Michelle Marie Pfeiffer (/‘fa?f?r/; born April 29, 1958) is an American actress and singer. She made her film debut in 1980 in The Hollywood Knights, but first garnered mainstream attention with her breakout performance in Scarface (1983). Pfeiffer’s greatest commercial successes are Batman Returns (1992), What Lies Beneath (2000) and Hairspray (2007).
She has been nominated three times for an Academy Award, for her performances in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), and Love Field (1992).
Pfeiffer was born in Santa Ana, California, the second of four children of Richard Pfeiffer, a heating and air-conditioning contractor, and Donna (née Taverna), a housewife. She has one elder brother, Rick (born 1955), and two younger sisters, Dedee Pfeiffer, a television and film actress, and Lori Pfeiffer (born 1965). Her parents were both originally from North Dakota. Her father was of German, French, Irish, English, Welsh, and Dutch descent, and her mother was of Swiss-German and Swedish ancestry. The family moved to Midway City, where Pfeiffer spent her childhood. She attended Fountain Valley High School, graduating in 1975. She worked as a check-out girl at Vons supermarket, and attended Golden West College. After a short stint training to be a court stenographer, she decided upon an acting career. She won the Miss Orange County beauty pageant in 1978, and participated in Miss California the same year, finishing in sixth position. Following her participation in these pageants, she acquired an acting agent and began to audition for television and films.
First television and film appearances
Pfeiffer’s early acting appearances included television roles in Fantasy Island, Delta House and BAD Cats among others. She was one of the several candidates to audition as a replacement for Kate Jackson on the television series Charlie’s Angels in 1979, although the part went to Shelley Hack. She had small roles in a few theatrical films, including Falling in Love Again (1980) with Susannah York, The Hollywood Knights (1980) opposite Tony Danza, and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981), none of which met with much critical or box office success. Pfeiffer later said of her early screen work: “I needed to learn how to act… in the meantime, I was playing bimbos and cashing in on my looks.” She appeared in a television commercial for Lux soap, and took acting lessons at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, before appearing in three further television movies – Callie and Son (1981) with Lindsay Wagner, The Children Nobody Wanted (1981), and a 1981 TV movie remake of Splendor in the Grass. She then landed her first major film role as Stephanie Zinone in Grease 2 (1982), the sequel to the smash-hit musical Grease (1978). The film was a critical and commercial failure, and Pfeiffer’s single release of “Cool Rider” from the film’s soundtrack on PolyGram failed to dent the music charts. Nevertheless, Pfeiffer received some positive attention for her performance, notably from the New York Times, which said “although she is a relative screen newcomer, Miss Pfeiffer manages to look much more insouciant and comfortable than anyone else in the cast.” Despite escaping the critical mauling, Pfeiffer’s agent later admitted that her association with the film meant that “she couldn’t get any jobs. Nobody wanted to hire her.”
Director Brian De Palma, having seen Grease 2, refused to audition Pfeiffer for Scarface (1983), but relented at the insistence of Martin Bregman, the film’s producer. She was cast as cocaine-addicted trophy wife Elvira Hancock. The film was considered excessively violent by most critics, but became a commercial hit and gained a large cult following in subsequent years. Pfeiffer received positive reviews for her supporting turn; Richard Corliss of Time Magazine wrote, “most of the large cast is fine: Michelle Pfeiffer is better…” while Dominick Dunne, in an article for Vanity Fair titled “Blonde Ambition”, wrote, “[s]he is on the verge of stardom. In the parlance of the industry, she is hot.”
Following Scarface, she played Diana in John Landis’ comedy Into the Night (1985), opposite Jeff Goldblum, Isabeau d’Anjou in Richard Donner’s fantasy film Ladyhawke (1985), opposite Rutger Hauer and Matthew Broderick, Faith Healy in Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty (1986), opposite Michael Caine, and Brenda Landers in a segment of the 1950s sci-fi parody Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), all of which, despite achieving only modest commercial success, helped to establish her as an actress. She finally scored a major box-office hit as Sukie Ridgemont in the 1987 adaptation of John Updike’s novel The Witches of Eastwick, alongside Jack Nicholson, Cher and Susan Sarandon. The film grossed $63,766,510 domestically (equivalent to $132.4 million in 2015 dollars ).
