Friday, April 28, 2006

Pfeiffer Forever

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Libby Gelman Waxner, the humor columnist for Premiere once remarked that Michelle Pfeiffer was 'what God had in mind for humanity before the blueprints got all dusty and smudged in the glove compartment'. I've come to cherish such old school hosannas to her cinematic grandeur like they were ancient scripture. Since we don't see much of her these days, her name spoken aloud often registers as a surprise. I hear the name with its own exclamation point. In last year's brilliant Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man there's a scene in which Timothy Treadwell, the film's "star" of sorts, talks about the bears and their mating rituals. He calls the most desired female 'the Michelle Pfeiffer of grizzly bears.' For such a supposedly ideal human specimen, this was not the first time Pfeiffer was mistaken for an animal.

The Ferocity of Pfeiffer

This not-quite-human effect started with Ladyhawke in 1985. Prior to that she ran the risk of being an interchangeable member of Hollywood's blonde beauty pack (infinite in number they are). There was the gum chomping Pink Lady of Grease 2 and the angry icy Elvira from Scarface but she was still just an actress... merely human. She was not yet "PFEIFFER" the star. It would take this mystical role in Ladyhawke as Isabeau, a woman who was also a bird, and simple aging to make her beauty truly alien. Once the softness of youth faded you imagine her onscreen lovers could cut themselves on the browline or cheekbone. The features slowly starting revealing their exquisite if angular architecture. She is rumored to have landed the Isabeau part after a comedic audition in which she imitated our feathered friends. But Catwoman aside, it's not usually a laughing matter when Pfeiffer lets her inner animal roar.

It wasn't even a laughing matter in Ladyhawke. The comedy was delivered by the headlining star Matthew Broderick (intentionally) and its anachronistic synthesized rock score (unintentionally). Pfeiffer's work was all serious "I am sorrow" suffering. She doesn't go for laughs, she goes for the jugular. Not just as an actor but as a budding star. They say that many great stars understand intuitively their rapport with the camera. She must have known then, when she turned to the camera in the moonlight that black hood framing her otherworldly beauty, what a gift the film and the character were to her. Beautiful. Tragic. Not entirely human. The studio would wisely lift the image for the movie's poster. Broderick was the marketable star but Pfeiffer as a legendary face was the great takeaway of the film.

The Isabeau performance isn't avian in shape the way her later correlative woman/animal work was in Batman Returns, when she gave in completely to the stylization. But a nonhuman or animalistic detail finds its way into many performances. Is it the way her tongue sometimes lifts tantalizingly up, too visible in her mouth --not a cheap come hither, lip-licking starlet movement but just something her mouth does, opening with anticipation. Perhaps she's waiting to be fed? But mostly I see the animal in her eyes. Watch any given film and you'll see it. They move too quickly surveying danger or registering movement or, more distinctly, they refuse to move at all. It's in those killer shots where she holds her gaze a beat or two too long on a co-star that you begin to wonder. What is the person is to her? Friend? Lover? (gulp) Prey?

All of these fascinating alien or animal intensities are in full bloom in White Oleander (2002), which I consider among her very strongest work. In an excellent review in Salon, Stephanie Zacharek wrote:
"Ingrid, as Pfeiffer plays her, has both the look and composure of a self-possessed lizard: Her eyes, which we normally know to be a dazzling blue, are icy and cold here, and you could probably count the number of times she blinks during the whole movie."
I haven't counted Stephanie, but I trust that the number is very small. If Pfeiffer had been any less beautiful as a woman, her intensity as an actor would have scared audiences away long ago.

Bird. Deer. Reptile. Wolf. Cat

Comparing Pfeiffer to a reptile was not my idea but I was glad to hear someone else bear witness to her animal within. Back in Ladyhawke Rutger Hauer's man/wolf initally reads as the more imposing creature but it's Pfeiffer's woman/bird that gets scarier with the running time. See that unwaveringly ferocious contempt with which Isabeau locks her gaze on the bishop late in the film. One senses immediately that were this the bird and not the woman standing before him, he would already be missing his eyes.

From her breakthrough days as a cursed bird Pfeiffer's animal instints continue. You could claim the next incarnation as that startled frozen deer in Dangerous Liaisons but for this movie watcher, it's in the area of predator not prey where Pfeiffer comes alive. There's an extra kick to her work as Isabeau and Ingrid and Catwoman or any of her angry but more recognizably human characters that you don't get her in lighter or passive fare. It's her savagery peaking through. Maybe she played the wrong role in Liaisons. It's amazing when you stop to look over Pfeiffer's gallery of characters, that Merteuil and Valmont even made it to the final reel, let alone devoured her.

