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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.”
We decide to leave the relative comforts of the couch for lunch around the corner. Pfeiffer gathers up her slight baggage – a slouchy leather bag, sunglasses, a roll of Certs. She’s dressed for the soupy rigors of a ninety-three-degree Manhattan dog day in striped trousers and a sleeveless navy vest. No makeup, no jewelry on these well-cut Soloflex arms. But even on this sleepy side street she’s inflicting gawker whiplash. Though she’s polite and attentive as fans zero in, she notes that it’s never this bad in L.A., where they’re more used to movie stars. She can’t wait to get home. Pfeiffer says she’s living less than large in a hotel during the Scorsese shoot – clothes, books, her exercise equipment.
“I should buy something here,” she says. “I mean, it’s only fair at this point.” She adores her seventy-five-year-old adobe home in West Los Angeles, but her boyfriend, Fisher Stevens, is deeply involved with the acting troupe he cofounded here, the Naked Angels. Pfeiffer and Stevens have been together three years, since they met in the late Joseph Papp’s production of Twelfth Night in Central Park.
“Ah,” she says, “he’s with me even now.” She points over her head to a lizard stenciled on one of those Tuscany ocher walls so popular in urban pasta parlors. Currently, Stevens is in North Carolina shooting Super Mario Bros., a film version of the video game. He plays a lizardlike missing link. Stevens, too, is Working a Suit – one that involves green-tinged makeup and bleached white eyebrows. On a recent night in Manhattan, Pfeifier says, she blanched as they dressed to go out. Those eyebrows were a bit over the top, even for the West Village.
Honey, maybe a little brown pencil, just for tonight?
No way. He loved the Look. Chalk it up to the underthirty exuberance of the Younger Man, she figures. In the beginning, she says, she thought about their age difference a lot, though it is not a vast one. Stevens is twenty-eight to her thirty-four, a guy who still keeps a tiny downtown apartment chockablock with Elvisoid kitsch. “He’s exhausting,” she says. But hers is clearly a cheerful fatigue. “He lives out of a suitcase, he loves to travel. He’s comfortable wherever he is, and I’m SO the opposite. I’d never leave my house in Los Angeles if it weren’t for my work and for him. I’m a creature of habit, really; I don’t like change much. And that’s why I chose him.” She smiles. “I know that’s why I chose him.”
She has chosen actors before, was married for seven years to Horton. She acknowledges a brief and long-past fling with Michael Keaton; there have been reports of a disastrous affair with John Malkovich that nearly cost him his marriage and left her dark eyed and tremulous for more time than she’d care to remember. Darkness doesn’t scare her in her work, she says: “I like dark.” But when the last Winnebago leaves the lot and the kliegs shut down, she can count on Stevens to haul her into the sun. At his insistence, they travel. Which means they travel and fight: “I kick and scream the whole way, and once I’m there I’m always grateful.”
Friends say that Stevens’s greatest victory has been in getting his diva to ease up and smell the decaf cappuccino. “I now actually have a personal life,” she says. “I didn’t for years. I didn’t know what to do with myself when I wasn’t acting. I dreaded vacations. And now I’m a happy person.”
There is one line that cannot be crossed. She will not – cannot – share her screen women with the men in her life: “My husband used to say, ‘You don’t talk to me about your work; you don’t let me in.’ And Fisher’s commented on it also, that I never, ever talk about my work.” Instead, she keeps secret diaries in the margins of her scripts.
Pfeiffer is comfortable talking seriously about the actor’s most precious blood, Process. Then she stabs a fiery roast pepper and grins. “I do feel that actors always sound ridiculous talking about their Process,” she says. “No matter how intelligent they are, they always sound like assholes.” Oh, she believes that acting’s an art. But it’s also a crapshoot. “Every time I do a movie, I think this is the one where they’re going to find me out, that I’m a total and utter fraud,” she says. “And every time I get to say to myself, ‘Well, you got away with it again.'”
There is nothing fey in her delivery; Pfeiffer is a true believer in her own fallibility. But she does have a handle on the jumpy gestalt of the compulsively insecure: “What gets better is that you learn to accept that about yourself – that your powers of self-judgment suck. I know that I’ll never be able to look at my work and pat myself on the back and feel like, wow, I really look good.”
This stunning woman who likens her looks to Howard the Duck’s has caused a small legion of male writers to lose control of their adjectives when describing her face and body. Ah, but when the looking glass is fifty feet high, when Harper’s publishes the photo-retouching bills for your Esquire cover shoot, well, Perspective sucks, too.
Who can tell her when the pearlescent eye shadow is defrosting?