Pfeiffer was cast against type, as a murdered gangster’s widow, in Jonathan Demme’s mafia comedy Married to the Mob (1988), opposite Matthew Modine, Dean Stockwell and Mercedes Ruehl. For the role of Angela de Marco, she donned a curly brunette wig and a Brooklyn accent, and received her first Golden Globe Award nomination as Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, beginning a six-year streak of consecutive Best Actress nominations at the Golden Globes. Pfeiffer then appeared as chic restauranteuse Jo Ann Vallenari in Tequila Sunrise (1988) opposite Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell, but experienced creative and personal differences with director Robert Towne, who later described her as the “most difficult” actress he has ever worked with.
At Demme’s personal recommendation, Pfeiffer joined the cast of Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons (1988) alongside Glenn Close and John Malkovich, playing the virtuous victim of seduction, Madame Marie de Tourvel. Her performance won her widespread acclaim; Hal Hinson of the Washington Post saw Pfeiffer’s role as “the least obvious and the most difficult. Nothing is harder to play than virtue, and Pfeiffer is smart enough not to try. Instead, she embodies it. Her porcelain-skinned beauty, in this regard, is a great asset, and the way it’s used makes it seem an aspect of her spirituality.” She won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Pfeiffer then accepted the role of Susie Diamond, a hard-edged former call girl turned lounge singer, in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), which co-starred Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges as the eponymous Baker Boys. She underwent intensive voice training for the role for four months, and performed all of her character’s vocals. The film was a modest success, grossing $18,428,904 in the US (equivalent to $35.1 million in 2015 dollars ). Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Susie, however, drew raves from critics. Janet Maslin, from The New York Times, wrote of the performance “[…]she proves to be electrifyingly right. Introducing Ms. Pfeiffer’s furiously hard-boiled, devastatingly gorgeous Susie into the Bakers’ world affects the film the way a match might affect a fuse,” while Roger Ebert compared her to Rita Hayworth in Gilda and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, and described the film as “one of the movies they will use as a document, years from now, when they begin to trace the steps by which Pfeiffer became a great star.” Variety singled out her performance of ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, writing that Pfeiffer “hits the spot in the film’s certain-to-be-remembered highlight… crawling all over a piano in a blazing red dress. She’s dynamite.” During the 1989-1990 awards season, Pfeiffer dominated the Best Actress category at every major awards ceremony, winning awards at the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress and the Chicago Film Critics Association. At the Academy Awards, she was favored to win the Best Actress Oscar, but the award went to Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy in what was considered a surprise upset. The only other major acting award for which she was nominated that she did not take home for The Fabulous Baker Boys was the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, which also went to Tandy.
In the 1990s, Pfeiffer accepted and also turned down many high-profile roles, beginning with the title role in Pretty Woman (1990), which earned Julia Roberts a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress. She took the part of the Soviet book editor Katya Orlova in the 1990 film adaptation of John le Carré’s The Russia House, opposite Sean Connery, a role that required her to adopt a Russian accent. For her efforts, she was rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. Pfeiffer then landed the role of damaged waitress Frankie in Garry Marshall’s Frankie and Johnny (1991), a film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s Broadway play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which reunited her with her Scarface co-star, Al Pacino. The casting was seen as controversial by many, as Pfeiffer was considered far too beautiful to play an “ordinary” waitress; Kathy Bates, the original Frankie on Broadway, also expressed disappointment over the producers’ choice. Pfeiffer herself stated that she took the role because it “wasn’t what people would expect of [her].” Pfeiffer was once again nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama for her performance. During this period, she turned down the role of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which won Jodie Foster the Academy Award for Best Actress, the role of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (1992), ultimately played by Sharon Stone, and the role of Louise in Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, that went to the twelve-years-older Susan Sarandon.
