pfeiffer became a great star. I cannot claim that I spotted her unique screen presence in her first movie, which, I think, was Grease 2, but certainly by the time she made Ladyhawke and Tequila Sunrise and Dangerous Liaisons and Married to the Mob, something was going on. This is the movie of her flowering — not just as a beautiful woman, but as an actress with the ability to make you care about her, to make you feel what she feels. All of those qualities are here in this movie, and so is the "Makin' Whoopee" number, which I can only praise by adding it to a short list: whatever she's doing while she performs that song isn't merely singing; it's whatever Rita Hayworth did in Gilda and Marilyn Monroe did in Some Like It Hot, and I didn't want her to stop.
Pfeiffer gives us the whole woman. Her triumph goes beyond her facility with the Russian accent; other actresses could have done that. She's great at playing contradictions, at being tough yet yielding, cloaked yet open, direct yet oblique. What's she's playing, we suspect, is the great Russian game of hide-and-seek. But Pfeiffer gives it a personal dimension. Katya holds herself in check, but her wariness, one senses, is as much personal as it is cultural -- the result, perhaps, of her own secret wounds. It's one of the year's most full-blooded performances.
Pfeiffer's characterization of Lurene is a marvel, but by now that is only to be expected. Watching her discover new facets of her talent is one of the real pleasures of going to the movies these days... Pfeiffer has become one of those transparent actors, a performer who allows us direct access to her character's thoughts and feelings. This character is simply another in her wide-ranging gallery of vivid, complex women. She's fully alive up there on the screen: a grounded angel, tarnished, funny and exquisitely soulful, even when the movie is dead.
For any actress to make the transition from Catwoman to Ellen Olenska would be impressive, and that Pfeiffer succeeds here as she did in her last film is the most conclusive proof yet of her widening talents.