“Michelle’s very difficult to know,” says Cher. “I told her this once, and I believe it: ‘If you came up to me one day and said, “Cher, this is my son, he’s six – I just didn’t think I could trust you until now,” I wouldn’t be surprised.’ She has to know that she can trust you, and you have to really go through a whole lot of stuff.”
Pfeiffer concedes Cher’s point. “I don’t get close with many people,” she says. The bigger her bubble grows, the fewer she trusts. She says she met her best friend when her career was “sort of in the toilet.” Kate Guinzburg was the production coordinator on Sweet Liberty, which was filmed on Long Island. When it was over, Pfeiffer spent a few weeks at Guinzburg’s New York apartment. They have been the best of pals ever since, and three years ago, they teamed up to form a production company. They have come up with properties that include Dear Digby, about the letters editor on a feminist magazine; an adaptation of Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-winning novel, A Thousand Acres (in conjunction with Jessica Lange’s production company); an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country; and a project on the relationship between painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Oh, and there’s a tasty little something with Cher.
Coupla actresses were sitting around bitching on a California afternoon. Michelle called howling: They’re doing it again. Jackals. Assholes. Writing stuff that hurts, that’s not true, HOW CAN THEY GET AWAY WITH IT? Cher was sympathetic but tough-minded. Get ready for it, babe.
What shit, they both agreed. And then they started to fantasize. A story about an actress, a soulless tabloid editor and a young writer who wants to be a journalist but gets mired in the supermarket muck. There will be a fat, juicy part for both of them. Labeled simply Tabloid, the project is still in development, but they figure the story will stay fresh. “It’s real,” says Cher about the loss of privacy. “I have to shred my garbage now. Michelle is just starting to feel what it’s like to lose it. I was famous when I was eighteen, so I knew it was part of my job description. Michelle is an actress. And she really doesn’t want to give up that other part.”
“Actressy” is what they call a star who carps when the Today Show invades her working day on a Moscow shoot of The Russia House. “Attitude” is what they murmur when she snaps at the piggyback film crews intent on getting the making of Batman Returns. This whole Behind-the-Scenes market makes her wild, fractures concentration, dilutes the Work. Pfeiffer could not believe, watching Hearts of Darkness, the documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now, that Francis Coppola and his wife approved the release. Eleanor Coppola shot the dark, freaky, on-the-set footage; she secretly taped her husband’s midnight confessions.
“Are they still together?” Pfeiffer asks, looking amazed at the affirmative. “See, I’m not very sophisticated. I guess I’m a little old-fashioned. As Cher would say, ‘That’s not very Valley, is it?'”
Cher says she first used the phrase to describe a mutual lapse in Ventura Boulevard savoir-faire. “We’re both Valley girls,” says Cher. “And I’ve been through everything you can go through in this business. I mean, we think we’re pretty cool. But every once in a while, I’m real naive, and so is she. And we have to say, ‘That’s not being very Valley – is it?'”
“Girl code,” Pfeiffer explains. “A life necessity.” She has to confess that what she calls “the idea of girlfriends” has been recent. “Growing up, my stronger relationships have been with men, my friendships. I think that my relationships with women have become more important the older I become.”
Back on the couch, listening to the distant screech and rumble of a toddler’s bath time, Pfeiffer says sure, she knows she wants a family and fairly soon, but she’s not about to issue a Connie Chung my-eggs-are-pining press release about it. She’s taking the rest of the year off, but she hasn’t thought beyond installing artwork and a sofa in her office. She will be painting, cruising the Rose Bowl flea market with Guinzburg, traveling and scrapping with the Lizard King. And reading more scripts. Ask her if she keeps those old, scribbled-in scripts she uses to build her characters, and she looks horrified. “If I have a script that has a lot of personal notes in it, I end up throwing it away,” she says. It’s a corollary to the old always-wear-clean-underwear Rule of Life: “What if I die and they find it? I couldn’t bear the thought of anybody reading it.” She keeps no record of others’ impressions, either – no reviews, no clips, no magazine covers. “I’ve always had this fear of living in the past, particularly in this profession. I guess you’d say this is my moment of glory.”
It makes sense, then, that she’d cultivate the perpetual present. “I always want to be living in my moment of glory,” she says quietly. “I know that my career will change, and I won’t have the choices I have now in ten, twenty, thirty years. And yet I want my life to be rich and full. . . .”
And so her closets are only populated with today’s Suits. Unlike Cher, who’s been known to hold garage sales to purge last season’s Vegas froufrous, she will not suffer public rummaging. And there’s little private memory hoarding. The only scripts she keeps now are clean copies, no traces of Michelle. Should she endure, as Pacino predicts, the biographers and filmographers will bloody well starve picking over these slim remains.
This story is from the September 3rd, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.