Pfeiffer earned an Academy Award nomination for Actress in a Leading Role and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama for her performance as Lurene Hallett in the nostalgic independent drama Love Field (1992). This film had been temporarily shelved by the financially troubled Orion Pictures. It was finally released in late 1992, in time for Oscar consideration. The New York Times review wrote of Pfeiffer as “again demonstrating that she is as subtle and surprising as she is beautiful.” For her portrayal of the eccentric Dallas housewife, she won the Silver Bear Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival.
Pfeiffer took the role of Catwoman (Selina Kyle) in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) opposite Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito. For the role of Catwoman, she trained in martial arts and kickboxing. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone praised her for giving the “feminist avenger a tough core of intelligence and wit” and called her a “classic dazzler.” Premiere retrospectively lauded her performance: “Arguably the outstanding villain of the Tim Burton era, Michelle Pfeiffer’s deadly kitten with a whip brought sex to the normally neutered franchise. Her stitched-together, black patent leather costume, based on a sketch of Burton’s, remains the character’s most iconic look. And Michelle Pfeiffer overcomes Batman Returns? ‘ heavy-handed feminist dialogue to deliver a growling, fierce performance.” The movie met a big box office success, grossing over $266 million worldwide (equivalent to $447 million).
The following year, she played Countess Ellen Olenska in Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1993) opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. For this role she received the Elvira Notari Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture. That same year she was awarded the Women in Film Los Angeles’ Crystal Award for outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry.
Pfeiffer’s subsequent career choices have met with varying degrees of success. After The Age of Innocence, she played the role of Laura Alden opposite Jack Nicholson in Wolf (1994), a horror film that garnered a mixed critical reception. The New York Times wrote: “Ms. Pfeiffer’s role is underwritten, but her performance is expert enough to make even diffidence compelling”. The movie grossed US$65 million (equivalent to $103.4 million) at the domestic box office and US$131 million worldwide (equivalent to $208.4 million). Her next role was that of high school teacher and former US Marine LouAnne Johnson in the surprise box office hit Dangerous Minds (1995). She appeared as her character in the music video for the soundtrack’s lead single, ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by Coolio (featuring L.V.), which was used by the producer Jerry Bruckheimer for television advertising. A 60-second version was aired on music channels, while a 30-second cut was aired in the rest of the networks. The song won the 1996 Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance, and the video won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Rap Video. In 1996, she turned down the Golden Globe Award-winning role of Eva Perón in the biopic Evita, which went to Madonna. Pfeiffer then portrayed Sally Atwater in the romantic drama Up Close & Personal (1996) opposite Robert Redford. The film’s screenplay, co-written by husband and wife team John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, was intended to be a biographical account of the career of news anchor Jessica Savitch, but the final version had almost nothing to do with Savitch’s life, leading Dunne to write an exposé of his eight-year battle with the Hollywood producers, Monster: Living Off the Big Screen.
She took the role of Gillian Lewis in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996), which was adapted by her husband David Kelley from Michael Brady’s play of the same name. She served as an executive producer and starred as the divorced single mother architect Melanie Parke in the romantic comedy One Fine Day (1996) opposite George Clooney, Subsequent performances included Rose Cook Lewis in the film adaptation of Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres (1997) with Jessica Lange and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Beth Cappadora in The Deep End of the Ocean (1998) about a married couple who found their son who was kidnapped nine years ago, Titania the Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) with Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett and Stanley Tucci, and Katie Jordan in Rob Reiner’s comedy-drama The Story of Us (1999) opposite Bruce Willis.
During the 1990s, Pfeiffer attracted comment in the media for her beauty. In 1990, she appeared on the cover of People magazine’s first 50 Most Beautiful People In The World issue. She was again featured on the cover of the annual issue in 1999, having made the “Most Beautiful” list a record six times during the decade (1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1999). Pfeiffer is the first celebrity to have appeared on the cover of the annual issue twice, and the only person to be featured on the cover twice during the 1990s.
The Hitchcockian thriller What Lies Beneath (2000) with Harrison Ford, was a commercial success, opening number one at the box office in July 2000. She then accepted the role of highly strung lawyer Rita Harrison in I Am Sam (2001) opposite Sean Penn. The movie received unfavorable reviews, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote: “Pfeiffer, apparently stymied by the bland clichés that prop up her screechy role, delivers her flattest, phoniest performance ever”.
