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Michelle Pfeiffer: The Bat's Meow

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"This is not a natural thing for me," She's saying. "It's taken, like, fourteen years to get to this – sitting here on this couch."

She is lying back, barefoot, staring at the ceiling. But this is not some analyst's four-figure Barcalounger. Pfeiffer is bivouacked deep into the gray flannel of her interviewer's swaybacked sectional. Having held forth among the floral tributes and gaudy fruit pyramids of too many luxury suites, she has turned the tables and asked to come to my apartment. For three months, on and off, she's been in New York shooting Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. With a week or two to go, she's a bit, um, restless. Seems she'd sooner suffer a two-year-old's sticky advances than yet another go-round over room-service Evian. And so it is that Pfeiffer sits in dubious but polite possession of a ratty stuffed kitty, tweaking her inquisitor.

Any interview with Pfeiffer involves a requisite debate on the weirdness of the process. After five minutes, she winds it up: "I still don't believe – and I never will – that it's the actors' responsibility to sell a film."

Nonetheless, she's on the rack here because hey, she is a gamer, and hers is the summer movie, one that will be easily the biggest grosser she's ever been in. Its record-shattering $47.7 million opening weekend was further sweetened by Pfeiffer's best-in-show reviews as Catwoman. But Pfeiffer is quick, almost obsessive in pointing out that she's never been a streaking comet atop Variety's Weekly b.o. column: "Someone said to me the other day, 'You're a box-office commodity now.' I said I'm not, because most of my movies haven't really made any money. I'm always afraid to say that, 'cause I think the studios haven't figured it out and they keep letting me work."

Pfeiffer smiles in wan acknowledgment of her own folly. Maybe Frankie and Johnny did "drop like a rock." But she took home an estimated $3 million for her troubles. No Rolexed studio bean counter would issue a check that size on looks alone. And she knows that in fact it was box office and not her best work that jumped her career into overdrive. "The Witches of Eastwick was the one that really changed things," she says. "I'm fine in the movie, but it's not an earth-shattering performance. But that's when things began to escalate. It made a lot of money."

With Cher and Susan Sarandon – the threesome have since become pals – she was part of Jack Nicholson's small-town harem. Through much of it she wore sensible shoes and a large cold sore, but afterwards there were suddenly choices. "From there," she says, "I was able to do Married to the Mob, which shattered many people's preconceived views of me." Which were? "They thought I was either the ice queen and/or the sunny blond Californian character."

Dogged in proving herself, she went for the parts where blondness – and all its lightweight connotations – was hardly a requisite. Like Jodie Foster, a twenty-three-year veteran whose first mega-hit was last year's Silence of the Lambs (in a role Pfeiffer turned down), Pfeiffer has earned more respectful reviews than ticket sales or percentage points. Poll the Industry, from crew members to directors and costars, and they all use the latest Polo Lounge code: committed. Translation: works like a mule in a copper mine. Will pass on those poster-friendly Kathleen Turner lingerie scenes for a tough, mascaraless monologue. She won't vex studio daddies with feminist diatribes on the size of Bruce Willis's last paycheck – but she's hip to savvy women's gambits like starting her own production company to pan for great parts.

Look closely at her work and it is held together by a pliable alloy of Nineties guts and Thirties glamour. Her choice of parts could well be explained by her favorite screen creation, Susie Diamond. It was in the grand, heck-of-a-dame tradition of Bacall's "Just put your lips together and blow" that Susie explained to Baker Boy Jeff Bridges why she chain-smoked Paris Opals at $3.50 a pack: "I figure if you're going to stick something in your mouth, it may as well be the best."

So why, now, a character from dime comics? Pfeiffer breaks into that nasal Sixties anthem: DAH-na-na-na Batman! She says she loved that TV series. And Julie Newmar's Catwoman was irresistibly bad to the bone to someone who describes herself as "the Mafia don" of her grammar school: "She was just such a forbidding kind of heroine for so many little girls."

Stories abound about how that Tinseltown trickster Sean Young tried to breach director Tim Burton's office in a cat suit, campaigning for the part in Batman Returns. But few realize that Pfeiffer had launched her own assault long before the first Batman was shot. She had friends on the production. "I asked them to beg Tim Burton to write me one scene," she says. "I said I would do it for free."

Burton says he found her feline enough when he was ready to cast the sequel. He figured she had the moxie, but he tried to warn her how hard it would be.

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