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Michelle Pfeiffer: The Bat's Meow

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To get ready, Pfeiffer crammed her days with kick boxing, bullwhip training, gymnastics and yoga. Before the cameras rolled, she could hit a target with a whip or wrap a wrist, a waist, a neck, her own body with eight feet of whistling cowhide. "She was better than her stunt people," says Burton. "She made the whip beautiful, kind of an art form."

Pfeiffer's own assessment involves more anxieties than aesthetics. Should the going get tough, fear ratchets up the performance. "Fortunately, I have a real strong survivor instinct," she says. "I'm so terrified that I will do whatever it takes not to embarrass myself."

She's not one for discussing the humiliatingly bad old days except to say that they're over. No more turns in singing turkeys like Grease 2, spewing lines on the caliber of "I ain't no one's trophy, Goose." No more sappy Alan Alda vehicles like Sweet Liberty. The distant past – the years of mousse-and-jiggle TV series like B.A.D. Cats and Delta House – pricks at her in only the smallest ways these days. She'll get a residual check from some Podunk rerun market. Or a screamingly pert old eight-by-ten surfaces like some non-degradable chunk of hack-agent packaging.

She coulda been a series lifer, jouncing along on Baywatches, then aging into those psycho-alkie suburban-mom gigs with the Joan Van Arks and Linda Grays. Pfeiffer's Daughter of Orange County dossier did not hint at one destined for greatness: Second of four children born to Dick Pfeiffer, a Midway City, California, heating and air-conditioning contractor, and his wife, Donna. Elementary-school bully, Huntington Beach surf bunny, bitchin' blonde in a cherry red '65 Mustang. Working girl. She stocked stone-washed jeans at 4:00 a.m. when the malls were at peace; put on a red cashier's smock and yes-ma'am'd coupon-waving seniors and smartass leathernecks at the El Toro Vons.

After a brief tussle with court stenography, she figured she'd try acting. To meet an agent who was a pageant judge, she snapped a swimsuit over her petite rump, marched into the Big Hair fray and wound up Miss Orange County. Blew the Miss Los Angeles title but landed the agent, a few lame commercials and a one-line walk-on for Fantasy Island. Did a very California turn in a spiritual cult that sapped her will and her bank account. Got rescued by a handsome guy, Peter Horton. Married him, this actor. They grabbed their glossies and set up house in Santa Monica with the rest of the Young and the Hopeful.

She made it from dippy deb in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen to major-feature bitch when Brian De Palma okayed her as Elvira in Scarface after a jaw-dropping reading with Pacino. She was twenty-three.

"I was terrified, so terrified," Pfeiffer says. "I couldn't say two words to him [Pacino]. We were both really shy. We'd sit in a room, and it was like pulling teeth to try and find any words at all. And the subject matter was so dark. There was a coldness in the [film] relationship."

Pfeiffer remembers De Palma's approach as stylistically obsessive. "I was objectified," she recalls. "If there was one hair out of place. . . . I remember once I had a bruise or something on my leg, and he made me go back and take off my pantyhose and have makeup put on, because he could see an imperfection."

She says Elvira was complex enough to be interesting. But her kind of glamour did not leave her longing to keep puttin' on the glitz. "I know it appears as if I stayed away from glamorous roles," she says. "But the truth is, there aren't that many that are very interesting." It wasn't until Susie Diamond in Baker Boys that she found one worth doing (she also won a second Oscar nomination). "I had fun," she says. "It had been a long time since I had done anything where I wore tight clothes. And I felt it was sort of time. That it was okay to play some smart, heads-up women who decorated themselves. I'm not like that. And I have a lot of admiration – and a certain amount of awe – for women who are comfortable with drawing attention to themselves."

"Basically, she's a character actress," says Pacino, who now counts her as a pal. "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." He laughs, then waxes a tad mystical. "I mean, is someone doing what they should be doing? That's the question."

Just what a capable, committed actress should do these days is open to wearisome debate. Does she smile pretty and take the cute parts – and the dough – like Julia Roberts and Melanie Griffith? Or get damned serious and Streep her way through relentless dark seasons of nuke plants and holocausts? By her own admission, Pfeiffer does not torture herself with the Big Career Questions. It's the small voices in very distinct moments that have her ear. "I've always had pretty good instincts about character," she says. "I haven't always known consciously why I've made certain choices. But I know if it moves me or not. And I know that if I can hear the character as I'm reading, it's made some connection."

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