For her performance as murderous artist Ingrid Magnussen in White Oleander (2002), alongside Alison Lohman in her film début, Renée Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn, Pfeiffer garnered a substantial amount of critical praise. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that “Ms. Pfeiffer, giving the most complex screen performance of her career, makes her Olympian seductress at once irresistible and diabolical.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times described her as “incandescent,” bringing “power and unshakable will to her role as mother-master manipulator” in a “riveting, impeccable performance.” She earned Best Supporting Actress Awards from the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination.
Pfeiffer also did voice work in two animated films during this period, voicing Tzipporah in The Prince of Egypt (1998), in which she introduced the Academy Award-winning song, ‘When You Believe’, and Eris in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003).
Return to film
After a four-year hiatus, during which she remained largely out of the public eye to devote time to her husband and children, she turned down the role of the White Witch in the 2005 fantasy film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which went to Tilda Swinton. Pfeiffer returned to the screen in 2007 with villainous roles in two major summer blockbusters, as Velma Von Tussle in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Hairspray (2007) with John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Zac Efron and Queen Latifah, and as ancient witch Lamia in fantasy adventure Stardust (2007) opposite Claire Danes, Charlie Cox and Robert De Niro.
Pfeiffer then accepted the roles of Rosie in Amy Heckerling’s I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007) with Paul Rudd and Saoirse Ronan, and Linda in Personal Effects (2009), which she starred opposite Ashton Kutcher and Kathy Bates, and was premiered at Iowa City’s Englert Theatre. Her next film, an adaptation of Colette’s Chéri (2009), reunited her with the director (Stephen Frears) and screenwriter (Christopher Hampton) of Dangerous Liaisons (1988), a film for which all three were nominees for (and, in Hampton’s case, recipient of) an Academy Award. Pfeiffer played the role of Léa de Lonval opposite Rupert Friend in the title role, with Kathy Bates as his mother. Chéri premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2009, and received a nomination for the Golden Bear award. The Times of London reviewed the film favorably, describing Hampton’s screenplay as a “steady flow of dry quips and acerbic one-liners” and Pfeiffer’s performance as “magnetic and subtle, her worldly nonchalance a mask for vulnerability and heartache.” Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that it was “fascinating to observe how Pfeiffer controls her face and voice during times of painful hurt.” Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times praised the “wordless scenes that catch Léa unawares, with the camera alone seeing the despair and regret that she hides from the world. It’s the kind of refined, delicate acting Pfeiffer does so well, and it’s a further reminder of how much we’ve missed her since she’s been away.”
After another short break from film, Pfeiffer appeared in Garry Marshall’s 2011 romantic comedy New Year’s Eve (Marshall also directed Pfeiffer in 1991’s Frankie and Johnny), and appeared opposite Chris Pine in People Like Us (2012). She starred in an adaptation of former television series Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton (whom Pfeiffer previously worked with on 1992’s Batman Returns), alongside Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Chloë Grace Moretz. In the film, she plays the family Matriarch, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. In 2013, Pfeiffer played the “tough mother”, and wife of Robert De Niro’s character, in Luc Besson’s mob-comedy The Family.
In interviews promoting The Family, Pfeiffer stated her desire to do an all-action movie. “…I want to be like the Kiefer Sutherland character in “24.” Jack Bauer? I want to be like him! … I want to kick butt… I better do it soon.” Pfeiffer has stated that her lack of acting throughout the 2000s was due to her children, and now with both her children away at college, she intends to ‘work a lot.’
Pfeiffer has commented that she feels that her best performance is ‘still in her,’ and that she thinks that’s what keeps her going.
Forthcoming films and projects
On November 7, 2012, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Pfeiffer will star alongside Tim Robbins (also director) and Chloë Grace Moretz in the dark comedy, Man Under. “The movie is described as being in the vein of American Beauty and The Royal Tenenbaums. It is about a dysfunctional Yonkers, New York, family whose lives are changed after a photo of them ends up in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, turning them into celebrities.” On the red carpet at the New York City premiere of The Family, Pfeiffer revealed that she would be shooting a film in February 2014 entitled, Whatever Makes You Happy co-starring Viola Davis and Diane Keaton.