I get angry whenever watching Wolf that the film is tricked up with special effects to convey the lycanthrophe within. When that film's trailer first appeared in 1994 the marketing hook was all about winkily joking with the audience about the familiarity of Jack Nicholson as a beast, a tactic that also worked wonders back when the two stars first teamed for The Witches of Eastwick. In the trailer Pfeiffer is merely seen slumbering enticingly in a nightgown. I never bought that Sleeping Beauty routine for a second. I knew the film would contain more than one beast. And sure enough, there she was in the film haughty, hostile, bitter and even in the throes of passion, no schoolgirl pushover. At the end of that film after her character Laura has been bitten by a werewolf and her course is set, they throw yellow contacts on this goddesses baby blues. It's a redundant move. You've always been able to see the beast within.

It's for all of these reasons perhaps that Catwoman is so identifiable as a career peak. Never mind that that part was not originally hers (Annette Bening backed out when she became pregnant), it's a perfect fusion of actress and material and timing. She's fully in command of all of the tools in the actors arsenal, careful character modulation, comedic timing, physical and vocal control, ferocious nerve (try doing this without looking foolish. I dare you), and playful stylizations perfectly attuned to the director's sensibility. It's a great work of performance art. Everyone remembers those clever quips, her overt cat gestures (the licking. ohhhh the licking), and her hilarious throwaway "meow." I have one special favorite moment I find too delicious. Catwoman is having a conversation with the Penguin and she's circling a bird cage in his lair. Her laser focus hypnotically shifts from Penguin to the tiny bird and it's like there is no actress at all. Only this cat, this meal, this teasing game in her head.

She's a killer.

Pfans Make Me Hot
Your Blog-a-Thon Participants (Listed in Alpha Order)

As Little As Possible "...A Galaxy Pfar Pfar Away"
Auteur Lust "Cinema's Own Forbidden Fruit"
Being Boring "My Sexual Awakening (in Black Vinyl)"
Cinephilia "My (Sex) Life with Michelle Pfeiffer"
Coffee Coffee and More Coffee on Ladyhawke
Cutting Room "What Lies Within (Great Talent)"
film ick on What Lies Beneath
The Flick Filosopher on Catwoman's "gyno-power"
The Gilded Moose "BREAKING: Pfeiffer Pissed"
Girish on The Fabulous Baker Boys
Glitterati Gossip "Truly Timeless"
Mainly Movies "Susie Diamond is Forever"
Many Rantings of John on One Fine Day
ModFab "Pfeiffer's Fabulous Five"
Movies Madness "Pfor Ever and Always"
Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man on Batman Returns
My New Plaid Pants "Mistress of the Dark"
Nicks Flick Picks on A Thousand Acres
Noel Vera on Batman Returns
nOvaslim "Haute Poosee"
O.P.A.L. on her fandom
Oh My Trill "My Life Without Michelle"
!! omg blog !! "Catscratch Fever"
Oscar and the City Two memories of Pfeiffer
Pfangirl "Diary of a Lapsed Pfan"
Popbytes "Pfeiffer is an Amazon Woman"
Pop on the Rocks "Pfeiffer of the Opera"
Queer Beacon on White Oleander
Queering the Apparatus "Ohhhhh Witchy Woman"
Sarcasm w/ Light Cream Sauce on Witches... & Tequila Sunrise
Scene Stealer Top Five Performances
six things "Six Degrees of Michelle Pfeiffer"
A Socialite's Life on Michelle's comeback
Stale Popcorn Michelle in costumed glory
Stinky Lulu on Grease 2
That Round-Headed Boy "Michelle Pfeiffer's Short Stuff"
The World of Ramification Hottie of the Week

If you're just joining us... check out the blog entire. It's not all Pfeiffer all the time. [This is not a perfect world -ed]. It's just all Pfeiffer this week (the great one's birthday is tomorrow, woohoo) and whenever the topic blissfully comes up

If you need regular heavy doses of Pfeiffer here are the best websites on the net: Official Pfeiffer Admiration Location (updated frequently) * Michelle Pfeiffer: The Face * Bond's Michelle Pfeiffer Page * Noelle's Michelle Pfeiffer Page (dormant but extensive) * Pfandom (this is my own. Not regularly updated as it was pre-blog) *

UPDATE: If you liked this blog-a-thon check out the two others the film experience has hosted since: Vampires (October 2006) and Action Heroines (June 2007)

tags: Michelle Pfeiffer, catwoman, movies, cinema, celebrities


Anonymous said...

