Chell Shock: The Return of Michelle Pfeiffer
Who knew a comeback was on the cards? The last time anybody checked, Michelle Pfeiffer was an A-list star, commanding around $10 million a picture, topping People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People list (her sixth and final appearance was in 1999). Then she just faded from view, so quietly it took a while for anyone to notice.
But five years is a long time in the career of an A-list movie star, more so if the star in question is also a woman. That's how long it's been since we've seen Pfeiffer on screen - assuming you caught White Oleander, a box office flop in 2002.
At the time, her career hardly seemed in jeopardy. She had recently scared up a $100 million hit with What Lies Beneath (2000), and I Am Sam won kudos in some quarters - and an Oscar nomination for costar Sean Penn - in 2001.
Admittedly movies like The Story Of Us, A Thousand Acres and (the underrated) The Deep End Of The Ocean hadn't made much impact, but then these were films made about middle-aged problems for a middle-aged audience - not the kind of stuff that draws in blockbuster bucks.
Perhaps that's why Pfeiffer bowed out five years ago; the glaring disconnect between the kind of stories she was interested in telling, and the kind of movies the industry and the audience were willing to support. She says she never made a conscious decision to retire or even thought of it that way. She was always reading scripts. In a sense that's even more damning of the system, if nothing stoked her interest in all that time.
Pfeiffer was born in 1958, and was named Miss Orange County twenty years later. Back then she was working as a supermarket cashier and weighing the merits of a career switch to court stenographer. It's to Pfeiffer's credit that she carries herself more like a working girl than a beauty queen. There's a determination and resolve in her persona that you don't find in people who've had everything their own way. Although she famously likens her face to a duck's, she'd be the first to admit she coasted on her looks when she began picking up modeling and TV work. Those looks went a long way of course, but she was a quick study too.
Her movie break came with Grease 2 (she would later sing in The Fabulous Baker Boys and this year's Hairspray), but it was the part of Tony Montana's trophy girlfriend Elvira in Scarface that made everyone sit up and take notice. A pallid blonde with an agenda and a coke habit, she was an American dream girl with a nasty hangover.
It's hardly surprising that she became a big star. Pfeiffer was the complete package: a bombshell who could act. But she was equally compelling in less glamorous roles (opposite Al Pacino in Frankie And Johnny), and she could be funny (Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob).
These qualities - her sense of humour and her lack of vanity - are the key to this year's terrific comeback, first as bitch on high heels Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray, and now as the witch Lamia in Matthew Vaughn's spirited fantasy film, Stardust. Lamia is a hideous old crone, a terrible hag, but by expending her magical powers she can resurrect her beauty - for a spell.
It's a rather poignant comic metaphor for the quandary of a woman in Pfeiffer's position - at 49 she knows her looks can't last forever - but the actress tackles it with such gusto, she makes the film her own.
It's hardly likely she'll resume where she left off five years ago. The actresses who were her peers ten and twenty years ago are all vying for the same slim pickings these days (the roll call would include Kathleen Turner, Holly Hunter, Ellen Barkin, Rosanna Arquette, Debra Winger, Sharon Stone and Nastassja Kinski), and perhaps there's some justice that at 51 Joan Allen has eclipsed them all, just as they eclipsed her in her 20s.
But Pfeiffer is a skilled, nuanced performer, as precise as Streep on her day (in Age of Innocence, for example, or Love Field). She's acted with Pacino (twice), Connery, Ford, Nicholson (twice), Day Lewis, Clooney, Redford, Penn, and she's more than held her own, often in unequal roles. It's too much to hope her stardom has the longevity of her male costars, but let's toast her second coming, anyway, and many happy returns.
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