In September 2013, it was revealed that Pfeiffer will star in Best Boy directed by Robert Rodriguez, written by Nick Thiel. On December 13, 2012, Sonya Sones, author of the book The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus: a Novel about Marriage, Motherhood, and Mayhem, announced that Pfeiffer had optioned the film rights to the book.
On April 1, 2015, Variety revealed that former Today anchor, Katie Couric was shopping a comedy series set behind-the-scenes of a morning news show, with Pfeiffer attached to star. The show was pitched to HBO, Showtime, AMC, Netflix and Amazon.
In 1989, Pfeiffer made her stage debut in the role of Olivia in Twelfth Night, a New York Shakespeare Festival production staged in Central Park. Other film actors appearing in the play included Jeff Goldblum as Malvolio and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Viola. Frank Rich’s review in the New York Times was extremely critical of the production, stating “Ms. Pfeiffer offers an object lesson in how gifted stars with young careers can be misused by those more interested in exploiting their celebrity status than in furthering their artistic development.” Rich praised Pfeiffer’s performance in what was then her most recent film, the screwball comedy Married to the Mob, but stating it was “unfortunate that the actress has been asked to make both her stage and Shakespearean comic debut in a role chained to melancholy and mourning.”
While taking acting classes in Los Angeles, Pfeiffer was taken in by a friendly couple who ran a metaphysics and vegetarian cult. While they helped Pfeiffer to no longer drink, smoke, or do drugs, the couple took control of her entire life. Much of her money went to the group. “I was brainwashed… I gave them an enormous amount of money.” Pfeiffer, insecure, felt that she could no longer live without them. At an acting class taught by Milton Katselas in Los Angeles, Pfeiffer met fellow budding actor, Peter Horton. Pfeiffer and Horton began dating. The actor took notice of the young actress’ plight, and decided to try to help her. Horton was cast in a film called Split Image. His character in the film is enrolled in Peter Fonda’s cult. He is then de-programmed by James Woods. While doing research in San Francisco for the role, Horton took Pfeiffer along to meet real-life cult de-programmers. It was due to this experience that Pfeiffer finally felt strong enough to leave the couple.
Pfeiffer and Horton eventually married in Santa Monica in 1981, and it was on their honeymoon that she discovered she had won the lead role in Grease 2. Horton directed Pfeiffer in a 1985 ABC TV special, One Too Many, in which she played the high school girlfriend of an alcoholic student (Val Kilmer); and in 1987, the real-life couple played an on-screen couple in the ‘Hospital’ segment of John Landis’s comedy skit compilation, Amazon Women on the Moon. However, they decided to separate in 1988, and were divorced two years later; Horton later blamed the split on their devotion to their work rather than on their marriage.
After her marriage to Horton, Pfeiffer had a three-year relationship with actor/producer Fisher Stevens. They met when Pfeiffer was starring in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night, in which Stevens played the role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
In January 1993, Pfeiffer was set up on a blind date with television writer and producer David E. Kelley, who took her to the movies to see Bram Stoker’s Dracula the following week, and they began dating seriously. They married on November 13, 1993. Since then, she has made an uncredited cameo appearance in one episode of Kelley’s television series Picket Fences and played the title character in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, for which Kelley wrote the screenplay. Pfeiffer had entered into private adoption proceedings before she met Kelley. In March 1993, she adopted a newborn daughter, Claudia Rose, who was christened on Pfeiffer and Kelley’s wedding day. In August 1994, Pfeiffer gave birth to a son, John Henry.
Having been a smoker for ten years and having a niece who suffered from leukemia for ten years, she decided to support the American Cancer Society. Her charity work also includes her support for the Humane Society. Pfeiffer is a vegan.
Awards and nominations
During her career, Pfeiffer has won numerous awards including the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama, the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and Best Actress awards from the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, as well as Best Supporting Actress awards from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle and the San Diego Film Critics Society.
She has received three Academy Award nominations to date: Best Supporting Actress for Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and Best Actress in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) and Love Field (1992).