I love your website and check it out daily ... I agree with most of your points of view and can deal with the extremes that some of your people go to in their favorite topics .. in the case of Michelle, I feel she is an adequate actress and that is why she has never been an audience favorite .. in the question of her beauty, no one can take that away from her.

Glenn Dunks said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Glenn Dunks said...

I just posted my Pfeiffer article for everyone to enjoy (*cough*)

Anonymous said...

This is great. I wasn't sure my entry met the criteria.

I am loving this tribute.

Pfangirl said...

Mine is up. Now about to blow off my workload and start reading the contributions...

Glenn Dunks said...

Was it purely by accident that you left Up Close & Personal off of the poll or was that entirely deliberate (i haven't seen it)


it was deliberate. it's the only pfeiffer performance that i don't like at all.

Glenn Dunks said...

Great piece there Nat. Although the non-mentions of Baker Boys and Age of Innocence is a tad odd.

But still... great piece. Everyone's are great! This was fun.


I find it extremely odd myself that i left out my favorite Pfeiffer performance entirely.


but these things happen.


p.s. mainly movies covered it exquisitely well.

Ramification said...

Pretty much ever blog I read has a Pfeiffer post in it today, FAB!

Javier Aldabalde said...

I've read all the posts... some really cool stuff out there.

Ramification said...

Oh, and she's my Thursday (err Friday) Hottie entry this week ... I got the Pfever ... :)

Anonymous said...

You forgot to say "Annette Bening backed out when she got pregnant BY WARREN BEATTY!"

Anonymous said...


where did you get that pic of her hitch-hiking? I want to get my hair styled like hers in that pic.

will you email to me?

Anonymous said...

I would really like to know what the hitchhiking picture is from too...she looks amazing!



you can see a large version of the hitchhiking photo here

Uncle Gustav said...

Sorry I couldn't add my two sense to this Thon (a busy week at this end), but I did put Michelle at the top of my blog!


flickhead that banner is so delicious it's practically a post itself ;)


girish said...

Nathaniel, I wanted to congratulate you on the success of your ambitious and amazing blog-a-thon effort.
Huge project, nicely done, very cool...

Noel Vera said...

Might note that girish'sown blog talks about the music and Pfeiffer's singing in Baker Boys--which is crucial to appreciating her performance.

Haven't read everything yet--but nothing in-depth on Dangerous Liaisons or Married to the Mob? I thought those were lovely movies...

Noel Vera said...

Wanted to post this at FlickFilosopher, but apparently you need to donate $30 to post, and I'm not quite ready to do that yet. So:

"A slump in her posture and an apprehension in her step is enough to make you believe that one of the most beautiful women in the world could be mousy and beneath the notice of the men around her... and her new confidence in her stride and willingness to look others in the eye after her death and resurrection is enough to make you believe that a man like Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne would be riveted by her."

Actually needed to revise my entry because this captured what I was trying to say in far less words. Pfeiffer never made psychosis so sexy.


yes girish's post is great. thanks for mentioning that noel. I posted the thing about tim r handling FBB before girish's came in. I'm glad two people covered it because I didn't.

i have read every single one of these. It was a really fun day FOR ME. I hope others enjoyed as well.


Anonymous said...

hey michelle , u'er the best keep up the work love michelle

Glenn Dunks said...

Michelle is HERE?! Where?!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to respond to the "adequate actress" comment one of the people made. This "adeqaute actress" was nominated for 3 Academy Awards for Best Actress and 6 Golden Globe Awards for which she won one for The Fabulous Baker Boys. I guess that constitutes an "adequate actress" As for the comment "never been an audience favorite", what universe do you live in?

Anonymous said...

My Life changed 24 years ago with the release of Grease 2. Michelle Pfeiffer was the reason and I've been entranced ever since.

My website of 8 years, The Ultimate Grease 2 Fansite is my devoted tribute to Michelle and her character, Stephanie Zinone! Check it out if you're in the Grease 2 mood.

The music and feeling go on forever.

And in case Ms. Pfeiffer should happen to visist this page, Thanks for your inspiration Michelle!

Also, we hope to see you at the 25 year Grease 2 Reunion next year! Maxwell, Lorna, Leif, Pamela, Pat, Maureen and Eddie all missed you at teh Reunion in 2004 and say hello!