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Michelle Pfeiffer: The Bat's Meow

From schoolyard bully to whip-wielding comic book villain, the California queen is the real deal and has battled a long time to prove it

September 3, 1992
Michelle Pfeiffer, RS Issue 638
Michelle Pfeiffer
Herb Ritts

As it was laid out in her fat, annotated script, Michelle Pfeiffer's first day before the cameras as Cat-woman looked to be an easy one. She just had to stand silhouetted in the frame and deliver one line:

She tottered to her mark on nosebleed high heels. Creak, ZZZZ, creak went the bun-gripping rubber Catsuit, a corseted, peel-away number that required being powdered white as a jelly doughnut just to tug it on. Creak, ZZZZ, creak. BLAM! The lights hit.

"Meeeeeeeow."

"CUT. PRINT. Again, please."

Off to the side, Michael Keaton, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman, was enjoying the hell out of the moment. Oh, it was tasty. Here was Ms. Two-Time Oscar Nominee, Ms. Actor's Actor, Ms. TOTAL Get-It-in-Two-Takes PROFESSIONAL, held in check by a few pounds of wet, sucking latex and a pair of pointy ears. Later, Keaton would look back on it as his favorite day on the shoot.

Not that he's a natural-born SOB. He was even going to call Pfeiffer the day before to warn her: Never mind the grueling weapons and martial-arts training. Forget the hot fact that you can now pickpocket a hankie with the tip of an eight-foot bullwhip, babe. When you're up there for the first time in this cockamamie outfit ... jeez, are you gonna feel DUMB!

Of course, he'd tell her gently. Nah. Why spook her? He never called.

"Mee-ow-owow!"

Pfeiffer purred it, then pushed it to the wall. Sweat had begun to clot the talcum in all the wrong places. The rubber vacuum lock that wardrobe had warned her about was dragging at her joints. Keaton fairly hugged himself.

"There she was, working her little heart out," Keaton says. "The look on her face was totally committed. But. . . ." He allows himself a Beetlejuician laugh. "Behind it was – 'HOW DID I GET MYSELF INTO THIS?' – the look of TOTAL FEAR!"

He felt it himself when he first clomped onto a soundstage in the 1989 Batman sporting his own mondo rubber appliance, that scene-stealing Batsuit.

"You're committed," he says. "You're determined to act through this suit. Which is nearly impossible."

He says he felt wretched back then, until he had a Bat-epiphany – one he chose to share with the freakishly zooted Jack Nicholson. He leaned over to the green-faced Joker and confided the path to box-office bliss:

You gotta WORK THE SUIT, man!

 

Mercifully, it didn't take Pfeiffer long to make peace with her steel-belted, Michelined new self. Soon, she and Keaton were plunged into the knottier problems of rough-and-tumble Batsex. Not that the Suit ever let up; you can still hear that creak on film as she straddles her caped quarry and kitty-licks his face. By the operatic climax, the Suit unravels with Catwoman's nefarious plots, an effect that left deep welts after an hour's exertions. But there was no mewling for the pricey balm of some Laurel Canyon masseuse.

"She's a gamer," says Keaton.

As an accomplished character actress, Pfeiffer has been working the Suits in major features for well over a decade, unafraid to sacrifice allure for effect. Wrap her in the pink polyester of a Hell's Kitchen hash slinger and she is Frankie the waitress opposite Al Pacino's short-order cook in Frankie and Johnny. Set her up in a dark wig, Lee Press-On Nails and a nimbus of Angora and she cracks gum and one-liners as Angela de Marco, Mafia matron in Jonathan Demme's comedy Married to the Mob. As the virtuous Madame de Tourvel in Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons, she loosed whalebone stays and convent mores for John Malkovich's cruel seducer. It cost Madame her life in an especially haggard deathbed scene and won Pfeiffer her first Oscar nomination.

With the exception of lounge singer Susie Diamond's slinky velvets in The Fabulous Baker Boys, few of Pfeiffer's chosen Suits have been flattering in your standard Hollywood way. All told, she's snapped gum more than she's sipped champagne. She seems fearless, willing to look like heaven or hell. It's the other requirements of working the Suit that make her freeze like a spooked ingénue in the headlights of an oncoming tour bus.

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